By Jeff Bunch ’88
Ellen Picken has always loved open spaces. So, it’s not surprising that for a decade of her adult life she thrived in a remote portion of northeastern Washington.
Now, the emerging artist and EWU alumna (’03 BFA Art) is using the skills and life lessons gained from her rural apprenticeship to master her work in urban environments.
“Space is very important to me. I think that’s why I like architecture. I respond very strongly to space,” Picken said, who works in a variety of mediums. “I think my psychological state (and creativity) has to do with how my body feels physically.”
Picken says different spaces, colors and sounds trigger varying stimuli – ones that vary greatly depending on the intended setting for her art. If a work is displayed in a crowded or noisy locale, she builds space into the piece; the format of a painting depends on whether it will be experienced in a public gallery or a private residence.
In the past two years, Picken has excelled at a pair of mural projects – a challenging medium that requires a unique artistic approach. In creating one of those, a mural for the Sorrento Hotel garage in Seattle over this summer, Picken had to envision multiple perspectives from which her work would be viewed. It was important that the work resonated with all of those who would view it, not just herself.
“There are many voices that aren’t heard – and art is one way to express a personal experience – but not on a wall,” Picken said.
The project was a watershed for her career. It was awarded to her as part of an open competition as she was experiencing another professional high. Picken became program manager for the Spokane Arts Commission this summer. That means she will help to influence public art projects and programs in her hometown.
Like many artists, the backstory of Picken’s life is meandering, yet intentional. When Picken arrived on the Cheney campus more than a decade ago, she wasn’t looking to become an artist. Instead, art found her and it has never let go.
When she made her way to the art program, she found a mentor in Professor Tom Askman, who provided a foundation for her life and career. In a twist of fate, it turns out Askman had years before reviewed Picken’s artwork among a group of sixth graders and had written a note stating that he hoped to teach her one day.
“He was old school about getting to know yourself first; a lot of introspection was important in his way of teaching. When you make something, you need to reflect on it,” said Picken. “There was a lot of self-reflection that he asked of his students. The department overall was very conceptually based. They tried to push the students stronger in their ideas, rather than their technical skills.”
Picken, always intellectually curious, responded well to the approach. Her experience at EWU made her think a lot about where she was in life and where she wanted to go.
She has since lived with purpose, working with a local conservation group, before moving to rural Ferry County, Washington, for a decade where she was able to spend a lot of time experiencing the outdoors, doing nonprofit work, and holding a job as a mail carrier. She subsequently lived with a group of nuns in Idaho.
Those experiences were liberating for her, as she didn’t feel pressure to produce art, and instead, focused on her journey, as well as those of others.
“I didn’t have to keep up with anyone else. It allowed me to enjoy the process and not worry about the outcome,” said Picken, who has been the recipient of several grants and fellowships, including a 2013 Vermont Studio Center residency.
Picken moved back to Spokane and re-enrolled at EWU in the visual communication design program, learning graphic design to complement her skill set. Now she is fully emerged in the process of art, which involves placing oneself out there physically and emotionally. It’s clear that she’s comfortable in her skin.
“I think, as far as artwork goes, you have to have empathy for yourself. Just be nice to yourself; that way you can be nice to other people,” said Picken. “You have to trust yourself. That’s definitely important for me to make artwork.”
Picken says she still recalls the advice in a Joseph Campbell book that Askman encouraged her to read at EWU in which Campbell advises readers to “follow their bliss” without fear. It’s what Picken has always done and it’s working.
“When you let things flow naturally, they fall into place,” she said with a smile. “No matter what you do, it’s always going to be a struggle so you might as well enjoy the struggle.”
EWU alumna Valerie Nafé ’91 is a study in resiliency and the pursuit of professional conviction.
Growing up in a challenging environment in Southern California, Nafé’s neighborhood library was a place of refuge and exploration. She lived in Oceanside, California, but her life wasn’t reflective of the affluence that was prevalent throughout much of the greater San Diego area.
It was that in-the-shadows experience that eventually led Nafé to pursue a social work degree at Eastern. It was also part of the motivation that led her to a career protecting society’s most vulnerable people as an investigator for the State of Washington.
Nafé now finds herself pursuing those same ideals in a completely unexpected way: unforeseen, yet right in line with her character.
Nafé is the founding executive director of the new Spark Center in downtown Spokane’s Kendall Yards neighborhood. The multi-use neighborhood, situated along the north bank of the Spokane River, is a combination of retail, residential and public spaces.
The setting of the upscale development – which has been in the works for years – is a contrast not unlike that of San Diego County where Nafé grew up. Kendall Yards is adjacent to one of the most economically challenged neighborhoods in the city, West Central, something that is front-of-mind for Nafé.
The disparity is something that was evident right away to Nafé when she began working for developer Jim Frank as a consultant on the project. Frank wanted to make the best use of a pair of retail spots in the core of the neighborhood that would be funded by his foundation. Nafé was convinced that an innovative community center was the answer.
Her recommendation gave rise to a vision of what is now the Spark Center, a multifaceted cultural center that is also home to INK, a nonprofit arts organization co-founded by EWU alum Jess Walter ’87. Both organizations hosted open houses in August, and the space is already bustling.
In its infancy, Spark seems to be filling the role Nafé describes, “A modern, urban library of the future – where libraries are small, vibrant community gathering places, accessible – an integral piece of the community fabric.”
Nafé is herself filling many roles on a daily basis, from the most mundane to the most visionary. It is a big lifestyle change for Nafé, who is wrapping up a career of helping to prosecute bad actors even as she begins a new one.
“It wasn’t one moment, but a series of moments,” Nafé said. “I was very vested in what I did and enjoyed what I was doing. It just felt like the right timing.”
Her busy lifestyle and professional background led her to vet the Kendall Yards project and interview Frank. She not only found a home in the community but also a consulting gig, which later led to a permanent role for her in the fledgling community.
“The first thing I did (as a consultant) was put on my boots and walk the neighborhood,” said Nafé, who talked with a variety of community leaders as she verified that needs exist on many levels in West Central. Since the neighborhood is already served by a longtime community center and other state and local entities, she spent more time doing outreach and building partnerships to help those in the neighborhood.
“I have a passion for that; I grew up underserved for resources,” said Nafé.
It’s a calling that continued to her days at Eastern, studying in the social work program, where she learned the value of “making a difference.” She first worked in skilled nursing care, then on the front line of the mental health system seeing “eye-opening stuff,” before eventually moving into a role as a regulator in the nursing care field.
Nafé eventually found her calling as an investigator and quasi-prosecutor of those who take advantage of vulnerable adults. “I absolutely loved it … just something about it, a strong sense of justice and truth-telling,” she said.
Yet as she left the comfortable long-term security of state employment to start up an entity with a strong mission but no clear path to sustainability, she was undaunted.
“Life is too short for fear, except for roller coasters and parachutes – I’m afraid of both,” says Nafé, who instead enjoys riding motorcycles, paddle boarding, walking, gardening and reading in her spare time.
She loves being a part of the neighborhood and is enjoying the career change, as her prior work definitely took a toll. She says it’s nice to “do something happy” while making a positive impact. While she personally understands the journey of the disadvantaged, she also wants to make sure that her efforts give everyone an equal opportunity.
The holistic centerpiece of Spark is a “human library,” based on the concept that all people are living resources with “rich histories and passions waiting to be shared.” The role of Spark is to “connect those people and share the wealth of their collective gifts.”
“Nothing really exists like it in the United States,” Nafé points out. It’s the type of mission Nafé has always taken on – pursuing her passions while bringing others along.