Diane Culhane, on Creating


Believe, 24"x24" , Acrylic on Canvas

Believe, 24″x24″ , Acrylic on Canvas

Diane Culhane is an internationally acclaimed professional artist and art educator who lives in West Seattle. She was recently featured as one of the “hottest artists in Ballard” in the Delta Sky Magazine’s May-June 2013 issue that focused on Seattle as a destination. (Note:  The article is written in Japanese.) http://www.deltasky.jp/travel/201305_1.html

One glorious afternoon last year, I found Diane online and immediately phoned to see if she would be interested in doing a piece for the book, 26 Love Letters. She was very interested and I made a point to see where she would be showing her work so I could meet her in person. I found her at Mary Lou Zeek Gallery in Salem, Oregon where she is a featured artist, at the 2012 Salem Art Festival and most recently at her studio in Building C in the thriving Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.

I drove past the old storefront in Ballard at least three times before I realized that yes, this well-worn building was the one. I phoned and Diane said she would be right down to get me. Not wanting to miss her, I walked to a place where I could simultaneously see two of the entryways and waited for her to open one of the doors. During our interview I would be watching closely for another kind of door to open- one that would lead to a pathway so I could follow Diane into her world.

Table Top I Orange Meets Blue

One of 4 paintings commissioned for Bham Cancer Center in Bellingham, Table Top I Orange Meets Blue, 20″x16″ , Acrylics on Canvas

When I first saw Diane’s effervescent paintings I felt that I was seeing a synthesis of Paul Klee meets Marc Chagall. In addition to the playful and often bright palette, there are symbols that emerge and re-emerge throughout her work including flying people, villages on clouds, forests of flowers, a menagerie of mythical and lively animals, bicycles and wagons, full moons and lovers. The dialogues are intimate and precious, deeply personal and yet primal in the way that they touch the viewer deeply. I was drawn to know more about how Diane sees the world and what drives her to create.

As we walked up the stairs to her studio, she introduced me to the work of the various artists who share the loft where she paints.  The old building is divided into 28 separate private areas.  Having seen the panoramic video of her studio on her website, I was expecting a large sun-filled space. When we walked through a door and turned right to go to a smaller area, I was a bit surprised. This, I learned, was a portion of the once “ building-length” studio- now truncated out of necessity but still vibrant- filled with paintings as large as doors and as small as cocktail napkins- in various stages from just begun to sold;  clippings, drawings and color palettes. Two tables, a sofa, and three beautifully hand-painted chairs beckoned to us.  From this vantage point, Diane’s studio looks both loved and worked in and is filled with the energy that is uniquely her own.  For Diane this place is sanctuary and sacred space. Having a place of one’s own to create and to stop time- that is the priority.

Three Boats
Three Boats, 14 x14″, Acrylics on Canvas

“Time”, Diane explained, “is a precious commodity and can be perceived in many ways.  Einstein’s Dreams,  by Alan Lightman, is a small book about time I used to read to my students. In it, he describes different kinds of time. For example, there’s Studio Time which is when you are working.  Then there’s Clock Time that everybody uses as a coordinating thing so you know you have a deadline. Clock Time is external because creativity comes from inside, not from external forces. Even though in the world you gather information and synthesize it, when you are in the studio you set that information aside and instead of having to focus on that one thing you need to get done, you allow yourself to work in a series- to go where your joy leads you.  This is how I work.”

“I like to work in silence without music, because that’s how I find space. Songs have a beginning and an ending and can define time but I find when I work in the quiet I can begin early in the day and suddenly it’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I haven’t even finished my morning coffee!”

Diane Culhane Quote 1As I watch and listen to her I come to realize that Diane is one of the most enigmatic and unique people I have ever met. She actually lives and breathes art. It’s as though she is her creations- and they are her. My sense is that she simply could not live without spending hours per week in her studio, creating, and thereby manipulating, her day-to-day reality. As if by painting, she molds her universe to reflect her personal vision of the world and she is perfectly happy to live there- rather than here, with ordinary people. Deeply spiritual, her paintings are devotional- many of them prayers on canvas. It’s impossible not to be moved by her work.

“Art comes from a quiet place within yourself.  In your studio you are alone and you are communicating with yourself- dialoguing between that place of speech and silence. It comes from emotion, I think. You are doing and you are watching at the same time and as long as you don’t tell yourself that you ‘like it or you don’t like it’- you don’t set that standard for yourself-  you delight in watching the colors go on the page and see what comes from that conversation that you are having with yourself.”

Small Plates III

Small Plates III, 7 x 7″, Acrylics on Canvas

“If you can just flip that switch and follow your heart, really, that’s the thing. Then later go in and evaluate what you’ve created- not in the benchmark of like or dislike but using the elements of good design to constructively see what you’ve done. And I try not to judge too harshly. Judgment can be influenced by so many things- Maybe you’re tired.  I always joke around that maybe I need to go get a donut or some honey water so that I can ‘see’ better what I’ve done. But a little sugar can sometimes just put you in a better place because then you’re ‘filled; filling comes too in the delight in seeing what you are doing. That’s the sweet spot.”
Diane Culhane Quote 2

“I don’t always find that at the beginning. It usually happens toward the end of the painting when everything starts to come together. When I first start a painting, everything goes really fast because it’s not permanent- everything’s layers and as they build, things start to happen. As I get closer to finished it’s like it all comes into focus and I go over the trees, over the bumps and whoosh! It’s done!”

“And that’s the whole thing: Trust it. Trust it. Trust it. Creativity is not something that goes away. It’s not something you lose. It’s not something you gain by merit because you have a measure of success in your head. It’s the gift of delight.”

 As we walk around the room I ask Diane about the symbolism in her work and I ask her if there is a story for each painting. “ I started writing poetry for a while because it all comes from this group of stuff.  It’s almost as though you could put it in a basket.  For me it just has to do with living everyday life.  I want it to be familiar yet somehow I want to present it with a freshness that on our grey days we miss- but we know it’s still there. I think it’s the artists’ job to present something that hasn’t been seen in a general mode.” 

From the painting "Believe II, 36"x48" Acrylic on Canvas

From the painting, Believe II, 36″x48″ Acrylic on Canvas

“The human figure creates a dialogue and that dialogue creates the narrative for each painting. To do a painting without a figure is really hard for me.   But what’s really fun is getting to manipulate reality on a flat surface and create something that is uplifting and life-giving with bright colors that pushes away the greyness.

I can’t imagine running out of images or ever being bored with this work”.




For more information about Diane, her classes and where to see her work:

Kelsey Creek Art School

Go Go with Van Gogh Class


 Go Go Van Gogh at Kelsey Creek Farm
It’s not too late to register your 6-11 year old for the best summer camp ever!  Diane has been teaching at Kelsey Creek Farm since 1984. Originally she was the ceramics studio director and teacher. That work morphed into Art Camp in 1992. Says Diane, “I do it because I have kids from 9:30-3:00 every day and there is enough time for studio time plus there’s farm time too and that outdoor connection! When I taught in the school district it was only 1 hour and every hour on the hour, which is just not enough time for kids to be creative. But now I do Art Camp and I love it!”


ArtEast Workshop
For students aged 16 years and up. June 8th or June 9th  10-3:00 in Issaquah, Washington

One on One Classes with Diane
For more information please contact her directly at diane@dianeculhaneart.com

The Art of Silliness
This is the website of friend and fellow artist and educator, Carla Sondheim. Watch for Diane’s class sometime in July. Classes will be under ArtCamp 2013.

Open Studio: Building C
Meet Diane in her studio during Open Studio: Building C, http://www.buildingc.com/
Every second Saturday 6-9pm , 1418 14th Ave NW, Ballard, WA
Coming this week!  Ballard Art Walk and Open Studio: Saturday, June 8th — 6 to 9 PM

Diane Culhane at Mary Lou Zeek Gallery
Coming in October 2013, a Gallery Show at Mary Lou Zeek in Salem, Oregon http://www.zeekgallery.com/

Read more about Diane and her work online at her website:http://www.dianeculhaneart.com/  and visit her etsy site to own a piece of magic yourself:  http://www.etsy.com/shop/DianeCulhaneArt?ref=ss_profile

2 thoughts on “Diane Culhane, on Creating

  1. Jan Snyder

    Diane – I bought a painting from you in Austin many years ago and I placed it in my kitchen where I can see it every day! I just renovated the back of my home and was wanting to know if your going to be in the Texas area any time soon. I looked on your website and didn’t see any way to purchase any of your paintings on line. Thank you

  2. Pingback: Preview: Summer Online Art Camp |

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