Northwest artist Etsuko Ichikawa makes "pyrographs" by painting with the fire and smoke of hot glass. Her work will be exhibited at Bellevue Arts Museum Oct. 4-March 8, 2009.

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On one of summer’s final days, it’s cold and loud in Etsuko Ichikawa’s studio. The Tokyo-born, longtime Seattleite’s work space is one of nearly 50 housed in a massive federal building off of Georgetown’s Marginal Way. Its 35-foot ceiling lets in ample natural light — and the shrieking scrapes of nearby welders and woodworkers.

“I have earphones with music, so when it starts, I’m kind of underwater,” says Ichikawa. Lately, Latin jazz from artists like Omar Sosa has been on her playlist, but the visual resonance of Ichikawa’s art — warm and abstract as jazz can be, meditative and meandering as ambient music can — suggests not a singular influence.

Ichikawa’s glasswork — honed through years of study, including summer sessions at Pilchuck Glass School — is unique to the Northwest. Serpentine chandeliers and neon vases they are not. Her “pyrographs,” as she calls them, are made by painting with the fire and smoke of hot glass.

For years she’s been interested in “ephemeral” and “eternal” natures, a theme that continues in “Traces of the Molten State,” two site-specific installations at the Bellevue Arts Museum. Curated by Stefano Catalani for the Material Evidence series, it follows equally stunning exhibits by sculptor John Grade and multimedia artist Mandy Greer.

“I really wanted to create something about experiencing a space — to spend time looking and thinking,” says Ichikawa of “Traces.” Unlike recent shows at Davidson Contemporary and Gallery4Culture, the BAM assignment offered the artist unique challenges.

“Usually I start work and have the materials and elements around me and change as I go, and evolve in many different ways. This time I needed to stay in the concept I proposed, so there was a little struggle there,” she says, while clearly relishing it. Creating such a large-scale and time-consuming exhibit means that these days, Ichikawa hardly has any off hours.

“Traces’ ” first installation, shown in the Forum (BAM’s interior atrium), will feature a triptych of pyrography scrolls, 26 feet long and 4 and-a-half feet wide. A video showing “layers and layers of moments from my work process,” says Ichikawa, will be projected onto them. The second, “Walk with Mist,” inhabits the Pilchuck Glass School Gallery as an exercise in atmosphere.

Perforated metal sheets hide a video projector, which shines onto hundreds of glass “bubbles” hanging inches from the floor. A curved wall of pyrographs will surround the sculpture, backlit as though from a dull candlelight. “I’m hoping that it’s going to be very intimate,” says Ichikawa.

Discovering her medium was actually a serendipitous accident. Years ago, Ichikawa was assisting a visiting Japanese artist at Pilchuck, when the glass she’d gathered for him dripped off of the pipe and onto the floor. She gasped at the beautiful mark it left on the concrete. “It was shocking, visually. Really intriguing,” she says.

Since then, her haunting images have found introspective fans in the art community. “My work is very abstract … and people try to make a point of reference: A woman’s hair, a squid, all these things. People recognize shapes in so many random forms that I make,” says Ichikawa. Her process is intuitive and not preplanned, though it can be directly inspired by natural phenomena, as in “Walk with Mist.”

“There’s something about that consciousness that I try to use kind of as a resource. I almost feel like it’s a power that I can use somehow. It transforms to the work, and people see it, and I feel it.”