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Yakima artists to watch in 2021

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So much about the local arts and entertainment scene in 2021 remains uncertain. Will there be live music? Will galleries be allowed to host crowds for art openings? Will audiences be comfortable attending, even if they’re allowed to by law?

I don’t have better answers for those questions than anyone else. But I know for certain that artists aren’t going to just stop making art. The ways we consume it might still be a little different in 2021 than it was in 2019, but we’ll still consume it. We’ll need to.

As such, I present the annual SCENE “artists to watch.” There are five this year, ranging from young up-and-comers just getting started to established artists trying new things. Each of them has spent the past year continuing to create during the COVID pandemic. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to see a lot more of them and their work in 2021.

Fonozis, music

Back in 2019, the Latin rock band Fonozis played an event in Sunnyside called Taco Wars. I wrote a little preview of that event, so I looked up the band and watched the few short videos I could find. They were great. More than that, they filled a niche that Yakima needed filled. There just aren’t many Latin rock bands here. Mexican folk bands, sure — mariachi, ranchera, banda, that kind of thing — but we didn’t have a standout Latin rock band until Fonozis formed in 2018.

I barely mentioned them in the Taco Wars write-up and I couldn’t make it to that event, but I knew I wanted to eventually see Fonozis play. They have an emotional energy that crosses the language barrier. (I’m embarrassingly monolingual, but it hasn’t diminished my affection for the band.) Each of the members, Gaston Perez on guitar, Ricardo Esquivel on vocals, Noe Pimentel on bass and Jerry Gamez on drums, is a seasoned pro. And together they’re more than the sum of their parts.

“There’s a pretty interesting mix of influences,” Perez said. “Jerry has a lot of the hard rock and psych rock. Ricardo has Latin rock in his vocals. I bring the grunge, early 2000s rock from Seattle. And you’re going to hear a little bit of ska and reggae.”

That mix works as seamlessly as it does because everyone in Fonozis has a history with other bands; they know how to collaborate. Perez was in the local Latin pop-rock band Avion, Gamez is the former drummer from Yakima prog-psych-indie favorites Pastel Motel, and Pimentel and Esquivel played Latin rock in various bands for years in Mexico and around the Northwest. Having run into each other in those roles over the years, and with their other projects having dried up, getting together as a quartet just made sense, Perez said.

“There’s not too many bands that do Latin rock here in the Valley,” he said. “But there are a lot of Latin rock concerts in Seattle and Portland and throughout the Northwest. So we said, ‘Let’s bring back Latin rock to the Valley.’”

They started to do just that, building momentum and gaining notice throughout 2019. Then 2020 happened, and live music pretty much shut down. The band turned its focus to the studio, recording what will become Fonozis’ debut album upon release this spring. They haven’t been able to play in front of people, but they’ve recorded some live sets and posted them online, trying to build a fan base that will be there when the pandemic is over. And this Friday they’re livestreaming a concert at Bearded Monkey Music.

The best part is, they’re not going anywhere. No one in the band is younger than 33. They all have straight jobs in addition to the band, so they’re established in Yakima. And they’re committed to Fonozis. They like each other and they’re musically compatible.

“This is a very serious project,” Perez said. “We’re not in our teens or 20s anymore. This is something we’re committed to. As long as we can do it, we’re going to be around.”

Amanda Ontiveros, visual art

For someone whose art deals so frequently with death, Amanda Ontiveros is hilarious. The 42-year-old Tieton artist, who lately has worked mostly with ceramics, uses decay as memento mori in the current iteration of Yakima’s “Windows Alive” exhibit. The work she displays on her Instagram page, on the other hand, is an exercise in combining traditional Mexican iconography with a modern sensibility and an often macabre sense of humor. Take, for instance, the coffee mug with “you’ve been poisoned” scrawled on the bottom to greet a guest after their final (ever?) sip. Or the skull mug whose reverse features a skeletal hand flipping the bird. (Full disclosure: I bought my wife that one as a Christmas gift.)

Those sides have long coexisted in Ontiveros, who saw death at an early age and internalized it until art gave her an outlet to begin processing it.

“My dad died when I was 7,” she said. “And I just kind of kept all my emotions to myself. Then one day I picked up a lowrider magazine and thought, ‘I can draw that.’”

In middle school, Ontiveros began doing very detailed drawings. She had already started cracking jokes.

“Humor is the first way you learn to deal with grief,” she said.

She grew up splitting time between Yakima and Tieton, had her first child at 17 then had three more. Adult responsibility put everything else on hold, but Ontiveros knew the whole time that she still wanted to go to college. When her youngest started school, Ontiveros enrolled at Yakima Valley College.

“I’ve always been a nerd,” she said. “I’ve always had this insatiable need to learn. So going back to college, I was like, ‘This is going to be so fun.’”

The idea was to get a business degree so she could run the mechanic’s shop her husband was going to open. But a drawing class led to a painting class and a ceramics class. YVC art instructor Bob Fisher encouraged her, telling her she should consider teaching. With that in mind, Ontiveros went on to Central Washington University where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 2018.

Since then she’s shown at the Larson Gallery in Yakima, the Boxx Gallery in Tieton, Gallery One in Ellensburg and several other venues. Her work is on display now at Collaboration Coffee, next door to Yakima Maker Space where she teaches and makes art. She’s frequently there from 9 to 5.

“This is my job,” Ontiveros said.

Mark Pickerel, music

So, yeah, it’s a little weird to have Mark Pickerel as an “artist to watch.” He’s about as established as local artists get. You know with the whole grunge-stardom-leading-to-35-year-recording-career thing.

Here, to get it out of the way, is the Pickerel resume complete with my notes and name-dropping: original drummer for Screaming Trees, one of the best bands from Seattle’s 1980s-90s rock ’n’ roll peak; drummer for Seattle-scene supergroup Truly, featuring Hiro Yamamoto of Soundgarden and Jim Carroll collaborator Robert Roth; drummer for The Jury, a remarkably short-lived “band” with Kurt Cobain and Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan whose handful of recordings were finally released on the 2004 Nirvana box set “With the Lights Out”; singer, drummer and songwriter for two psych-drenched The Dark Fantastic albums; singer, guitarist and songwriter for roots-focused rock band Mark Pickerel and his Praying Hands; drummer for The Dusty 45s; drummer for The Tripwires; collaborator with the likes of Neko Case, Brandi Carlile and The Secret Sisters.

So why is he an “artist to watch”? Because Pickerel, at 52, is in the midst of his most productive stretch in years. Last week he released ”Rebel in the Rearview,” a 10-song set of mostly covers he and his Praying Hands had recorded over the past decade and perfected in the studio late last year. And this spring he plans to release “I Have Visions,” the first Mark Pickerel and his Praying Hands album of originals since “Tess” in 2013.

Taste-making Seattle station KEXP has been playing three songs from “Rebel in the Rearview,” Pickerel’s versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” and The Secret Sisters’ “Tennessee River Runs Low” (the original version of which featured his drumming). The record feels cohesive, despite the various lineups and years in which the songs were recorded. And, though he didn’t plan on putting out a covers record when he recorded them, they turned into a productive way to spend time that otherwise would have been spent performing over the past year.

“I invested a lot of time and energy — and money — into all of those recordings over the years, and I had kind of just shelved them for one reason or another,” Pickerel said.

Being able to resuscitate them in the studio, with help from ace Seattle producer Johnny Sangster, “made up for anything I wasn’t hearing in the existing versions,” he said. The response has been gratifying, and the prospect of releasing another album so quickly on this one’s heels means Pickerel will have a fresh body of work when live music comes back.

“I Have Visions” will have a couple of songs inspired by the current sociopolitical landscape and a couple of character-study songs and other songs inspired by “a lot of soul-searching and self-analysis to tune in to a higher calling, to take life seriously and to celebrate the beauty that surrounds us.”

“Having these two new albums on the horizon has given me a lot of renewed optimism and excitement about where I am,” he said. “I still feel like I’m in my infancy in this. I still feel young.”

Jon Olney Shellenberger, visual art

Jon Olney Shellenberger, 40, is a longtime beadworker and powwow dancer whose finely crafted leather goods and art prints display a rare imagination and visual sensibility. He’s also a professional anthropologist and archaeologist working for the Yakama Nation, of which he is a member. There are not many people with whom you’re likely to have a more thoughtful conversation about cultural identity, the role of traditions and the importance of place. But that’s not why he’s so compelling.

There’s a long, proud history of artists from oppressed cultures subverting the icons of their oppression, robbing those icons of their intended meaning and replacing that meaning with something empowering. But it’s rare to see that done as playfully as Shellenberger has with the pop-art collection he sells through his online business Native Anthro. That’s what makes him compelling. His Commod Label Collection — mugs and T-shirts featuring labels inspired by government-assistance “commodity food” — is a prime example. But his placement of pop culture characters into traditionally Native contexts (see, for instance, his depiction of Schroeder from “Peanuts” as a tribal drummer) functions in a similar way. In both cases the commentary is delivered so good-naturedly it has the ability to subtly make a strong statement. It’s not unlike the way Native cultures in the United States have taken fry-bread, a non-indigenous food that arose out of the commodity program to become a two-sided (unhealthy but delicious) staple, and lifted it to a new status as beloved cultural comfort food.

That’s the broader context. But Shellenberger’s drive to create Native art, both traditional and contemporary, has also had a more personal driver: It keeps him connected to his own heritage and culture, his own ethnohistory. His grandfather was a beadworker. His mother, Rose Sampson, owns Rose’s Native Designs in Toppenish. He’s just the next in line.

“I’ve been a beadworker since I was 13,” Shellenberger said. “My whole family, my brothers, my uncles, my grandfather are all into Native beadwork, regalia and art-making.”

Shellenberger’s father, a non-Native, was in the Air Force, so Shellenberger spent parts of his childhood in New Jersey and Memphis, Tenn., before moving to the Northwest. He grew up the rest of the way in Belfair on Hood Canal, but even when he lived in Jersey and Tennessee his mother’s family traditions tethered him to the Yakama culture.

“I always knew I was Native,” he said. “I always knew I was Yakama. There’s plenty of room for identity issues, but my mom always instilled that in me: ‘You are Yakama.’ ... No matter where I was, I always knew where I belonged.”

Sharing that heritage outside the confines of the Yakama Nation is tricky, though, he said. There are strict customs about how the culture can be shared.

“Nobody said anything about art, though,” Shellenberger said with a laugh. “So this is my outlet to share parts of our culture with meaningful images. I hope to say a lot with a little.”

Victoria Urrutia, visual art

The women in Victoria Urrutia’s paintings and prints don’t smile demurely or cast aside their gaze. They frequently look straight at the viewer. They frequently wear expressions that straddle the line between “I’m a thoughtful, conscientious person” and “but don’t come at me with any nonsense.” They’re a refutation of the way centuries of artists depicted women, and that’s very intentional.

“The representation of the female throughout history has always been very dainty, very delicate,” the 20-year-old Yakima artist said. “It’s very important to me to show that form of strength and courage that the female has and ownership of what a female is.”

Urrutia, whose art has hung in the Larson Gallery, Collaboration Coffee and the Gallery in the Park in Richland over the past year, gets asked a lot why she primarily paints women, specifically women of color. She doesn’t mind the question; it’s one she has considered at length herself.

“I find women of color especially to be very powerful figures,” she said. “And as a first-generation Latina, it’s important to me to have that represented through my art.”

That’s been a through-line of Urrutia’s still-young art career. But the mediums have varied, both in her education (first at YVC and now at CWU where she’s a junior) and in her work outside of school. She’s painted with oils, acrylics and watercolors. She’s made prints. She’s done digital illustrations. It’s as though she’s still looking for a medium in which she feels comfortable. But the opposite is actually true; she’s drawn most to the methods she finds difficult. For instance, she’s been drawn to acrylics lately because she’s always struggled with them. And she’s working hard to master the digital software.

“There are a lot of artists who get comfortable in one genre or one specific area, and that’s what their art becomes,” Urrutia said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, owning one specific thing. But in my mind it’s very important to use all of these different mediums I want to grow and develop.”

The themes of her work — especially an acceptance of the idea that “feminine” can be a synonym for “strong” as well as “beautiful” — are still growing and developing, too, she said. She grew up a self-described tomboy, taking awhile to accept her own feminine side.

“I do think there is that touch of a position statement with trying to express the beauty of femininity,” Urrutia said. “And in our current state it’s very important to express the strength of femininity.”

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