A writer's retreat at 'the center of the universe'
With not much more than a well-worn city surplus wooden desk and a standard-issue chair on wheels, Seattle writer Elissa Washuta may not have the fanciest office in the city, but she definitely has one of the most interesting.
This summer, Washuta is a writer in residence atop the Fremont Bridge’s unused northwest control tower. Measuring 13 feet by 8 feet, Washuta’s studio has no Wi-Fi, bathroom or running water (which explains why the residency provides a work — not a living — space). But it does have stellar 360-degree views over the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which connects Lake Washington with Puget Sound, and environs. And it puts Washuta in the center of the action on one of the world’s busiest bascule bridges (aka drawbridges), opening for boat traffic on average 35 times a day.
“I’m literally perched over the water here as an observer,” says the 31-year-old writer, who sports long, wavy locks, and, appropriately enough, is working from the tower festooned by a neon Rapunzel. Of the Fremont Bridge’s four towers, only one is currently used by an operator.
Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and author of “Starvation Mode” and “My Body Is a Book of Rules,” a finalist for the 2015 Washington State Book Award. She moved to Seattle in 2007 to earn an MFA from the University of Washington, where she is now an undergraduate adviser for the Department of American Indian Studies. Washuta is also a nonfiction faculty member in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a faculty advisor for Mud City Journal and Saturday editor for The Rumpus.
She was selected from nearly 200 scribes who applied for the post, supported by the Office of Arts & Culture and the Seattle Department of Transportation. Her three-month, $10,000 residency, timed to mark the historic bridge’s 100th birthday in 2017, will produce a written work intended to “represent or illuminate some aspect of the bridge and the bridge’s history, be it real or metaphorical.”
Since the beginning of June, Washuta has been spending about ten hours a week in the tower. As the traffic noise pours into the tower and the floor vibrates from a heavy truck rumbling over the bridge’s metal tread, she says the din isn’t a distraction once her ear adjusts.
What does pull her away from her books and laptop are the boats. Like the 205-foot Lady Lola “superyacht” she started following online. Oh, and the Fremont Avenue brawl for which she called 911. And the much-appreciated cellphone call she gets from the bridge operator every time the bridge is raised (a safety check to make sure she’s not on — or under — the bridge, since her tower affords access to its underbelly.)
While her project is still evolving, Washuta envisions an essay combining the historical and the personal that explores Seattle’s indigenous history, its intersection with the ship canal, and the ways the canal enabled the creation of a manufactured landscape that transformed Seattle. Built to promote trade and development, the ship canal wrought major changes in local watersheds, like lowering Lake Washington more than 8 feet and drying up the Black River, where the Duwamish tribe had a long-established settlement.
She’s been thinking a lot about what the bridges and waterways can represent. “In the city we think of water as a barrier to movement, hence the bridges. My colonized mind sees a waterway as a dividing line or border." But, Washuta notes, in Cascade villages along the Columbia River people saw the water as a unifying landscape feature and a center for community. (Washuta is a descendent of the Cascade, who no longer exist as a tribe but whose people were largely absorbed into others.)
Washuta has been playing with the notion of bridges as portals. Growing up in rural New Jersey near the Pennsylvania border, crossing the Delaware River by bridge “always felt like some kind of magical journey.”
She crosses one of the ship canal bridges most days by bus, car or (more rarely these days) on foot to get from her Capitol Hill home to the UW campus or the bridge studio. “I have different relationships with places north of the ship canal and south of the ship canal,” she says. “I’m going into different headspaces in a way when I cross it.”
Fremont’s tongue-in-cheek motto as the “Center of the Universe” also has her thinking about “other centers of the universe.” Her mother grew up on the Washington side of the Columbia River where once “the Dalles was the center of the universe because it was the major trading hub, the place to exchange information and goods.”
Washuta is the Fremont Bridge’s second artist in residence; the first, in 2009, produced a temporary sound installation on the bridge. The city this fall is also sponsoring a lighting artist residency on the University Bridge, culminating in a lighting plan for three of the ship canal’s historic bridges (University, Ballard and Fremont).
Keep up with Washuta’s project and related events—the first scheduled for July 10 at Fremont Sunday Market—at the Office of Arts & Culture. And feel free to join the occasional biker, boater or pedestrian that spies her through the windows and sends her a wave.