To know what matters to a region’s people is to know that region’s art.
How does one get to know a place—a neighborhood, city or region? One might explore local restaurants, understanding the region’s culinary leanings. Visits to the parks that comprise a city’s green space (or lack thereof) could give a sense of place, to be sure. Understanding the businesses that contribute to local commerce could be helpful, and certainly a survey of churches, temples, and mosques (or, again, lack thereof) would inform the theology of a region. Yet of all of the ways one could go about getting to know a place, it is the exploration of a region’s arts scene, from performing to visual arts, that reflect most comprehensively the priorities, sensibilities, history, and theology of a place. As famed woodcutter Paul Marcus once remarked, art is “the consciousness of the people.” To know what matters to a region’s people is to know that region’s art.
When I moved to Seattle in 2011, I knew only a few of the spaces that make up Rain City’s abounding arts scene: the SAM (Seattle Art Museum), as well as a few theaters (ACT, Fifth Ave, Taproot) and music venues (Town Hall, where I saw Mark Kozelek during a visit to Seattle in 2010, the Fremont Abbey, where I saw a wonderful multi-arts event featuring Karin Stevens Dance in 2011, and Benaroya Hall, where I saw Over The Rhine). But one of the greatest joys of living here these past two-and-a-half years has been discovering the lesser-known pockets of creative arts that give Seattle its well-deserved reputation for being one of the most creative cities in the nation.
Here are six of my current favorite, lesser-known places for encountering art in Seattle. As I consider each of the artists and works mentioned, I am mindful of what each part tells me about the whole of Seattle. What does this work say about what matters to Seattlites?
The Cristy Carner Salon and Spa (Fremont)
Creativity and appreciation for the arts flood this city, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Creativity and appreciation for the arts flood this city, often in the unlikeliest of places. Case in point: a recent visit to the Cristy Carner Salon and Spa for a much-needed pre-vacation haircut placed me in the midst of an exquisite exhibition of art by Jeni Nelson, a woman I had met a few months earlier at a Friday morning coffee shop gathering for creative artists interested in faith and spirituality. Her work, mixed-media incorporating any combination of acrylic paint, pencil, blueberry pigment, wood, lace, shells, pages from a French dictionary, feathers, and a variety of other items, offers a soft and soothing aesthetic that reflects an appreciation for nature and lends itself to lingering contemplation, without which, one might miss the fine details of doves flying up the side of the canvas, and because of which, one might be late for her hair appointment.
The Cristy Carner Salon and Spa is part of the Fremont Art Walk, which takes place on the first Friday of each month. Jeni Nelson’s (very affordable) art is available through her web site.
Dubsea Coffee (White Center)
A coffee shop that features local art is nothing remarkable. In fact, it’s rare not to see art exhibited in locally-owned-and-operated coffee shops. However, few do as good a job as Sibelle Nguyen, owner of Dubsea Coffee in White Center’s Greenbridge neighborhood, at organizing, celebrating, and featuring local art.
I have been a patron of this beloved third space in South Seattle for over two years, and in that time, I have come to expect great things whenever I enter the doors. It was at Dubsea that I first discovered two artists whose work is now part of my private collection. Brandon Baker (a.k.a. Narboo) is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer who had a solo exhibition at Dubsea in 2012. His work, which is at times whimsical and at times poignant, is inspired in equal parts by the city and by nature, and he is, quite possibly, the most prolific artist I know west of the Mississippi. Sarah Browning also had a solo exhibit at Dubsea in 2012. Her delicate cut-paper works are what I first fell in love with, but her body of work also includes acrylics, watercolors, and mixed-media. Like Baker, Browning’s work is heavily inspired by nature. However, the two artists are aesthetically like night and day.
Indeed, Dubsea features work by a wide variety of artists. To stay informed about current exhibitions, follow them on Facebook or just stop by their beautiful gallery on 8th Avenue SW in White Center.
The LINK Mural (White Center)
Seattle was one of the first cities in the United States to adopt a percent-for-art ordinance in 1973. This means that the city government “accepts a responsibility for expanding public experience with visual art.” The goal of this ordinance is that people in all societies will better understand their communities and individual lives. “Artists capable of creating art for public places must be encouraged and Seattle’s standing as a regional leader in public art enhanced. A policy is therefore established to direct the inclusion of works of art in public works of the City,” says Seattle’s Office of Art and Culture.
That’s not to say that all public art is sponsored by the government. However, it speaks volumes about the city when the important role of art in culture care is recognized. Some of my favorite public artworks include the Fremont Troll, located under the Fremont Bridge, and the iconic Typewriter Eraser, Scale X in SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Both of these works scream “SEATTLE!” to me whenever I see them, as they are such familiar components of Seattle’s urban landscape.
However, my favorite new public artwork is a mural on the side of a building located on 16th Ave SW just north of Roxbury Street in White Center. The mural, created in April 2013 by volunteer professional artists and students from the AIGA LINK Program, is part stained-glass window, part Banksy in its inspiration, capturing the heart and soul of both the LINK program, which connects Seattle area high school students with creative professionals through nine monthly workshops, and the community of White Center. While few people who live outside of White Center will have occasion to pass by the mural, I highly recommend making White Center a destination on a Saturday afternoon, visiting the LINK Mural before heading over to Hung Long Deli & Pho for lunch and then to Dubsea Coffee for a cup of Stumptown and more art viewing.
Some of the best art in Seattle is, unfortunately, quite expensive to see: it requires a boarding pass. Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport is home to over one hundred works of art representing fifty-nine regional and international artists. While in my frequent travels I have come to know and love several of the pieces in the airport, it is the Flying Fish installation by Judith Caldwell and Daniel Caldwell that is, by far, my favorite.
Anyone traveling through Concourse B will pass by the Flying Fish, but if they don’t know to look down, they might miss it. Flying Fish is a stream of 347 cast bronze fish traveling 850 feet down Concourse B in the form of a terrazzo stream embedded in the floor. I walked over it many times, rushing to make various flights, before one day noticing a bronze fish, then another, then another. As I stopped to take a photo of one of the fish, I realized that they were swimming in a long river of tile, and as I waited patiently for swarms of people to pass by so I could get a picture of a longer section of the stream, a fellow traveler pointed out that one of the “fish” is, in fact, a fish-airplane (a nod, no doubt, to Boeing, which makes its home in Seattle). Together we searched the stream until we found the flying fish, and I instagrammed a photo of it.
West Seattle Bridge (Westbound)
One of the things I love about certain kinds of public art is that local residents often embrace it as their own, adding personalized flair and contributing a sense of “aliveness” to the work. Nowhere is this more evident than with “Walking on Logs,” an outdoor installation of four bronze sculptures of people, well, walking on logs. The sculptures, by artist Phillip Levine, are located off of the West Seattle Freeway, visible from the bridge to westbound traffic.
The statues themselves are wonderfully animated, depicting children in various frolicsome poses. However, it is the occasional clothing these statues are dressed in that give additional local flair. Every couple of weeks, it seems, a new cause is being promoted in the form of tee-shirts and signs adorning the “Walking on Logs” statues. I have seen the statues dressed to promote diaper drives, advertise Girl Scout cookies, protest school closures, and announce political campaigns. (Anyone wishing to dress the statues must request permission from the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce.)
What Matters, Then?
As I consider these examples of art in Seattle, three themes emerge: nature, urbanity, and the voice of the people. The apostle Paul wrote in the first chapter of Romans that God’s invisible attributes, namely, God’s eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. In Seattle, one can simply look to the horizon in any direction to see the attributes of God reflected in the natural beauty of Mt. Rainier, the Cascades, Lake Washington or Puget Sound. Yet Seattle, the city, is also a concrete jungle whose buildings and neighborhoods, though framed by natural beauty, face growing population density and all of the challenges of a place comprised of people from every tribe and tongue.
Might their hopeful message also be prophetic for that community?
Seattle’s artists are responding to this juxtaposition, from Narboo’s playful characters appearing as guerilla dumpster art to the shells and feathers on Jeni Nelson’s canvases hung in an upscale beauty salon. Pilgrims making their way through Sea-Tac literally walk over a terrazzo stream in which bronze fish “swim” underfoot. Could it be that, for the person with eyes to see, God’s eternal power and divine nature are displayed in the floor of Concourse B? Figures frozen in jubilant play just off the West Seattle Bridge are heralds of community concerns. Might the messages of the log-walkers inform the Church on how to respond to the felt needs in their community? The mural on 16th Avenue in White Center is reminiscent of a cathedral’s stained glass window, framing words chosen by a handful of Seattle teenagers and adults—including “life,” “love,” “healing,” and “joy.” Might their hopeful message also be prophetic for that community?
Christ & Cascadia
What does all of this have to do with a theology magazine rooted in the Northwest? I believe that it is impossible to know a region without knowing that region’s art. As we launch Christ & Cascadia, we do so with the commitment to feature regional art in every issue. It is my pleasure to serve as the arts editor for this endeavor, and my goal will be to offer one (as opposed to “the”) perspective on the Northwest region’s rich and vibrant arts scene, in order to help readers better understand the priorities, sensibilities, history, and theology of the place I lovingly call home.