Somewhere down in the dust of the Pike Place Market, far below the flying fish and the labyrinth of collectibles, there is a long hallway of locked doors where few ever venture. Behind one of them, artist Judith Larsen stands in her studio talking about a new series of paintings she has started.
Each small block of canvas hanging on her wall is an impressionistic snapshot of women journalists Larsen calls martyrs: Russia's Vladimir Putin had reporters Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova killed, Larsen says of two portraits. Extremists gunned down Iraq's Sahar al-Haydari and, in Afghanistan, Shaima Rezayee was shot after working for an MTV-like program.
On an easel nearby stands a painting of a young woman in glasses with long blond hair. It is a self-portrait that Larsen, 49, did the year she came to the Market's Fairley Building Artists Studios -- a move that wasn't easy. She had to compete for the space by submitting work to the city, county and state arts commissions, and the move itself -- up a flight of stairs off 1514 Western Ave. -- was a major struggle. At the time, Larsen was very large with child.
That was in 1979, the year the artists studios opened. Thirty years later, the move out is going to be even harder for Larsen and the building's four remaining artists, who have to go by the end of May. One of the outcomes of the $73 million Pike Place Market renovation that voters approved last fall is that the Market is gutting the Fairley's artist-designated live/work studios to create a new space for its cramped day care.
With the studios will go a long history of Seattle theater, dance and visual artists -- a little creative collective that the Market was once committed to fostering and will again, says its asset management and development director, John Turnbull, but probably not in a concentration of low-rent industrial spaces like the ones overlooking Western Avenue.
Larsen is the last of the original five artists who moved in, with many more in between, some in another wing of studios that opened and closed years ago. She pays $575 for a 500 square foot non-live-in space (no bathroom) that she's decorated in upside down parasols. The space is neatly divided into Larsen's paintings on one side and, on the other, a makeshift living room strewn with guitars belonging to her son, Omar Torrez, a composer who has used the studio to jam with many musicians.
"The best times I remember were when Omar would be here with one of his friends jamming," Larsen says. "I'd be over there painting and we'd be ignoring each other and yet it was just magical... like this dual-purpose room that just rocked with creativity."
In the early days, there was more camaraderie, Larsen says, because the artists all knew each other -- something that changed when the Market stopped renting to artists about a decade ago, she says. Two of the original residents were Bathhouse Theatre co-founder Mary-Claire Burke and Gary Kennedy, a bronze sculptor and neon sign maker. In the late '80s, Burke ceded her spot to aerial choreography pioneer Robert Davidson, who often worked on his trapezes in the hall late at night. Next to him was Bill Ontiveros, co-founder of the Pioneer Square Theater.
"There were many good things about living there, but primarily the cost," says Davidson, now head of movement at the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver. At a time in his life when he had almost no resources, he says, "it afforded me the chance to develop my own dance companies and had long hallways where I could make the ropes."
Paul Conrad, a painter and art teacher who moved in two years after Larsen and now lives in a ground-floor artist space a few doors up Western, says the low rent has helped him hang on in Seattle, but living in the Market is his inspiration.
"Waking up in the morning is poetry," says Conrad, dabbing glaze on tiles that he's laying out on the sidewalk to dry. "You can see what Seattle is every day: the water, the sky, small businesses, people coming and making it happen for the first time. I thrive on that."
Conrad is lucky. He's found out he won't have to move after getting an eviction notice. But just below him, a construction fence is going up April 23 in front of the door at 1514 Western, Turnbull says, as the Market prepares to renovate its electrical and plumbing systems. Turnbull's staff is working with the artists to find other places in the Market, which is promising to pay their moving costs and the difference between their old and new rent for up to 42 months or a total of $5,250, whichever comes first.
But that can't compensate for what they're losing, say artists Bonnie Braley and Akiva Segan. Both say they were on a waiting list for 10 years before getting one of the spaces in the early '90s, with Segan, whose drawings and mixed-media mosaics focus on the Holocaust, saying he's packed 120 cartons and is only a third done. "It's pretty traumatic after 19 years," he says.
Segan is hoping an artists building he's applied to outside the Market will accept him. If not, he says he doesn'tknow what he'll do -- nothing he's seen in the Market will work and many landlords won't rent to artists, he says. Braley, an assemblage artist and interior designer, is taking a studio apartment in the Market at First Ave. and Virginia St. above the Virginia Inn, but it's a third smaller, she says, and costs about $200 more than the $625 she pays today.
For her part, Larsen is trying to turn the loss of her studio into a positive.
"I'm so sorry to lose it because finally it was my turn," Larsen says. "I had finished mothering. I had buried my mother. And just when I started my series, they pulled the rug out from under me."
"But this inspires me not to take this place for granted, to set up temporarily in a new place and get involved" with the Market, she says, to "re-create a space to encourage the arts."