Seattle's home-dwellers and street-dwellers live side by side, yet worlds apart. And although many from the middle and upper classes sympathize with the plight of their neighboring homeless, few consider what the absence of shelter would actually equate to in their lives -- or deaths.
Local sculptor Nicki Sucec, loosely refers to these groups as the "haves" and "have nots;" two classes that make up the Seattle community but seem impossible to merge. Through her recent memorial artwork, honoring Seattle's homeless who have died on the streets since 2000, Sucec endeavors to do just that.
"Vulnerability and lack of empathy are things I find very disturbing," says Sucec. In recent years, her work has been focused on issues such as social stigmatization, economic exclusion and mental illness. She believes that "art can be a powerful force of social change."
Sucec's current installation, entitled "Home is the Most Important Place In the World," is on display at Seattle's Henry Art Gallery through June 15 and is part of the University of Washington MFA Thesis Exhibition.
Upon first glance, the small house nearly blends in with the sterile gallery walls. It is constructed of recycled boxsprings, secured by internal hardware, and covered in crisp white linens. Its appearance is reminiscent of pristine houses, modern condominiums taking the city by storm, the sleek designs found in modern architecture and furniture.
The exterior symbolizes consumer culture and the notion that, with the right income, everything is within reach, and that anything desirable can be purchased.
But to pass through the dark entry is to set foot into another world, in which the subtext dramatically shifts and the generic house becomes a shrine. Once through the dark curtain, the house is dimly lit. Its back wall is lined with candles, wax dripped into crevices as if it's been offered up in prayer at a cathedral.
The house/shrine is made up of everyday objects of home and shelter that Sucec sought out at thrift shops and on Craigslist. Warm, diffused light seeps through a red sleeping bag above, and the cedar plank floor provides a sense of comfort and roots this piece in the Pacific Northwest. But behind the surface lie the greater disparities and injustices faced by those who live on the streets.
From the low spring ceiling hang handmade bronze tags, resembling price, dog or toe tags. Sucec is still in the process of engraving the names, dates of death, and abstract imagery indicating the cause or place of death into 270 tags. Leaves collected from death sites are burnt into some. One is etched with a blackberry bush, in homage to a man who was run over by a brush mower as he slept. Sucec forcefully created a concave shape in another in memory of a man who died following a blow to the head, and inscribed railroad tracks for a man hit by a train. The dangling mementos produce a chilling affect as the deceased assume a new life.
The death rate of Seattle's homeless has been on the rise in recent years, according to King County reports. This sobering reality is displayed by Women in Black, a local group of homeless and formerly homeless women who stand in silent mourning on busy sidewalks each time a homeless person dies in King County.
Throughout her work, Sucec consulted Women in Black, along with members of the Women's Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL) for their firsthand experience and feedback.
"In working with them I discovered that one of their needs is just a way to grieve and provide acknowledgment and dignity to these people, both living and dead. And this is a small way that I want to contribute," Sucec said in a recent podcast released by the Henry Art Gallery.
This memorial was inspired in part by testimonies Sucec witnessed last January at a Seattle City Council public hearing addressing the city's encampment sweeps. Sucec used a handheld recorder to capture testimonies given by people affected by homelessness who came out against the city's proposed policy.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' proposal granted city employees new powers to evict people from encampments.
Inside the house, four testimonies play softly on a loop through a small custom-made speaker, adorned by water-jet cutouts of small houses, and imitating those of traditional confessionals.
Accompanying the installation is a case containing historic reference to Seattle's homeless encampments during the 1930s Great Depression. These tent cities were commonly known as "Hoovervilles," named for United States President Herbert Hoover, due to widespread frustration with his involvement in the relief effort.
Similarly, Sucec includes reference to "Nickelsville," a present-day association with Mayor Nickels' endorsement of encampment sweeps, including confiscation and destruction of personal property. Planning for a restyled Hooverville is underway ("Here comes Nickelsville," May 21)
Among the many in attendance at the MFA show opening were three of the four people whose testimonies are featured. Sucec has also received appreciation from friends of those who knew the faces behind the tags.
Sucec says her artwork has shifted away from the personal and into the public realm over the years. "I want to use my art as a vehicle to talk about issues directly within the community," she says.
Sucec's piece may be just one of the gallery's many temporary installations, but the impact is far-reaching. Perhaps most significant is what Sucec refers to as the "second life" of her project, which will ensue when the memorial tags are placed discreetly at each death site. It will then be possible to locate each site on a map and properly recognize and honor those who have lived and died on shared streets.