SHANNON and ZEMIE
Can you talk a little bit about the origin story for Wolff Gallery? How did you come up with the idea?
Z: We met at Blue Sky Gallery, which is where I work. Shannon was also just new in town and had started volunteering/interning there and then joined the exhibition committee. We started talking about the work that we wanted to show and we felt that there needed to be especially more women being shown, I mean not just in photography but in general; photography is what we’re familiar with, but we just thought that needed to happen. So we started talking about how we could maybe do that, how we could maybe make a gallery. And so the name Wolff Gallery comes from a quote that’s attributed to Virginia Woolf: “Throughout history, anonymous was a woman,” so we were thinking of Virginia Woolf, but then we figured it’s probably too literal - people would get it right away, and we didn’t want to make it seem like her last name. And we also liked the image and the symbolism of the wolf as a keystone species; it’s endangered and feared, but really necessary for the environment in general to succeed. Also they’re collaborative animals and pack animals but fierce when needed.
S: There’s a lot of symbolism. The “W” is wolf, and “women”, and then the two “F’s” for females, and then the quote is very symbolic because it’s about taking credit back. We’re very much about taking credit back where it’s due, where women are dismissed. So that’s why we wanted to focus on women.
Could you tell us a little bit about your relationship with each other? How long have you been friends/how did you meet?
S: I guess three years ago? I think it was 2014, when I moved here from LA and the first place I visited was Blue Sky Gallery, and I started interning there and we just hit it off, and became friends and then one of my goals had been to start a gallery so we talked about it and went from there. I just felt a connection and a comfortability with Zemie right away. She was so nice and personable and I liked her style, and we just hit it off. It was kind of as simple as: “Hey, want to start a gallery?”, “Yeah," and then we went from there. Something we really connect with is personal narrative. We can tell that our shows tend to be very emotional, but emotionally intense in a positive way so that we see ourselves and those emotions as a positive force for good. Especially now, those emotions are really needed, so it’s very important to us.
Z: We did a pop-up gallery for our first show which was through Shannon’s friend who lived in this big house. They had a living room that was vacant, and they let us have it for a night. So we opened it up to the public and we got way more people coming through than we thought. And that was our first show with Leslie Dorcus, and we had never met her before - Shannon found her on Tumblr and found out she’s a Portland artist, so we thought, cool, let’s see if she wants to do this. But it’s been great; a lot of the artists in here are our friends - we’ve known them before but some of them we just sort of reach out to. For example Shannon knew Calethia from LA, from when Shannon lived there. It’s just been nice to increase and expand this network of women who are creating in this town, or who have a similar aesthetic or desire to show work that is more emotionally raw.
Was there a particular exhibit/artist that you’ve featured here at Wolff that you were especially impacted by? Why?
Z: I’m just going to say this since it’s about my relationship to her, but we were able to show my mother here, at the old Wolff Gallery in Old Town. She’s a painter but she also does mixed media that incorporates mosaic work. So that was really meaningful to me because I grew up with my mom being an artist and seeing her work really hard but also raise me, sometimes as a single mom, so to be able to give back to somebody who’s really encouraged me to do what I do even though it’s hard and sometimes I think, “Why didn’t I go into something more lucrative?” [laughs], was really meaningful for me because I believe in her work and I believe in her as an artist and to be the first place that she had a solo show in Portland was cool. I mean she’s shown other places but it really meant a lot to her to have a solo show in Portland. It allowed her to stretch as an artist, and it was really cool to be a part of that.
S: I would say for people we’ve shown, it would be Calethia because I feel really connected and similar to her and I guess through bringing her from LA, and I’ve known her for a long time and I just feel that kind of comfortability, like the way I feel with Zemie. We’ve always maintained contact and we check in with each other and I’ve been following her work for a long time and so I was super excited about seeing it come together seeing her blossom even more. So I was so happy for her and happy to bring her here and it was so perfect to have our grand opening be with her it was just a wonderful thing and I’m so supportive and really behind what she’s doing.
What’s been the most rewarding thing so far about running Wolff Gallery? Why?
Z: I think for me it’s been when somebody that I didn’t know before has come in and said “Thank you for being here, this is really important to me,” or “I’m so glad you’ve made space for women artists.” When somebody verbalizes that and validates that, it’s validating [laughs] and that makes my day.
S: I agree with that too, and also showing great work that we love made by people who we also love and connect with and want to uplift and support. So just showing the great work that we’re super passionate about.
On your website you talk about encouraging artists to “embrace the personal as political”. Can you go into detail about why that in particular is important to you?
Z: I think there’s maybe a shift away from that sort of feminist sentiment even though I think it’s more relevant than ever. I think with art recently there’s been more of a trend towards conceptual versus emotional personal narrative. Or sometimes women’s art gets dismissed because it is about the female experience. We just want to be very clear that we embrace conceptual work as well, but we really do think that there’s opportunities for people to be really clear about their emotional health or, you know, lack thereof.
S: Instead of there being a separation between my personal life and my political life, or that concept of personal vs. political, we think that personal IS political. Especially with what’s been going on lately, there’s so many things that you can say are just political but they affect people so personally, so deeply. They affect your life, they affect your whole state of being and your emotional wellbeing too, so I think we see it as all-encompassing one thing that’s really important.
I’d love to go into a little detail regarding your own individual creative ventures. What do you like working on in your free time?
Z: I have a background in photography, making photographic work. I haven’t really shown for a long time because after I moved out I worked as a graphic designer and commercial photographer here in town. I was doing that and then I decided to go back to school for curating. So my creative practice became more of a curatorial one. I got my masters in curatorial studies, with an emphasis in public art. It’s a terminal degree; you couldn’t get a PhD in it. I want to just focus on contemporary art. I’m also a writer; I write about art. (S: “She’s a great writer!”) More and more so my creative practice is writing and curatorial, but right now I’m actually working on a project - I mean we’re actually working on a project together. We decided that since this is our gallery, we each are going to do a solo show here within the next 2.5 years and then the other person will be the curator/the one who makes sure it’s good. If you’re the curator and the artist, it’s no good - you need someone who’s a sounding board to tell you what’s working and what’s not. So I’m actually working on a body of work about my relationship with my mom for that.
S: My background is also photography - I tend to shoot a lot of portraits; I like shooting photos of people. But also some abstract stuff, a lot of landscapes. I worked freelance in LA for a while, and I curated there for a while, and then when I came here I felt more interested in documentary-type projects. So when I was in LA I shot mini video documentaries about artists where the artist was talking about their work, or in their studio, kind of like artist portraits. I’ve made one since being here, so I’ve started that up again. I’m really really into that - I like documentary-type stuff and I shoot videos and edit them and my husband does the music. They’re just really fun to do and I love doing them so that’s what I’m focusing on now and I occasionally shoot photos for fun or do little editorial shoots with friends or models that I meet but really I’m focusing on the video documentaries.
What’s next for you two? Any big plans for the future?
Z: I mean Wolff was a jump for us already, so we want to see how this goes for a while, but I think we have ideas about if there are ways we could support artists more by doing some sort of residency. Those are the types of ideas we’ve been throwing around but we’ll see how this goes first. It’s probably cliche, but we’re stronger together.
S: I’m really focused on Wolff and just putting together really great shows that we’re really excited about and we both love looking at work and discovering new artists and new, amazing work and new ways of looking at things. I want this to grow and just be amazing and I want to be a part of the community and I want people to respond to it, which they are. We’ve gotten such wonderful feedback and support from people and we want to be a support system for women and emerging artists. We want to be there uplifting people when things are negative, being a positive force the best way we can. I think that’s the best way to combat really negative things - that’s the way I’m trying to look at it and handle it - I’m trying to come at it with love and positivity. It’s not in a passive way - I’m aggressively positive, and you can fight in a positive way.
And check out Shannon and Zemie's Ten Facts feature here.