The artist’s “heart in throat, head in hands; tongue in knots, heart on sleeve” was crafted specifically for the Belltown gallery.

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A kindergarten-aged Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor doodled a yellow blob with an orange triangle on a white piece of paper approximately 45 years ago. Her classmates crowded around her, adoring the little duckling.

More than four decades later, Higgins O’Connor said something about that moment changed her. It helped spark her development as an artist. Over the years, her work got bigger and started incorporating different materials. Now the Sacramento, Calif., resident has her biggest work yet on display at Seattle’s Suyama Space, where her installation “heart in throat, head in hands; tongue in knots, heart on sleeve” is on view until April 25.

The show includes nine animallike works composed of found materials including bedding from thrift stores and cardboard from boxes behind stores. Higgins O’Connnor uses the materials to explore aspects of frustration, joy and tragedy through their storytelling abilities.

Exhibition Preview

‘heart in throat, head in hands; tongue in knots, heart on sleeve’

Through April 25, Suyama Space, 2324 Second Ave., Seattle; free (

“I believe that materials have a language, like a poetic language that can be interpreted so these materials have a history, a resonance,” Higgins O’Connor said. “They’ve been touched and handled and had other lives before their life with me.”

Higgins O’Connor uses large swatches of fabric in hopes that a familiar pattern can strike a chord with a viewer. Because she finds her materials in thrift stores, it’s possible that someone looking at the brown strip of fabric with white cherry blossoms at Suyama Space once owned the same fabric in their own house before Higgins O’Connor laid it on top of a donkey falling down a set of stairs.

The 51-year-old artist, who earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cal State Long Beach, thinks of each strip of fabric or piece of cardboard she places on the wooden armatures of her structures as strokes of a paint brush or marks with a charcoal pencil. After layering on materials, Higgins O’Connor secures her work with drywall screws.

“There’s so much in the process of making them, it’s almost like when I talk about how they’re made, it’s like where sausage comes from,” Higgins O’Connor said.

She began working on her installation in August at her studio in Sacramento. In late December, she loaded all of her pieces, none of which had been completely assembled yet, in a truck to bring to Seattle. In the final three weeks before the exhibition opened on Jan. 19, Higgins O’Connor completed her work by attaching all the pieces together.

Before artists can show at Suyama Space, a Belltown gallery connected to Suyama Peterson Deguchi’s architectural office, they are required to spend time in the gallery to compose work that responds to the site. Curator Beth Sellars considers the space, which emphasizes natural materials with wood panel floors, concrete walls and high, open, exposed-beam ceiling, “a laboratory” for artists to try new ideas. However, that laboratory can result in failed experiments for artists who aren’t prepared to handle the space’s intimidating nature.

“We don’t allow artists to bring in pre-existing work,” Sellars said. “There are a lot of reasons, but our primary reason is that the space itself is really overbearing and powerful. If the artist does not acknowledge the architecture and the space, it’ll just get eaten alive.”

Higgins O’Connor used the space to create her largest work ever, with some of the animalistic creatures standing as high as 10 feet tall.