Sherry Markovitz and Peter Millett arguably share one of the most inspired homes in Seattle. Built in 1982, the house was designed by Millett’s brother, an architect, whose own home is visible in the distance. The space seems an ideal confluence of life and work for these two artists: multiple studios intertwine in seamless flow from stoop to kitchen to attic, each level of which peers out onto a tangled, bucolic backyard.
It’s here that both artists have created some of Seattle’s most iconic work: Markovitz’sr beaded sculptures, each one made of thousands of pieces of antique glass threaded around armatures such as vintage dolls rescued from thrift stores and other sweetly uncanny ephemera. And her watery paintings of canines rendered on gossamer panels of silk. Millett forges steel towers of triangles that twist and writhe, balancing an almost breathing figurative quality with geometric coolness.
Their son Jake Millett is also a practicing artist. (During his rebellious adolescent phase, when he tired of exhibitions and museum receptions, he aspired to be a businessman.) Now Jake lives and works at his own studio on Beacon Hill, making paintings—currently large-scale gouache and watercolors. He’s also dabbling in sculpture. On most weekdays Jake returns to his childhood home to work for his father, welding and assisting in other aspects of the sculpture-building process.
Photos by Kelly O.
Left deliberately half-kempt and wild, the backyard unfolds like a secret garden perched on the edge of a greenbelt. A grove of old-growth trees tangle and tower overhead. Many of Millett’s sculptures creep into the undergrowth and even crop up in the neighbor’s manicured backyard, where they are “temporarily on loan.” Separated by a gate and illuminated by solar-powered floodlights, these pieces are collectively (and eponymously, after the neighbor) dubbed the “Montgomery International Sculpture Garden.”
Markovitz’s affection for the animals she’s cared for over the years manifests in a shrine that skirts a pathway. “I made these little sculptures after my first dog died,” she says. “A lot of them eventually were deteriorating, coming apart, and I was about to toss them, but Peter gathered them all up and placed them here, along with a few of his own.”
In Millett’s studio, a pingpong table functions as a work surface and conference table. They do actually play ball—and frequently.
About the permeability of home and studio life, and whether they step on each other’s toes: “It’s very organic,” Markovitz says. “The home was set up that way, but it also evolved. We don’t bother each other much during the day, but it’s certainly not forbidden.” It’s worth noting that both Markovitz and Millett are represented individually by Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle.
On the hours they keep: “We work all the time. Probably too much,” she says.
Though he’s best known for the large steel sculptures he began making in the ‘90s, Millett has been working with wood much longer than metal. Lately, he’s returned to it more and more. “It’s really all discovery as we go,” he says of his process. “I’ll cut up a bunch of triangles and try things. You just never know what’s going to happen. Nothing’s predetermined and it’s all discovered in the making.”
On Millett’s treatment of color: “I like those very chalky kinds of surfaces. It’s a lot of different layers and kinds of paint, sanded back, kind of tortured in a couple of different ways. Into submission!” he says, laughing. “No, they really just kind of go where they want to go, because I’m not in control anymore. Maybe I never was.”
(Above and below): A few of Jake’s current works in process, experiments in steel. “They’re not portraits of people,” he says of the bricolage sculptures twisted together from disparate pieces of metal, which remind one slightly of something Arcimboldo might have done had he ever taken up welding. “But I kind of feel like every time I draw an ambiguous male head it could be mine, a self-portrait.”
Upstairs in Markovitz’s studio and creeping out onto the walls of the living spaces, her work has taken a substantial turn since her last Seattle show at Kucera. For that, she painted ethereal, haunted portraits of dogs accompanied by beaded sculptures, equally totemic and cartoonish, of bears and pooches and other beasts, using the heads of old stuffed animals as armatures. Now, a year later, the walls are hung with a dozen or more sculptures constructed from fragile willow branches wrapped in beads.
“I was invited to be in a show at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Museum, along with a number of contemporary artists who were invited to riff on items in the collection,” she says of their origin. “The museum owned some pieces by Anna Zemankova, an artist I admire. I even bought one of her pieces back before Jake was born—back when I had money for things like art! Anna would rise in the morning and begin what she called ‘trance paintings’ which she’d continue making throughout the day. Since meeting with the museum curators last October, I’ve been constructing these willow sculptures in response to the kinds of thick outlines she created around the forms in her paintings. Now that I’ve started, I can’t seem to stop.”
There’s a willow in the park just down the street where Markovitz gleans trimmings for the pieces.
“They can’t be too brittle,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot about trees lately! I’ve gone back and forth over the years between mediums, but the abstract work has receded more into the background until recently. It’s just time. Sometimes it just takes a lot of time for things to come out.” Markovitz does all the work herself, no assistants. “When I’m working, the switch from one color to another—one orange to another—is too automatic, too intuitive,” she says. “How can you direct that?”
Markovitz pauses to marvel at the dozens of shades of orange glass beads she has separated into glass bowls. Indeed, the infinite variations of hue are ensorcelling, spanning a spectrum that calls forth crimson, persimmon, carmine, butterscotch, champagne, tangerine and on and on. Markovitz uses glass beads exclusively on account of an internal radiance that just doesn’t exist in modern, plastic iterations. Many of the beads—there must be millions stockpiled now, though there’s no way to count—are vintage glass she’s spent a lifetime collecting from all kinds of sources.
Collective awe of color is palpable in the household. “Color: It’s the mystery of the universe,” Markovitz murmurs at one point.
As we wander the rooms, the subject is frequently discussed or commented on: the cast of light on a certain slant of steel, the process of drawing out a particular depth of ultramarine on a slab of well-worked wood, or the tint of a gray shadow cast in an obscure corner of a room. Millett is acutely fascinated with shadows, as he comments on—and, one assumes, takes mental note of—their particular shifting geometries.
Similarly opportunistic, and illuminating a lifelong openness to the possible transcendence in found things, Markovitz explains that when she discovers birds that have careened into their windows, she’s made a practice of preserving them by burying them in Borax for a year or more. The luminescent sheen of their chartreuse greens and golds mesmerize, even after death.
Upstairs, a lofty room provides storage for work, as well as a place for handmade antique rugs accumulated over the years, and flat files filled with endless surprises.
For many years Millett occasionally moonlighted as a freelance courtroom sketch artist, a job that provided him front row seats to countless high-profile court cases as well as an unusual education in the art of reading people and testimonies. Many of the pastel drawings he was able to keep and has filed away.
On whether the couple have influenced each other over the decades while working in close proximity:
Millett: “I think though our work is very different, we read the world the same way. I think we read color and texture the same way. We see very similarly.”
Markovitz: “It’s been a very positive influence. I think I’ve learned a lot from Peter.”