Art at Clark College: Poplar, precision, persistence

Portland artist Rathbun explains the process of creating wood installations

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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If you go

• What: Portland artist Mike Rathbun’s installation “Attend” (free to the public).

• Where: Archer Gallery, Clark College, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way.

• When: Through Dec. 7; hours are 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Friday, Saturday.

• Reception: 6 p.m. Tuesday in Archer Gallery, with 7 p.m. artist’s talk in Penguin Union Building Room 161.

• Closing talk: Noon Dec. 7.

photoArtist Mike Rathbun sets up his installation last week at Clark College's Archer Gallery, with help from assistant Jakob Swan.

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photoArtist Mike Rathbun, right, lays out pieces of "Attend" last week at Clark College's Archer Gallery, with help from assistants Jakob Swan and Marian Kidd. The exhibit runs through Dec. 7.

(/The Columbian)

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If you wanted to add up all the brush strokes Rembrandt used to paint a masterpiece and lay them end to end, you'd be very weird indeed.

And yet, something about Mike Rathbun's work puts you in a quantitative frame of mind. Maybe that's because it's a such a fundamental aspect of his work, Carson Legree said.

"Rembrandt started painting, and eventually, he got there," said Legree, director of the school's Archer Gallery. However, Rathbun's wooden installations combine art and carpentry, Legree said. Rathbun needs to know where he's going before he starts, and that requires a lot of precise measuring — as well as a detailed shopping list.

The most recent example of Rathbun's work — "Attend" — opened Tuesday at Archer Gallery, on the ground-floor level of the Penguin Union Building.

Rathbun doesn't shy away from the tape-measure aspects of his creations. As he was doing some set-up work in the gallery a few days ago, Rathbun offered an interesting calculation that involves an unexpected part of his artistic toolbox: clamping.

"By the time I was done, I squeezed and unsqueezed two-inch spring clamps 14,800 times," Rathbun said.

That's because Rathbun created "Attend" with curved sections of wood. He started with 900 pieces of white poplar, 10 feet long, from an Oregon tree plantation along Interstate 84, east of the Columbia River Gorge.

He glued thin strips together into six-ply laminates and then built jigs to bend them into the desired shape.

"Attend" features 48 of those segments, about 22 feet long. They radiate from a wooden cone, almost 10 feet tall, that tapers to a one-inch point and is topped by a wooden sphere.

The rippling wooden circle that fills most of the gallery space measures almost 50 feet in diameter, flowing in all directions from the fountain-like wooden center.

"As a material, I find wood to be the biggest challenge for me," Rathbun said. "It's complicated because there are so many types and densities and drynesses. There are so many different types of fasteners and tools.

"There is something about the tools you use that's like a ritual — keeping them sharp, taking care of them," the Portland artist said.

The ritualistic aspect of the work also is reflected in the creation of one segment, then making an identical copy … and another, and another, and another.

"With the repetition, it becomes a meditative thing," Rathbun said.

Rathbun had to tailor the installation to the dimensions of the Clark College exhibit space. But he doesn't always keep his work inside the gallery.

A piece Rathbun created for the Boise Art Museum — "The Situation He Found Himself ln" — was an oval wooden ring measuring 73 feet at its widest point. Supported by wooden crossbeams, giving it the look of an old log flume, the ring seemed to go right through the wall of the sculpture space. After curving over an exterior plaza, it seemingly re-entered the building through another gallery wall.

The Boise exhibit and the Archer Gallery installation show the range of Rathbun's work, Legree noted.

"This, for Mike, is smallish," she said.