Industrial areas aren’t known for award-winning views, but a public art project is changing the face of a two-mile corridor in SODO. Among the new murals changing the landscape is a wolf frozen in motion with a colossal fireball exploding behind it.
Artists Baso Fibonacci and Jean Nagai collaborated on the piece. “Escaping a Burning Culture” references the impact of rising rents and home prices in Seattle on creative voices. Fibonacci is weighing his options on whether or not to remain in the Emerald City.
“The wolf is running away from Seattle. A lot of artists are leaving the city,” Fibonacci said. “The fire in the background is the culture burning by Amazon and a lot of tech people from out of the city coming in and diluting the culture and making it harder for artists to stay so they leave.”
The back of a building is often a neglected area and for good reason: customers rarely go back there. For businesses along Fifth Avenue South between Royal Brougham Way and South Spokane Street, the rears of their buildings are the perfect blank canvas. Bus and light rail riders traveling through the SODO corridor leading into downtown now have dozens of bright murals to view on their commute as part of a public art project known as “SODO Track.”
The works include a mural dedicated to Standing Rock, a geometric interpretation of the landscape surrounding Mount Rainier and a cheetah formed by curving turquoise lines. Each is distinctive and speaks to the project’s theme of movement and progression.
King County cultural funding agency 4Culture launched “SODO Track” after years of discussion in 2013. They brought on Gage Hamilton, a Portland artist and coorganizer of a nonprofit dedicated to public art, to create a plan. Hamilton surveyed the two-mile corridor, made an inventory of the buildings and suggested artists who would be a good fit for the project. Mural work began last summer with local, regional, national and international artists. During the first phase, 12 artists completed nine murals on four properties. This summer 27 artists completed 20 murals on 16 properties. Next year another round of artists will descend on the corridor to paint murals on approximately 15 properties for the final phase.
Murals aren’t new to the area. About two decades ago the nonprofit Urban ArtWorks created murals for the corridor, but over time they deteriorated. To prevent that from happening again, 4Culture has made a several-year commitment to keeping the murals in pristine condition.
As part of the collaboration, youth from Urban ArtWorks attended a workshop with “SODO Track” mural artists. Addison Karl taught them how to approach painting a mural on a building and shared strategies such as gridding, a method to scale up a design onto a larger surface. The students then used what they learned and applied it to their own project.
One factor that distinguishes “SODO Track” from other mural projects is that it’s a continuous line of art, rather than broken up within a neighborhood. The works shift from figurative to abstract. The murals are eye-catching and show how street art can be fine art. Both require a skillful pair of hands and a connection with the audience.
Project Manager Tamar Benzikry refers to “SODO Track” as a “free open-air urban art gallery.” There’s a growing effort in the art industry to move art out of the illustrious spaces of galleries and museums and into the public realm to make it more accessible. In September the Museum for Contemporary Art opened in Berlin, Germany. It’s dedicated to showcasing graffiti and art for public spaces. According to a Reuters report, the museum is located in a converted apartment building, with an asphalted floor and an open structure to make it feel like a street. “SODO Track” is a continuation of that larger global conversation.
Benzikry said public art plays a vital role in every community.
“You don’t have to seek it out. You don’t have to pay admission to access it. You just have the opportunity to have a moment of pause, to be moved to be yourself or see something unlike yourself. To connect with something or someone outside of yourself, to connect to a place,” she said. “I think it’s very important that our environments have meaning and have stories and that we take the time to explore them and invest in them.”
Approximately 50,000 people travel through the SODO corridor each weekday via public transit.
“It’s kind of like a more democratized version of art as opposed to being in a museum or in a gallery,” Fibonacci said. “You can reach a whole different audience that isn’t exposed to art as much with public art.”
Karl’s mural acknowledges Seattle is on Indigenous land, specifically land once controlled by the Duwamish Tribe. The mural depicts Chief Seattle’s grandchildren Mary Lou Slaughter and her son Michael Halady, who live in Port Orchard.
Karl said it’s odd that the city is named after a Native American chief and his family members aren’t recognized. He’s also fascinated by the history of the Duwamish people and their fight for federal recognition. The Treaty of Point Elliott promised fishing rights and a reservation to the Duwamish Tribe, but they are still not recognized by the United States. Karl grew up on a reservation in Arizona and is registered Chickasaw and Choctaw.
“If you really look at the history of Seattle, SODO wasn’t SODO. That was all river. And that was the thoroughfare for the food supplies for the Duwamish people for fishing and gaming,” Karl said. “And when the land started getting built up and that Duwamish River turned into the sliver of what it is now, it ultimately led to the genocide of the Duwamish people, where they starved to death over winter because they had no food source anymore.”
In Karl’s mural, Slaughter and Halady are depicted among a sea of foliage with rain gently falling. It’s Karl’s interpretation of what the SODO area looked like before industry took over. Mother and son are wearing woven vests crafted by Slaughter, who is a master weaver. Lightning bolts on Halady’s vest are a replica of bolts on a vest Chief Seattle wore. The mural took nearly four weeks to complete.
“I think having an appreciation for Native Indigenous people and understanding that it’s not just stereotypes — that there’s really a lot of history there in culture and civilization pre-White-settlers is really important for us, especially with what’s going on in our country,” Karl said. “Through public art, I think we have a due diligence and a responsibility to talk about our community and our history.”
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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