(Published in the PacificNW Magazine of the Seattle Times on July 19, 2020)
THE BACKSTORY: Chronicling the bright art of a dark, coronaviral time
By Jean Sherrard
(click to enlarge photos)
In the last week of March, witnessing the suddenly quiescent streets of Seattle, I assigned myself the task of documenting the changes that were sure to follow. All but “essential” businesses and services had been closed, and my near-deserted hometown carried more than a whiff of post-apocalyptic sulfur.
In the Pike Place Market, owners of restaurants and many dozens of shops had closed until further notice, leaving behind lonely, “essential” islands of grocers, produce and fish shops. Usually chockablock with artisanal crafts and flowers, the market’s long tables were abandoned. A place that for me represents the beating heart of Seattle had suffered near-cardiac arrest.
Yet this was not my first pandemic rodeo. In August 1976, I took a gap year from college and volunteered halfway around the world as an aid worker in South Sudan during the world’s first recorded encounter with the Ebola virus. After months of quarantine, the outbreak abated, and I could travel home to immensely relieved parents.
By comparison, while it bears a lower mortality rate, COVID-19 nevertheless has proven significantly more infectious, casting a planet-wide shadow for the foreseeable future.
In these uniquely dark times, however, my daily contact with works of art-in-progress provided me a palpable sense of hope, and I wasn’t alone. Many artists noted the warm reception from passersby as they worked. “So much gratitude,” marveled Katlyn Hubner, whose “Pup Pack” can be found just below. What’s more, the murals, interactive by nature, encouraged the recording of thousands of selfies.
No sooner had pandemic restrictions begun to ease than Black Lives Matter protests began, resulting in a vibrant new crop of political art, wielding its own set of fiery messages that demanded change. While this magazine’s deadlines limited me to chronicling art of the pandemic, the bare plywood installed more recently on the streets of downtown and Capitol Hill has opened up new vistas.
For those who seek an encyclopedic overview of the murals, local press Chatwin Books plans to publish a full-color book featuring more than 140 artworks from all over town, for which artists supplied their own photos. For more info, visit www.chatwinbooks.com.
THE MAIN STORY: Artists fill the bleak streets of our locked-down city with color and life
In many ways, it looked to be a spartan spring.
Throughout Seattle’s now-deserted commercial districts – including Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, Belltown and Ballard – shop and restaurant owners shuttered their plate-glass windows and doors with protective plywood panels following Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 23 “Stay Home Stay Healthy” order to slow the coronavirus.
There was no telling how long the panels would remain during the pandemic, but once colorful and vibrant streets were left hollowed out and drained of purpose. Raw wood surfaces offered tempting targets for graffiti and taggers. Yet where some saw bleakness, others saw opportunity.
Muralist and sign painter VK recalls the shock of seeing First Avenue south of Yesler after the governor’s order. Within hours, graffiti had materialized haphazardly on the raw wood surfaces. “My first thought,” he says, “was we’ve got to get down there and paint some murals.”
All across Seattle, great minds were thinking alike. Kathleen Warren, artist and director of Overall Creative, working alongside the Alliance for Pioneer Square, the Ballard Alliance, the Broadway Business Improvement Area and the Downtown Seattle Association, put out a call for artists to submit proposals for mural art. The response was huge.
Belltown Pizza owner Doug Lee made a similar plea on Facebook and almost overnight was inundated with offers from more than 200 artists.
Adding to the mix, several business owners independently contracted with muralists to cover plywood with color.
In the weeks to come, murals reimagined and reinvigorated the empty streets. Some works were by established artists, others by street artists who cut their teeth on graffiti.
The response proved as myriad as might be expected from random humans facing times of turmoil. “Art is not about providing answers,” says Wakuda, another muralist, “but asking the right questions.”
Anne Siems, a prominent Northwest artist whose gallery show had just ended in February, had never painted a mural. The large format both intrigued and unnerved her. “Covering an entire wall with art is kind of like a cave painting,” she says. “It has an inherent power that can draw us in with beauty.”
From comfort and comedy to biting commentary and remonstration, the new murals recalled the past, reflected the present and affirmed the future.
As Inslee’s restrictions lift, the murals’ fate is up for grabs. Entering the next phase of pandemic response, many businesses have removed the painted plywood and put the art into storage. Some have postponed removal or incorporated the panels into their businesses. Other murals already have been sold to private collectors.
But the muralists continue to paint the town.
A new wave of political art is on the rise, embracing and illustrating this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. As our city confronts the canvas of an uncertain future, both art and artists will be on hand to help us ask the right questions.
So much remarkable art, so little space. First, heartfelt apologies to those artists whose stunning murals did not appear in the print version of the column. I include a portion of the remarkable artwork spread across town below, divided roughly by location.