Since 1953, the Alaskan Way Viaduct has been a key artery for drivers in the Emerald City. The double decked highway is functional and offers a prime view of Elliott Bay for those heading northbound. About 90,000 travelers use it every day and its imminent demise has already been dubbed the “Viadoom” because of the impact it will have on traffic. The gray structure with imposing columns could never quite compete with other, more “Instagrammable” landmarks in the city, such as nearby Pike Place Market, the Space Needle or Seattle Public Library’s central location on Fourth Avenue. But despite its drab appearance, the Viaduct caught the eye of artist Laura Hamje — so much so that she’s painted an entire series centering the well-known fixture.
“I just love the idea of anything that connects us. Anything that we all share,” said Hamje. “It’s very moving to me as we’re getting closer to its destruction, realizing we’re losing this artery that connected us together.”
“53 Views of the Alaskan Way Viaduct” is a series of alluring oil and gouache paintings on display at Bryan Ohno Gallery. They show that the structure has personality and a charming quality that’s easily missed while driving on it. “Flying” flaunts the stunning views of the waterfront, while “Stripes” highlights its symmetry. “Heat” features a cyclist who blends into a background highlighted with muted orange tones. “Underbelly” shows a street-level view near the Real Change office in Pioneer Square.
“It’s an ugly structure for the most part. How am I going to pull out interesting views? It’s been a really good challenge for me,” said Hamje. “There have been some weeks when I don’t think there’s anything else. Then there will be a really cool day and there will be a cloud, and I’ll see something different happening and I’ll keep going.”
Trips to a climbing gym provided Hamje with opportunities to snap photographs of the viaduct while riding in the car with her boyfriend. She didn’t plan out the pics, opting instead for improvised inspiration.
“I never knew waking up that day what kind of weather it was going to be,” said Hamje. “It was kind of exciting to just see what I got.”
Hamje began painting “53” three years ago. That painting turned into several more at the suggestion of gallerist Bryan Ohno. He encouraged her to do a contemporary version of “The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido” by 19th-century woodblock artist Hiroshige Ando. Hiroshige’s series documents what a person would see while traveling on foot on the Tokaido or Eastern sea road, which connected Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. The prints show people going about their lives in a mountainous landscape. Hiroshige’s series is considered to be his finest achievement. Just as Hiroshige’s series shows the beauty of everyday life, Himje’s work shows the viaduct is capable of being more than a utilitarian structure.
Growing up in Austin, Texas, Hamje’s interest in art began with doodles. She then moved on to drawing muscle cars and pickup trucks for others. In school, art is what held her attention. She relocated to Seattle 15 years ago to attend the University of Washington and complete her bachelor of fine arts degree. She fondly recalls breathing in the fresh air and marveling at the towering trees while on a visit before the move. She quickly felt at home in the Pacific Northwest.
In 2011, a juried exhibition in Astoria, Oregon led to her infatuation with bridges. While driving on the Astoria-Megler bridge, she pulled out her camera to snap several photos.
Later, the four-mile bridge that crosses the Columbia River to connect Washington and Oregon appeared in a number of paintings. Mount Rainier has also appeared in her work. Hamje enjoys painting because it’s not a quick medium.
“It kind of slows down time because you’re dealing with one image with so many strange pockets of life within it,” said Hamje. “Since everything is speeding up in our world, just constantly and exponentially, I think there’s something really special about painting capturing that right now.”
When Hamje isn’t in her studio, she works as an accountant doing what she describes as “simple math puzzles.”
Hamje said documenting the viaduct is important in part because it’s going to close down for good in January and it’s a part of Seattle’s history. She’s going to miss driving on it, especially when playing tour guide to visitors, because it offered a unique view of the city.
Since the show opened, people have responded positively to her work.
“It’s been really surprising that people seem really emotional about it,” said Hamje. “They’re excited that everything is being captured. The nostalgia they’re already feeling.”
Hamje’s “53” invokes wistfulness for a piece of infrastructure. Odd as that may sound, the moody paintings invite the viewer to pause and appreciate a soon-to -be relic.
WHAT: “53 Views of the Alaskan Way Viaduct” at Bryan Ohno Gallery
WHEN: Runs until January 5, 2019
WHERE: 521 S. Main St.
*Several events are scheduled to officially say goodbye to the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Here's a list of events set for Feb. 2-3.
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. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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