(Formerly) Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Ross Sawyers

The photographer's latest Platform Gallery exhibit examines homes and hobo signs.

Photography by Seth Sommerfeld October 14, 2013

Nothing Doing Here, 2013, archival inkjet print.

Ross Sawyers

They say home is where the heart is, and that’s certainly the case for photographer Ross Sawyers. The former Seattleite specializes in taking pictures of the places we live, but snapshots aren’t homemaking magazine glamor shots; he’s much more likely to capture images of streaked light and dilapidated doorways. Sawyers, who currently teaches at Columbia College in Chicago, returns to Seattle for his fourth solo exhibition at Platform Gallery, This is the Place, which opens on October 17.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Sawyers about housing boom inspiration, Platform Gallery's place in the Seattle art scene, and hobo signs.

What’s the general thematic push of This is the Place?

Very generally speaking, they sort of follow along a trajectory that I started quite a while ago: Dealing with issues of and related to housing and our relationship to it. But these specific images sort of move beyond that a little bit, and bring in some notions of direct drawing and mark-making on the walls of the spaces that are related to hobo signs. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of hobo signs, but it’s a language that was developed during the Depression by transients that they would use to inform each other about certain neighborhoods, houses, and people—about the prospects for food or money or shelter—things like that. So as the country moves out of its current housing crisis, these pieces incorporate some of those kinds of marks and symbols.

How did you originally become interested in the hobo signs?

I don’t know directly when I started thinking about the hobo signs in particular, but one of the things that led me to it was when foreclosures were really commonplace in maybe 2009 or 2010. A lot of people, as they were foreclosed on, would just destroy the house—whether that was through vandalism or just pure destruction—and so that got me interested in the kinds of marks and destructive actions people were inflicting upon the spaces. Through research on that, I sort of stumbled across information about hobo signs. And the relationship between those two things became really interesting to me.

What draws you to houses as a photography subject?

I think a lot of it is just personal experience. I think in general most people have a pretty in-depth experience with a living space; whether that experience is an apartment or a house or in a cardboard box. It’s a space that we make our own, that we act out our frustrations and anxieties in, whereas industrial space or office space is just some other kind of space that we inhabit for various times of the day. I think home is a place that is much more intimate and much more experiential. I’m very interested in that relationship we have with the spaces we make and call home, and how we relate to them.

How has Seattle influenced your work?

Seattle really made me aware of some of the driving forces behind my work. When I moved to Seattle in early 2005, one of the things I learned was how affected and influenced by my environment I am. Prior to living in Seattle, I lived in Kansas City and I was making work about a lot of the dilapidated or abandoned buildings in my neighborhood. And then I moved to Seattle during a housing boom—condos and townhouses were popping up everywhere—and my photographs really changed at that point to be more focused on the really new architecture as a result. So it was that sort of transition that really made me realize that what I was seeing happening in my direct surroundings played a huge role in the selection of that subject matter.

You’ve had many exhibitions at Platform Gallery now. What do you appreciate about the gallery and why do you feel Platform is important for Seattle?

I’ve been with Platform since probably 2006; this is my fourth solo show with them. They’ve always been really supportive of my work. I think (Platform owner/director) Steve (Lyons) is a really supportive and an easy person to work with. He’s got a pretty broad vision of contemporary art. I wouldn’t want to show in a gallery if I didn’t like the other artists that were being shown there. I think he’s got a diverse range of artists. He’s not just representing Seattle; he’s got a lot of artists that are representing other parts of the country. And it’s become a pretty consistent part of the arts scene. In that regards, it’s pretty important. A lot of the Seattle galleries that existed back in 2005 don’t exist anymore.

If you weren’t a photographer is there another line of work you might’ve pursed?

One of the things I think is really great about being an artist or a photographer is that my hobby is also my career. Whereas some people have their career and then they come home at night and they go fishing or build furniture or whatever, my hobby is what I do for a living. I don’t know if there are other things that I would enjoy doing.

Ross Sawyers: This is the Place
Oct 17–Nov 23, Platform Gallery

This is the Place, 2013, archival inkjet print.

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