In honor of Valentine’s Day, City Arts brings you “The Act of Love” featuring three couples who collaborate on their creative projects. Among them are two of Seattle theatre’s top designers, a pair of photographers and a duet of performers share tales of making art together.

Jennifer Zeyl 
& Matt Starritt


“We used to work together all the time,” Jennifer Zeyl says.

All the time,” Matt Starritt echoes, with fond emphasis.

“That was in the olden days,” Zeyl continues, harkening back to the years she and her then-boyfriend, now-husband spent creating production after production at Washington Ensemble Theatre, the critically lauded fringe company they founded in 2004 with a pack of collaborators.

Today Zeyl, a scenic designer, and Starritt, a sound designer, work together sometimes but not always. They teamed up for Intiman Theatre’s four-show summer festival last year and have signed on for this summer’s festival, too. For them, being on the same schedule is ideal; when they’re working on a slew of different productions, they often pass through their Capitol Hill studio apartment like ships in the night.

On a sunny Sunday morning in January the couple is in preparation for a very full week. In an hour, Starritt will hit the road for Vancouver with performance/installation company zoe|juniper, which means he’ll miss tech rehearsal for American Buffalo at Seattle Rep. Zeyl will spend the rest of her day in tech for Hedwig at the Moore.

“If I did this for a living and I was married to anybody else, I would have a lot more conflict in my life,” Zeyl says.

In addition to designing a combined 20-plus shows a year, Starritt works at Meany Hall, they both teach at the University of Washington and together they run the Canoe Social Club, a member-based salon-like establishment that offers drawing classes, screens movies and hosts talks, among other things.

How is life different when they’re working together on a show? “Well, Matt’s the best sound designer in town, so the show’s better,” Zeyl laughs.

“Jen understands artistically what I’m trying to do,” Starritt says. “If she sees an early run of something, we get to have those designer-to-designer conversations. The relationship gives us a shorthand. She can cut to the chase.”

The two revere one another creatively, but they approach their work in different ways. He points to her profound productivity—“She ends up being a catalyst for whatever she’s working on”—and she points to his unflappable demeanor.

“When I go into something really, really hot, he’s able to be the baseline of calm in any given creative room,” she says. “Matt just rolls in, like, all woofer.”

Starritt explains that set designers do their work early in the process of a play, whereas sound designers do theirs much later. “That’s the hardest part—her being patient enough with me to let me take the time that I need to get there. And me being patient with her when she’s already got answers to questions I’m not even thinking about yet.”

Together for 10 years, the couple met 12 years ago at the Ethnic Cultural Theatre at UW, where he was an undergrad studying poetry and she was getting her master’s degree in scenic design. Starritt was helping out with a load-in for a show Zeyl had designed.

“My pattern was to turn whoever I was dating into a carpenter,” Zeyl laughs. “So when I recognized Matt as his own designer in non-visual media, it was rough for me because I was like, ‘Don’t you want to build all the things that I’m drawing?’ And Matt was like, ‘Um, no. I’m gonna be a sound designer.’” LEAH BALTUS

Shaun Kardinal & Erin Frost

For their very first artistic collaboration, Shaun Kardinal and Erin Frost dove in headfirst—and unclothed. “Hardcore,” a five-minute-long close-up video of the couple making out, and an explicit self-portrait entitled “Some Velvet Morning” were hits at the 2010 Seattle Erotic Art Festival.

“It made sense at the time,” Kardinal says.

Cozied on the vintage couch in the one-bedroom they share on Capitol Hill, the couple is easygoing and intimate in conversation. They describe their first meeting, back in 2008, when Kardinal showed some of Frost’s photos at his old Pioneer Square gallery. Not long after, she hired him to design a website for her in exchange for one of her photos.

“I invited him to come over to collect his artwork at my housewarming party and he never left,” Frost says with a laugh.

Their mutual interest in self-portraiture offered common artistic ground and, eventually, a springboard to new endeavors.

“We used to be more likely to make introspective, one-with-the-camera projects,” Kardinal says. “Now that we have each other in our lives, those projects aren’t our go-to.”

Adds Frost, “When I was single and doing self-portraits, that was my relationship. It was very single-minded, this body of work. Now I feel like I’m inspired and encouraged to try whatever I want to.”

Photography remains a major component of the couple’s collaborations, but now it’s augmented by three-dimensional materials—thread in particular. For a 2011 installation titled “Alterations,” they created several types of portrait photos. One was a pair of solo self-portraits set facing each other a foot or so apart, connected by veins of red yarn. Above it was a larger photo, self-taken, of the two artists in profile, red yarn spanning the empty space between them. Then there were two more portraits, one of each artist, taken face-on, red yarn stretching towards the camera like fibrous rays.

To achieve the desired effect, Frost crafted headbands that she and Kardinal wore on the backs of their heads, hidden beneath their hair, connected by yarn. When it was time to snap photos, the pair had to move in tandem to the camera so one could click the shutter. Then they moved back into position before the timer went off.

“We considered having a third person [take the photos] but I’m glad we didn’t,” Frost says. “I love the piece because of that interaction, how we had to do it. It was the perfect tension and communication and balance that makes it completely lovely in my mind.”

Tension, communication, balance: Without saying so, Kardinal, 30, and Frost, 39, make the case that as much as clicking a shutter or threading a needle, their relationship is itself an artistic process.

“It’s hard to separate the romantic and the creative,” Frost says. “Everything is integrated. Just having a level of intimacy with someone, you’re sort of a joined voice. I think we’re both excelling because of it. It’s made us more sane, more capable. The more love you get, the more love you have.”

Each motivates the other in the workspace they share in their apartment. (“One of us sees the other working and you kinda wanna work on something as well,” Kardinal says.) Over time, they’ve absorbed each other’s mediums into their independent work, which has merged into a meticulous but folksy photo-embroidery style, Frost’s involving old self-portraits, Kardinal’s found photos. But they agree that creativity is more fun—and the outcome more fulfilling—when it involves collaboration.

Could it be that two is better than one?

“When it’s put so bluntly, that rings true to me,” Kardinal says. “If everybody felt that connection of understanding and balance with someone, be it romantic or friendly or teacher-student, it would elevate everyone’s consciousness.” JONATHAN ZWICKEL


Sean Nelson & Shenandoah Davis

The entryway to the Pioneer Square loft shared by Sean Nelson and Shenandoah Davis is festooned with show bills. Colorful and varied, they advertise a decade and a half of performances by the two distinct musicians.

Most of the newer posters feature a solo Davis, sharing small stages with friends and collaborators including Kaylee Cole, Ritchie Young and Tomo Nakayama. The older posters belong to Nelson and go back as far as 1998, when his then-surging indie rock band Harvey Danger headlined a North American tour with Spoon and Creeper Lagoon. A more recent poster, in silver ink on a deep blue background, announces a joint performance between Nelson and British musician Robyn Hitchcock. Then there’s one for a holiday show at the Columbia City Theater on Dec. 8, 2011. That’s where Nelson and Davis first sang together.

“I’ve sung harmony with a lot of people,” Nelson says, sitting on the davenport next to Davis, his wife of one month. “Sometimes it’s just two voices and they sound good together, but sometimes there’s an alchemy and those two voices turn into this third thing.”

Davis and Nelson were brought together by his throaty tenor and her operatic alto. In early 2011, they were each asked to sing during an a cappella concert at the Fremont Abbey. Later that year he watched a video for her ballad “Oh Way Oh.” He listened to the song over and over. He was entranced. He bought her record and sent her a fan letter.

“That meant a lot to me, because I really admired things he had made,” Davis says. “But I was so busy being excited about it to my friends, I forgot to respond to it.” Davis had been a fan of Nelson’s since the eighth grade, when she skipped out of her home-schooling lessons to watch MTV at a McDonald’s. The first video she saw—the first she’d ever seen—was “Flagpole Sitta,” the hit by Harvey Danger.

 Nelson wrote Davis a second time, asking her to join his piano-pop duo Sounds Major for the holiday show. This time she wrote back and said yes. At rehearsal, there was a creative spark—and a romantic one.

“From that moment onward it was clear that there was something beyond just musical appreciation happening,” Nelson says.

After the holiday show, Davis continued touring but kept in touch. During a January artist residency in Fairfield, Iowa, she sent Nelson an unfinished song called “Curtain Call.”

 “The lyrical content to that song is really important to our relationship,” Davis says. “It’s about someone being accused of stealing the spotlight from another performer and the accused person saying, ‘I’m totally happy to be an accompanist. I’m happy to be in the shadows. I just want to be on stage with you.’”

A year of courtship and collaboration followed, with Davis and Nelson joining each other for various performances, adding vocal harmony to each other’s songs. Last fall, they moved into their loft, then capped a secret engagement with an intimate wedding. Now Davis is busy writing her third album while Nelson works on a screenplay and prepares for the March release of his first solo album. There’s talk of a collaborative musical in the future, but for now they’re simply helping each other out.

“We’ve been very respectful of each other’s sovereignty,” Nelson says. “Shenandoah’s music is as important to me as any of my musical endeavors, but that doesn’t mean that I need to smear my fingerprints on it. I’m very happy to only do what is necessary, even if that’s just taking out the dog so she doesn’t have to.” MARK BAUMGARTEN

Photos by Dylan Priest.

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