When Karen Bubb hatched the "Send Bubb to China" plan in 2004, she had no idea what the result would be. Given the opportunity to join a cultural delegation for a two-week trip through China, Bubb needed to raise the funds to get there. She and her friend Eve-Marie Bergren came up with the idea to sell "shares" in the trip for $32 each. In exchange for their investment, shareholders would receive three things: a hand-printed stock certificate on rice paper, a handmade-collage postcard written and sent by Bubb during her travels and an original artwork that Bubb would create when she returned. "The idea was that you would have something from before, during and after the trip," explains Bubb. She put the word out and waited.
"There was a phenomenal show of support," says Bubb, who is an artist as well as the public arts manager of the City of Boise Arts Commission. She needed 100 supporters to fund her trip to China; she received contributions totaling over 225 shares. With the surplus money she received, she did what any good artist would do: She invested in two really good cameras and sound recording equipment to collect images of her trip. These images then became part of the promised "body of work" that she created on her return. "I really wanted this to be an authentic response to the experience of place," explains Bubb. "I was documenting the trip almost in a journalistic sense. It was a very different experience than if I had gone as an individual with my own money. This was publicly supported, so I analyzed it visually in a different way. The resulting artwork has become my story passed back to all the people who helped me go."
Bubb has already made good on the first two components of the return for her shareholders. Each received a stock certificate before she left and a postcard mailed from China. One of her favorite memories is of going to the post office with her translator and requesting 225 stamps for her shareholders' postcards. "I wanted people to share in the experience as much as they could," says Bubb. "It was important to me to pull out the experiences and the emotions of every part of the trip."
With an eye toward the final, culminating project of her experience, Bubb collected everyday things she came across. These items were not your typical tourist gifts but a vast array of things that represented the journey, down to the tiniest detail. "She had us all collecting what, to most of us, would be garbage," says fellow traveler Barbara Courtney, executive/artistic director of the Orcas Center. "She was an intrepid shopper, coming back onto the bus with curious little objects that I never would have guessed would have a use or appeal. Going to the flea market with her was a gas." A sampling of what she brought back includes coins, stamps, "handicraft" paper cut-outs, chopstick wrappers, trinkets, game pieces, menus, receipts for money exchange, beer labels, cigarette packages, bags for sterilized glasses, hotel stationery, rubbings of graffiti, beans, tea leaves, charms, programs from cultural events, wrappings from airplane meals and keys. Her collection of ephemera has become the basis for a new body of work.
Bubb was committed to documenting her journey for the people who made it possible for her to go. "Part of this process made me more observant," she says. "I became the sort of unofficial artist-in-residence of the group. I was shooting slides and taking digital pictures. I was also recording sounds and constantly gathering items and documenting everything I could. It was important that I could communicate to each of my sponsors a glimpse into my journey."
"Having an artist in the delegation definitely influenced our experiences," says tour leader Kris Tucker, executive director of the Washington State Arts Commission and former Boise Weekly arts editor. "She saw things that we didn't notice or that we would have passed by. She had a creative obligation that the rest of the group did not. We could defer to words to explain our adventures, and Karen was not bound to that."
It has taken some time for Bubb to complete the process. "I did about 30 pieces right when I got back," says Bubb, "and then I took a two-and-a-half year break. I needed some time after my return to be able to let go." Last summer, Bubb started the final phase of what has become the largest body of work she has yet created. "It got to the point where I needed to get it out," she says. "The push was to fulfill my obligation to my shareholders, but it was also important that the work be good enough to stand on its own, both as individual pieces and hanging together as a body of work. I really took heart from the people who sent me on this trip. I wanted to match the heart that they had shown to me, and to make sure that they feel their piece makes them a part of this whole experience."
The pieces, which number over 250, are 5-1/2-by-6-inch encaustic paintings on wood. Each is the exact size of a piece of joss paper, the currency of the spirit world that is traditionally burned as an offering to the dead. Bubb's offerings have been created as gestures of gratitude to the people that made this trip possible. "This series is defined by the dimensions of the pieces and Karen's perspectives about our trip," says Tucker, "but each piece offers a unique perspective." The works are startling in their variety, yet somehow cohesive when taken overall. "There is a narrative of the pieces that, viewed together, tell the story," says Bubb, "but I also focused on the minutiae, so that each stands alone."
The works can be divided into subgroups based on subject matter, such as the "Objects and Specimens" series that uses beans and tea leaves to re-create patterns and designs that Bubb found in the architecture, or the "Shiny Pretty Things" that uses her favorite trinkets, becoming tributes to the treasures. She also has groupings that are based on process: some using collage and some demonstrating a technique that uses the slides she took, creating painterly images from details of the larger image. "The whole body of work is an expression of gratitude for people's faith in me, and about sharing my experience with those who supported me," says Bubb. "As a community, I think that it speaks very highly of Boise."
Bubb's work will be displayed in its entirety as "Reflections of China," a show at the Stewart Gallery that runs February 10-18. There will be a closing reception on Feb. 18 from 1-4 p.m. that coincides with the Chinese new year. A selection of pieces will be for sale, but the majority will be available for the shareholders to select as the completion of the shareholder agreement. Once the show comes down, the works will be dispersed to those who supported Bubb in her endeavor. "The patrons are going to be pleasantly surprised," says Stephanie Wilde of the Stewart Gallery. "The pieces are well worth the wait."
"It's really a gift," says Bubb. "First from them to me, and now from me to them."
"Reflections of China," Feb. 10-18, Stewart Gallery, open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 2212 W. Main St., 208-433-0593, www.stewartgallery.com.