UW Today

October 1, 2015

UW professor emeritus Cheryl Richey shows abstract art in solo exhibit

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Cheryl Richey's painting "Astral Sonata"

Cheryl Richey’s painting “Astral Sonata”Cheryl Richey

As an academic, Cheryl Richey was empirical and analytical, dogged in her insistence on backing up practice with evidence.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that as an artist, the University of Washington professor emeritus of social work lets her spontaneous, experimental side loose.

“I think that absence of control is what I needed, because my academic self was very disciplined, very controlled,” said Richey, who retired from the UW in 2003.

Richey, who now spends much of her time as an abstract painter, will be showing her work at a solo exhibit at the University Unitarian Church. “Introspection” opens with a public champagne reception and live music by local act Jazz Coalescence from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4. The exhibit, which runs through Nov. 14, features 18 of Richey’s mixed-media paintings from various stages of her career.

It’s a career Richey never expected to have while coming of age in the Bay Area in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. She took drawing and painting classes at San Francisco State, but considered a life of art too self-indulgent. Richey enrolled in the University of California Berkeley’s social work program, earning her master’s and doctorate degrees.

She was recruited to the UW in 1973, at age 27, as a professor in the School of Social Work master’s program. She taught research and practice, counseling methods and social work theory. The field was undergoing a shift toward evidence-based practices that greatly influenced Richey’s academic perspective.

“Let’s see the evidence — that was my training,” she said.

Richey’s academic career hummed along until a planned sabbatical in 2000, when she was to spend a year as a visiting scholar at Berkeley. But her heart wasn’t in it, so she canceled the sabbatical and began painting, devoting much of her retirement time to art.

“My academic career had a 30-year shelf life,” she said wryly.

But Richey’s desire to make a difference has carried over into her second act. She often donates a percentage on works sold to nonprofits that in turn help promote her shows. She teamed up with the Audubon Society for a show featuring her paintings of birds, and with the Bainbridge Island Land Trust for a group show of works depicting trees. She will donate a percentage of any sales from the upcoming show to the UW School of Social Work for scholarships.

Richey’s pieces, which incorporate materials ranging from charcoals to sand and sawdust, draw inspiration from nature and the metaphysical world. Her early work included a series of paintings featuring portals, doorways that “beckon us to step forward,” as she writes on her website. She later became intrigued with celestial themes, creating pieces that evoke moons and wispy, otherworldly beings.

These days, Richey is fascinated by the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that recognizes the beauty in impermanence and imperfection. “Sabi” refers to the celebration of things old and faded, like weathered wood or the patina of an oxidized copper bowl. Richey is interested in detritus, the residues and legacies we leave behind.

She’s currently working on a series of paintings that she creates by first burning a canvas, then mounting it onto a canvas panel. From there, Richey finishes the piece with paint, applying her analytic nature to solve what she considers a “compositional problem.”

“I try to lose control initially, then I try to take control back,” she said, then laughed, adding, “I really want to experiment and not be so nice anymore.”

“Introspection” runs at the University Unitarian Church, 6556 35th Ave. NE, from Oct. 4 through Nov. 14. Viewing times with the artist are from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20 and Friday, Oct. 23. The show is also open to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays.