Editor’s Notebook: Seattle artists promise ‘We will not desert you’

In the face of coronavirus chaos, creatives take on the work of lifting spirits.

A mural on a building's side reads "We Will Survive"

For their project 'Rise Above,' Seattle art duo Electric Coffin projects messages of hope on the sides of local buildings. (Roq La Rue)

Greetings, from my isolation bubble to yours. This week I'm sharing thoughts about coronavirus culture while far exceeding the recommended daily allowance of Triscuits.

On a recent night I realized I can tell time by the neighborhood cacophony. 

Whether I’m taking an evening walk, or Zooming with family, or staring into the abyss and wondering when I’ll ever carry a purse again, I always know when it’s 8 p.m. That’s when neighbors near and far commence banging pots and pans, whistling and cheering in the evening show of support for health care workers on the front lines of coronavirus. I love to step outside, listen to the noise spill out from surrounding houses and add my own woo-hoos. It’s a new cultural tradition.

As the stay-at-home order continues, and we all feel further detached from the rhythms of our old lives, my appreciation for these DIY support systems grows. I see positive messages written in colored chalk on the sidewalks, little outdoor galleries of homemade artwork strung up on trees, stuffed animals jammed into front windows. At any other time I would have brushed off these gestures as trite. But right now? I’ll take ’em. 

Reiterating the value of simple, supportive messages in times of stress, local art duo Electric Coffin (Duffy De Armas and Stefan Hoffmann) have started a project called Rise Above for this strange new era. The team often blends commercial imagery with original art in their neon-hued installation work, and this time is no different. The idea is based on the common Mylar balloon, which they deem “a pop cultural staple.” 

On a recent night, Electric Coffin drove around Seattle in a stealthy “mobile art projection van” and projected large-scale images on the blank sides of buildings. Each of the “rogue” screenings featured a balloon decorated with a floral pattern and a message such as “We Will Not Desert You,” “Hang in There” or “We Will Survive.” Maybe you saw one in the Chinatown-International District, SoDo or near the Pike Place Market. After watching the video of how it worked, I wish I had caught a glimpse. 

In a press release, Electric Coffin says they want to use the “trite and upbeat generic messaging” found on balloons to “instead offer words of real and heartfelt support for a beleaguered city.” While obeying the current rule against social gatherings, Rise Above still manages to give everyone within eyesight a feeling of community. The duo hopes collectors will help extend the project by funding future projections, and thereby boost the signal that “We will get well soon.”

A mural by artist Cady Bogart (@thequeencity), one of many adorning plywood in Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine corridor. (Daniel Spils)

I’ve been struck by the similar messaging that has appeared on the many new murals we suddenly have in town — a byproduct of the move by bars, restaurants and small shops to install plywood over windows during their extended closure. It’s especially noticeable in Capitol Hill’s Pike/Pine corridor and along Ballard Avenue, areas known for lively weekend nightlife.

As Crosscut reporter Agueda Pacheco Flores writes this week, the plywood is intended to deter property crime, but the bigger — less readily solvable — threat for these small-business owners is sheer survival. Many wonder whether they’ll be able to reopen at all after staff layoffs and drastic losses in income. 

In the meantime, the artists who have stepped up to beautify these newly dormant areas have created a whole new kind of art walk. Last weekend I donned my mask and ventured forth to see the fresh art adorning storefronts in Capitol Hill and Ballard. While the reason for the sudden wealth of plywood canvases is dire, the result is an amazing show of the power of artists to transform a community. 

“Keep on keepin’ on.” “This too shall pass.” “Take care.” “Stay home, eat snax.” The messages on these murals aren’t especially profound, but I found them comforting in context. The variety of colors and style — cartoony, graphic, impressionistic —

offers a glimpse at the diverse range of talent across our art scene, and a feeling of liveliness amid the quiet. And since there isn’t much traffic in these once impossible-to-find-parking zones, I also enjoyed the novelty of driving right up, and walking down the middle of nearly empty streets with a few other amblers snapping photos.

A mural by artist Stevie Shao (@stepfrae), one of many on newly quiet Ballard Avenue. (Brangien Davis)

Our screens feel like our portals to the world these days, as arts events are radically reimagined for live streaming, and community is created online. Tonight (April 16 at 5 p.m.), Traver Gallery is holding a Zoom happy hour with esteemed Northwest glass artist Preston Singletary (email info@travergallery.com for an invite link). On Friday (April 17 at 5 p.m.), Hugo House continues its new Solitude Social Club series, featuring conversations with authors about finding solace in art and literature during this time (this week’s guest is novelist Laura van den Berg, on Facebook Live). Also on Friday night, we can tune into the new MoPOP Don’t Stop film screening and discussion series (this week featuring Karyn Kusama’s tense thriller The Invitation, which makes staying home in self-quarantine seem like a generally good policy). 

Whole festivals have been transformed for streaming audiences, including the long-running performance showcase 12 Minutes Max (which originated at On the Boards and is now produced by Base). For this weekend’s installment, local choreographer/curator Alyza DelPan-Monley reduced the time limit to a mere 12 Seconds Max. The two-night event (April 19 at 7 p.m. and April 20 at 5 p.m. on Instagram Live @baseartspace) features 60 extremely short videos of dance, theater, comedy and other creative concoctions. And timed with National Poetry Month, the Cadence Video Poetry festival at Northwest Film Forum (April 16-19; pay what you can for a single showcase, or $30-$45 for a festival pass) is now entirely viewable online. The rich pageant of short films — poetry paired with striking visual imagery — reminds us to step away from TikTok for a moment and experience something a little different.

But in addition to all the wonderful events we’re able experience via technology, let’s make note of the many creative moments happening out there in the real, tangible world. The newly formed family bands playing herky-jerky tunes from front stoops, the “block parties” in which everyone stays in their own yard, the decorated fences, the messages of hope.

For weekly updates from Brangien about the shifting landscape of local arts amid coronavirus, subscribe below.

Get the latest in local arts and culture

This weekly newsletter brings arts news and cultural events straight to your inbox.

By subscribing, you agree to receive occasional membership emails from Crosscut/Cascade Public Media.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors