A Place to Live, Love and Leave

Cracked walls, unlevelled floors and virtually no assistance from the landlord – this is not what you expect to get when you pay the rent. Unless you are an artist who lives or works in the 619 Western building in Pioneer Square.

A wall like many others in 619 Western

Built as a multi-purpose warehouse in 1910 at the corner of Western Avenue and Yesler Way, the building has collected over the century serious structural flaws. Cracks are as wide as a tennis ball; the building’s east face leans forward and its foundation is slowly dissolving into the earth. When converted into an all-arts building in 1981, the deal was simple: owners would do minimal to no upkeep, and in return, artists would get cheap rent.

Visual artist Edd Cox, 63, was one of the first to move in. “We cleaned the space up, built walls, and put a new toilet in,” Cox says. “That’s the way every floor in 619 was done: not to code; just by people pooling their cash and building a little bit more.”

“There was a lot of hammering, a lot of sawdust, and this construction energy going on,” he remembers. “It took us three years to get everything finished.” And by “finished” he means having access to hot water.

Since 1981, Cox hasn’t lived anywhere else. His studio is a two-room space at the southeast corner of the building’s fifth floor. The bigger room, facing south is the living room, office and painting studio. The smaller area, facing east, is the kitchen and bedroom. Paintings, tapestry and 2-D mixed-media art fill the space’s few walls, while ceramic sculptures and pottery lie on tables. The bathroom – which has a toilet, a shower and a double-utility sink – is outside of his apartment, part of the floor’s common area.

The building doesn’t have central heating – portable heaters are Cox’s source of warmth. To do his laundry, Cox has to take the bus to Capitol Hill, but he doesn’t mind. “It’s my great achievement for the day.”

In spite of the lack of amenities, Cox has a view only luxury downtown condos offer. From the eight-foot-tall windows of his studio, he can see the Smith Tower, the Pioneer Square Pergola and Elliott Bay (although obstructed by the Alaskan Way Viaduct). From these same windows he used to amuse himself watching the homeless sleep in the station wagon he used to own and use its roof as a dance floor. “If I could just record it,” he muses.

On first Thursdays, when Pioneer Square holds its art walk, Cox opens his studio to all visitors. In addition to this monthly appointment, Cox’s place has been the great room for artist gatherings, meetings and carouses.

On a New Year Eve in the late 1980’s, Cox threw a party in his studio. “Three other parties were happening in the building and all of a sudden, the parties started to mix and 30 more people would arrive.”

Letting in uninvited guests was part of the game, but he didn’t expect that one of the gatecrashers would be a one-year-old crying baby.

“My friend comes up in her high heels with this little boy in diapers and says, ‘I heard this crying, went downstairs and saw this little boy at the door’.” They later found out that the baby was the son of one of the partygoers on the floor below, who thought it was okay to leave his son in the hallway while having a couple of drinks inside.

The party continued until after midnight when all guests were drunk, and to move from one space to the other meant walking over the people who passed out. “There was so much beer I actually surfed… I slid over the floor to get a drink at the bar,” he says.

In all parties Cox has had in his place, guests (invited or not) inevitably mingle with multi-thousand-dollar-worth works of art hanging on the walls. “You’re not in control, but I’ve never had any real damage,” he says.

Although social gatherings have been part of the essence of Cox’s studio, it was the more intimate events that captured his fondest memories.

“When you fall in love, it changes everything; magnifies everything.” Cox is talking about the love of his life, a physician assistant named Susan who he met at a friend’s party. He was about 46 years old when a common friend took Susan to his studio for the first time. “As they were leaving and saying goodbye, I took Susan by the waist and kissed her.” Cox and Susan kept their relationship for 14 years. They broke up a few years ago.

“Every time I fall in love in my studio it helps my art; it helps me dealing with the people in the building; it helps my teaching.”

But Cox won’t be able to fall in love in his studio any more. Because the building won’t withstand the commotion of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, all artists living and working in the building will have to leave by March 2012.

“One thing that stuck to my mind was that I had to leave; I had to pack up,” Cox says about the moment he heard the news. “I just went out, and on the first ‘For Lease’ sign I saw, I phoned them up and met the next day with a real-estate agent.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation announced on March 3rd a proposal to spare 619 Western from demolition. The former plan had been to tear the building down, but the City Council, historic preservation groups and the community of artists strongly opposed it. Even with the decision to retrofit the property, the building needs to be vacant by next spring.

As Cox and the other 90 plus tenants of 619 Western plan their departure, the building slowly changes its mood. “It’s still there, but there’s a shadow growing taller,” Cox says. “We feel like we’re saying goodbye to each other, we’re breaking up. We have a distance to go, and every day we get closer to that destination.”

Cox will enjoy the view from his windows until his lease expires on December 31st. “When I’m working at my computer, I can look at the winding clouds, the seagulls, the buildings turning golden in the sunset. I’ve had 30 years of beautiful sky, and that’s a miracle.”

Update: Although Cox still lives in 619 Western, he recently moved his studio to another Pioneer Square location (313B 1st Ave S). From 6:00 to 8:30pm today, gallery visitors will be able watch a performance by Oleaje Flamenco.

“Don’t jump!” A letter to a stranger I’ve learned to care for

I was heading to my piano lesson when I got stuck in an unusual traffic jam in Pioneer Square. I called my teacher to let him know that I would be late and asked if he knew what was going on. It happened that at that very moment, a young woman was threatening to jump from the ledge of the King County Courthouse.

Nothing could have made me more distressed. I drove trying not to look up and steered my sight away from the crowd. I didn’t want to see the woman; I didn’t want to watch her jump; I didn’t want to see her dead. I prayed.

I finally parked and headed to my lesson, but my productivity was close to zero. No matter how great the lesson was, my mind was somewhere else. The same happened few hours later, when I was trying to get back to work. All the efforts to keep myself focused were vain. That strategy was clearly not working.

So I did something different. Since I was at the University District at that time, I decided to stop by the Henry Art Gallery. Among all the beautiful things in the museum, there was one exhibit, or better yet, one photograph that caught my attention. It was a photograph by Karl Haendel of a girl crying.

That image inspired me to write. I picked up my notebook and the blunt wooden pencil from the Gallery and started writing a letter – a desperate letter – to that young woman, asking her not to take her life. “Don’t jump, don’t jump, don’t jump.”

And here comes the cheesy part. As soon as I was done with my letter, I was in peace. I left the gallery, attended a meeting and drove back home in peace.

Not sure how that happened, but one question kept coming to me. What is this thing that art has that can transform the entire emotional state of a person? I may never find out what it is, but I know it exists and I’m drawn to places where I can find it.

Regarding the young woman, I know nothing about her, but somehow I’ve learned to like her. She thankfully decided to give another chance to her life. All I hope for her is that she discovers the very thing that transformed me and be inspired to create art so she can transform other people.

Make Art; Make History – The Arts’ Impact on the Past, Present and Future

Egyptian Sarcophagus

This fall, I had the opportunity to visit one of the biggest museums on earth, the Louvre. One of the pieces that made great impact on me was the collection of sarcophagi from ancient Egypt (see picture).

As I examined each piece, I thought about all the knowledge humankind has gained because of these works of art. If there was no art – no sculptures left, no pyramids, no paintings and carvings on walls and burial grounds – our knowledge about the Egyptian civilization would be very limited.

The Egyptian sarcophagi as well as the countless artworks in the Louvre are great examples of the power of art in the formation and documentation of culture. Take the Italian paintings of the 16th century (see picture below). By looking at just a few pieces, you’ll have an accurate idea about the important role religion played in the social and political spheres of that period.

The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese

Like history books, art can lead us to discover our ancestors’ customs, political tensions, moral values, beliefs, societal hierarchies and so many other cultural aspects.

Coming back to Seattle, I felt happy for having the opportunity to work in the arts field and be constantly fed by the today’s creative minds, be it in dance, music, visual arts, theater or any other art form. At the same time, I know that I am part of the few lucky ones, as most people don’t have many chances to appreciate or create art. When I assess the economic reality of this country, the outlook is not optimistic. I see budget cuts for arts programs, museum closures, art teachers being laid off, and art education programs being eliminated.

This whole experience at the Louvre made me think, when we cut funds for the arts, aren’t we refraining ourselves from creating works that will become history? Aren’t we crippling future generations from knowing about our own culture? When less and less importance is given to arts education, aren’t we depriving our kids the ability to understand the historic, social, political and religious value of a work of art? When we make art superfluous or a luxury item, aren’t we reinforcing that all the knowledge we gain from works of art is also superfluous?

I understand that the current economical situation is one of the worse in the country’s history, but my hope is that these measures are temporary and produce minimal effects. Not investing in arts can be a vicious cycle, as the kids who will grow up without knowing who Leonardo da Vinci was will be tomorrow’s education leaders.

As an arts marketer, my role is to continue to believe and support the wonderful artists I meet every day. As for the future, all I have to do is to hope for the best; hope that future generations have the aspiration to see the arts thrive regardless of the economic situation.

Lingo Dance gives a heartbeat to SAM’s art

Last Thursday I listened on the radio that Lingo Dance would be doing a special performance at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). As I left the office earlier that day, I took the afternoon to check them out.

I don’t go to museums very often and some of you may know that I’m a performance art geek. So when I say that Lingo was by far the best exhibit at the SAM, you know that I’m biased.

Favoritism aside, the Lingo performance was indeed a breath of fresh air in the museum. Five dancers “installed” themselves among SAM’s permanent collection as kinetic sculptures.

At first, I felt a little uncomfortable in staring at the dancers as if they were a picture or sculpture. However, as time passed and I witnessed other museum visitors shamelessly gazing at the performers, I realized, you know what, these dancers are here to be watched anyways – I’ll just take my time and admire.

Good decision that was. Like in visual arts, you can’t actually “get” Lingo’s performance at the SAM unless you take the appropriate time to watch, to appreciate. The performances certainly added warmth and life to the museum, a place in which the artworks generally don’t have a heartbeat. The more I looked at the dancers, the more they attracted me. I didn’t want to leave the museum.

I had an especially pleasing interaction with one of the dancers named Kelly. As I entered the room she was performing, she smiled to me and continued doing her dance. I didn’t want to distract her, but I wanted to tell her that I was enjoying her performance, so I took one of the brochures from the museum, wrote her an encouragement note and placed it next to her business cards. I hope she had the chance to read it. If someday she reads this post, would love to have her comment.

I also met choreographer KT Neihoff, the artistic director of Lingo and creator of the project. She was discreetly checking on the dancers, giving them water and ensuring the performance was running smoothly, like a mom taking care of her kids. She was happy to know that I was enjoying the performance, but at the same time, recognized that some people might have been confused with the whole thing. In fact, there were some people who were like, “what the hell is going on here?” Others were laughing; others ignored, while others – like me – watched and appreciated.

To avoid any confusion, the performers were appropriately labeled like all the other artworks in the museum (with information about artwork title, artist, materials, date etc.) Here is an example of what was written on the sign next to a performer:

  • Title: Aaron
  • Date: Right now
  • Materials: Muscle, sweat, human hair, ethic, challenge
  • Artist: KT Niehoff

Lingo’s presentation/exhibit is part of a bigger project called A Glimmer of Hope or Skin or Light, a project by KT Niehoff to create a more tangible intimacy between audience and artist. According to Lingo’s Website, KT’s investigation of the relationship between the performer and the witness led her to seek out more potent environments that ask both artist and watcher to confront each other as unique individuals who bring to the exchange their personal histories and desires. If that is the goal of the project, KT just nailed it. Hats of to her!

Lingo will be at the SAM the upcoming Thursdays (March 25th and April 1st), from 3:00 to 8:00 p.m. If you have the time, go check them out.

First Lady of Shoes in the Bellevue Arts Museum

Last week I stopped by the Bellevue Arts Museum in Downtown Bellevue to see the “First Lady of Shoes” exhibit by Beth Levine. The shoes were beautiful and impressively innovative for the period (I would wear any of them today). In fact, just by looking at the shoes, you realize that Beth Levine’s designs surely was (and continues to be) an inspiration for designers of some today’s famous shoe brands (namely Salvatore Ferragamo, Tory Burch, Louis Vuitton and the plastic shoe star Melissa).

In the museum, I met this cute old lady named Barbara who was about to finish her shift as a museum guide and ended up introducing me to the shoe collection in the most amazing way. She was so excited to show me the details of each shoe, the technology behind each design that was captivating. “Look at all the crystals in this shoe! They were glued one by one,” she said. “And see this heel: it has no screw – it’s an innovative super-adhesive technology!”

The exhibit is worth a visit, especially if you are into fashion – although it may be a little disappointing to realize that the shoe designer you worship today is not that innovative after all.