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Friday, March 26, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Showing Her Metal -- Artist Meghan Trainor Uses Cans And Other Objects To Give A Shine To Our Hidden Past

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

------------------------------- If you go

"Pugetopolis" opens today, from 6 to 10 p.m., at Roq La Rue Gallery, 2224 Second Ave., Seattle, 206-399-6952. It runs until April 22 and includes Erik-Anthony Harte's photos of historical pinball art. Hours: 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 12 to 4 p.m. Saturday. -------------------------------

Whether she's in Uwajimaya, DeLaurenti or 7-Eleven, few friends like to grocery-shop with artist Meghan Trainor.

Because her work depends on bright, collaged scraps of metal, this 25-year-old is always on the prowl for cans. "When I shop," she says, "I will absolutely take forever. I'm always finding some new product or some amazing typeface."

To illustrate her point, Trainor fishes around on her studio table. Carefully, she uncurls a lethally sharp strip of green tin. "See this one? It was made in Australia. Vodka in a can!"

The artworks Trainor makes from tin are trompe l'oeil constructions that meld found images with cunning facsimiles. The pieces seem to resemble craftworks from the Third World - but closer inspection reveals some extremely cunning tricks. Many of the images Trainor chooses to juxtapose are vintage Northwest photographs. Other patched-in pieces make a commentary on advertising. Still others show Trainor herself, in period costume.

For eight years this artist sold produce at the Pike Place Market. There, flamboyant tins were simply part of the landscape - just like colorful labels on crates or stickers on fruits and vegetables. The brilliant cans always gave Trainor a secret thrill. Yet she never contemplated actually making artworks out of them - until 1992, that is, when epiphany struck.

At the time, Trainor was producing mainly oil paintings. "And I was starting to show in places that wanted to have the work framed." She decided to save some money by doing that work herself. "But I'm the queen of measuring once; I'm not a painstaking craftsman." When she made what seemed to her "the world's ugliest frame," Trainor decided she would camouflage its defects with crazy-quilted tin.

That inspiration did come from the Third World, from the frames and shrines made in Latin America, the tin toys and sculptures created by West Africans. All are resourcefully fashioned from everyday leavings, objects such as beer cans, coffee containers and bottle tops. Trainor loves the multiple meanings these humble objects project: thrift, color, shape, wonder - and unfettered imagination.

But she also felt the aesthetic complemented her own work. For in much of her art, the central subject is local history. A native of the Rainier Valley, Trainor loves to research the past, often for stories that involve the "making do" of frontier life. Equal inspiration comes from the union movement, the struggles of Asian populations and the achievements of black pioneers. "Everybody knows who Arthur Denny is. Why shouldn't they also know about Manuel Lopes? He was one of the first black immigrants who came to Seattle."

Trainor studied political science as well as making art; she is a graduate of Evergreen College in Tacoma. By day she works at Cornish College of the Arts. But her slight frame is a common sight on Capitol Hill. There, in the crowded studio she shares with five other artists, Trainor piles up metal, canvas, sacks of nails and stacks of photos.

There is also another tool: her Apple computer. Technology was a key to her original style. Trainor's early experience making tin-covered frames - which were initially decorative - led to large-scale, customized metalworks. Like the Spanish Colonial artifacts visible across the Southwest, these are created with tin pieces nailed over tin-covered wood. But those Colonial pieces were often devotional. Trainor's works marry the political with the purely aesthetic.

Some of the choices she makes are due to color. In others, "Northwest puns" attract her (such as cutting the word "mountain" out of a Folger's Mountain-Grown Coffee tin). Older images, however, play another role. "Very often they carry a message about what was happening politically.

"It's a weird kind of combination," she admits. "Film and digital scanning let me enter and leave history at will. Then, I can put it together in a nonthreatening way: into this very old, quite respectable-looking artifact."

The process, however, is highly labor-intensive. First Trainor has to settle on her photo images: historical portraits of vanished businesses, people and events. A random work-in-progress pile reveals these choices: the logo of 1909's Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition; a World War II-era street, boarded-up, in the former "Japantown"; workers standing idle during 1919's general strike.

Trainor scans such images into her computer and prints them out to a size that pleases her. Then she makes full-color copies "down the road at Kinko's."

Meanwhile, she starts to deal with giant rolls of Boeing aluminum, power-sanding the glistening surface until the texture roughens. Finally, using "a personal little soup of mediums," Trainor soaks her copies and lays them face-down on the metal. When they dry, she scores the back of every transfer with a razor. Then, with incredible patience, she scrubs slowly over its surface.

"I take off every vestige of the paper with a sponge. It's really painstaking and it's easy to cut your fingers." But when it's done, the image remains, pressed onto metal.

To help the images "blend in," she treats them with Dorland's wax (a product Trainor also uses to waterproof boots in the winter). If she wants to add color, that is done with oil paint. Finally, along with scenes and portraits she has painted on copper, the manufactured images are juxtaposed with the "found" ones. All are hammered in with hundreds of half-inch brad nails, something that - along with tin-cutting - keeps her studio full of Band-Aids.

A totally finished piece is concerned with many degrees of reality. "Some images are very real, highly political things," she says. "Some I generated myself, using Adobe Illustrator. Others are simply commercial logos, advertising."

One work may oscillate between the serious and the decorative. "But again, that relates to my feeling for history. Part of this is my attraction to the kitschy and superficial. But an equal part is about how slippery `history' is."

Trainor calls her new show "Pugetopolis," in honor of that Seattle she is resurrecting. She hopes its subliminal messages will be welcome. "I grew up here and this used to be a radical town. I always wanted to stay and help defend those histories. Not pretend they didn't happen, so the past could be made `nicer.' "

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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