Arts & Culture

Tacoma art that’s ‘Got Your Back’

A self-portrait by artist Stephanie Koscelnik of her own back is part of her show, “Got Your Back,” at Fulcrum Gallery, Tacoma.
A self-portrait by artist Stephanie Koscelnik of her own back is part of her show, “Got Your Back,” at Fulcrum Gallery, Tacoma. Courtesy

It was at her friend George’s funeral that Stephanie Koscelnik realized she had to make art. Not just any art — paintings of her friend’s backs, done by them lying naked on a giant paint palette and then reclining on a sheet of paper. Sounds odd? The results — 21 prints on view in “Got Your Back” at Fulcrum Gallery on Saturday — are profoundly moving.

“I was trying to find a creative outlet,” says Koscelnik, a Tacoma massage therapist. A former professional musician, she came from a family of visual artists but had no training. “I looked up art therapy and scars in art … and I realized, I work with people’s backs. So I lay down on some green paint, and printed it with my back on canvas.”

That experiment in 2011 was a smooth shape of mottled green that looks a little like a head silhouette, a little like a cello. Inspired, Koscelnik did two prints for the wedding of her friends Jen and George, just after George had been diagnosed with cancer. With only months to live, his black back print is jagged, painfully thin. Hers, in indigo blue, looks amazingly like a heart — but with a small, empty space in the middle.

Then came George’s funeral.

“In all the stories people told, I kept hearing the words, ‘I’ve got your back, I’ve got your back,’ ” remembers Koscelnik. “And I thought, I should do this.”

In one evening, Koscelnik rounded up her friends at her apartment, partitioned off a room, laid out big sheets of board and made paint available. People chose and mixed their own colors, and one by one took off their clothes and made a back print.

Those prints — plus Jen’s, George’s and Koscelnik’s own — will be mounted on the white walls of Fulcrum. There’s “Terri Thompson,” a Pollocklike tangle of red and royal blue lines. There’s “Christina Petusa Sittig,” a swirl of pink and yellow. “SAK” is Koscelnik’s own back, a swathe of teal and aqua made after her Seattle show last month. Another, unnamed, is yellow with an angry red spine ending in a black circle, painted on afterward by a friend with back pain. There’s even a print of a baby’s back, a tiny torso of hot pink, purple and yellow.

Has Koscelnik, who knows her friends and their backs from doing massage work, noticed a connection between how a back feels and how it looks in art?

“It says a lot about people and where they carry tension,” she says. “I see correlations. If there’s more pressure (to print more paint), then obviously someone’s comfortable (in that place). If you can’t lie down on an area, there’s more tension.”

In other words, negative space in a painting becomes an exact translation of how the subject is feeling: The ultimate truth in art.

Koscelnik is already working on her next project, a translation of physical yoga poses into paint. She’s been approached by massage and chiropractic clinics to sell the back prints. Instead, she plans to photograph them as a group and make that image available.

“But Jen’s and George’s will never be for sale,” she says.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Got Your Back art show

When: 7:30-11:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Fulcrum Gallery, 1308 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma.

Cost: $10 at door.

Includes: Wine and chocolate, plus live music by indie singer Gina Belliveau.