Editor’s Notebook: Taking a virtual First Thursday Art Walk in Pioneer Square

With Seattle galleries closed, an arts editor strolls through online offerings.

Firefighter statues in Pioneer Square Seattle Sunny Day

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Pioneer Square had more action from seagulls than people. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Remember art walks? Wandering the crowded sidewalks, packing into small galleries for popular shows, hugging an old friend upon a chance encounter? There was a particularly carefree feeling to those evenings, when nothing was required except looking at art (and even that could be taken lightly).

This week we should be gearing up for First Thursday Art Walk, the first one since spring has sprung. But instead of joining the culturally curious throngs in Pioneer Square, we’ll all be at home, plumbing the depths of Netflix for something new. Like so much about our coronavirus reality, this feels weird and unfortunate. 

But just as artists and musicians and restaurants are pivoting during this crisis, so must an arts and culture editor. So this week I’m taking a virtual art walk from my sofa, which after nearly four weeks of working from home has completely conformed to my body. Tonight at 6:30 p.m., I’ll be tuning in online to “By the Hour,” a livestream conversation and digital tour with local artists and Pioneer Square gallery owners. Before that kicks off, I'm going for a stroll.

My first stop is Traver Gallery, which was supposed to open a show of new work by Northwest Native glass artist Preston Singletary, famed for his blending of Tlingit imagery and storytelling with European glassblowing traditions. Singletary’s work always seems to glow from within, as seen in this new exhibit, Artifacts From a Future Dream. Thanks to the gallery’s top-notch video walkthrough, we can experience the radiance up close, in a private tour.

I’m smitten by the flock of birds he’s created: a seafoam-green raven carved with formline shapes, its neck turned back on its body; a red woodpecker stretching up toward two clear glass moons; a levitating white raven that seems carved from marble; and what looks to be a very beaky blue owl. Created as an “homage to future generations of Indigenous people,” Singletary writes in the exhibit catalog, the work is brimming with light and stories (including that of “Snot Boy,” a “cultural superhero” I’d like to know more about). Writing about the various heartbreaks the virus has wrought, Singletary says on his website, “My only option is to continue to create positivity and beauty as best I can through my art.”

Green glass bird by Preston Singletary
"Raven Watches Over His Feast" by Preston Singletary. (Preston Singletary/Traver)

Next, I “hoof it” down to Foster White Gallery to see new work by another favorite local artist, George Rodriguez. The Seattle-based ceramicist, who grew up in El Paso, Texas, on the Mexican border, makes incredibly appealing, thickly textured heads — animals, humans and mythical characters — which you can see in his new show, Urban Guardians. Foster White doesn’t have a video tour (over email Rodriguez told me many of his pieces had yet to be shipped to the gallery when the stay-at-home order was issued), but you can still get a good sense of the work’s appeal from the photos online. Plus, Rodriguez will be livestreaming a talk about the show this evening (April 2, 5:30 p.m. Check the Foster White Facebook page for details).

What first grabs me is his series of “Diablo” vessels. Horned and fanged, the faces are slightly creepy, yet seem like they’d be fun at a party (they are devils, after all). Rodriguez says these were inspired in part by Michoacán masks. “What I like is the fact that one can put on a mask and make allowances for how we act,” he says. “Can we let our selfish tendencies shine more as a diablo?” (Something to consider as more of us are wearing masks on a daily basis.) But what stands out to me here is Rodriguez’s signature layering of small ceramic pieces on top of the base form, like little tiles in the shape of small leaves or scales or patchwork fabric. 

I almost missed the human-scale rat and pigeon! These 5-foot-tall “Urban Guardians” look positively jaunty — the rat adorned in small, simple flowers and the pigeon sporting a multitude of feathers. “Both the rat and pigeon symbolize perseverance, grit and resourcefulness,” Rodriguez tells me, “qualities that are important when building a strong community of people. They are also animals that often get dismissed or criticized but offer a palatable flavor to the makeup of a city.” Which made me wonder what our urban cohabitants make of the sudden disappearance of humans from the streets.

“All of my work is about the interdependence of people and bonding through community,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a crazy time to be isolated and have that component missing.” 

Sculptures, left, of a head with horns and, right, of a green bird by George Rodrigues
Left to right: "Diablo de Agua" and "Urban Guardian: Pigeon" by George Rodriguez. (Foster White Gallery)

Which reminds me to stop by Linda Hodges Gallery and check out the new collection of work by Seattle artist Justin Duffus, whose oil paintings showcase human interaction — in all its awkwardness. I missed the opening for his show Older Sister during last month’s art walk, at which point coronavirus concerns had begun to infect our communal psyche. “There probably won’t be much touching or laughing out loud tomorrow night in Seattle,” Duffus wrote on Instagram the day before his opening, “but if you are brave enough to come out and say hi I would love to see you all.” 

Painting of a woman by Margaret Linda Hodges
Margaret," an oil painting by Seattle artist Justin Duffus. (Linda Hodges Gallery)

The timing was a shame because the work is wonderful. You can see a good chunk of it at LindaHodgesGallery.com (and by appointment). Using found photos as a jumping off point, Duffus creates visual narratives with sometimes unsettling undertones. His pastel scenes look like Polaroids viewed under running water — they have a smeariness that adds to the sense of mystery, a party you stumbled into by mistake. I could look at these a long time, trying to puzzle out what’s happening and who is in charge. A blindfolded young woman plays a bachelorette game, two girls console (or confront?) each other, fifth graders cluster in a corner, grown women get a little loopy at a social gathering. In most of the paintings, people are standing close, touching each other with nonchalance — which adds to the sense of nostalgia.

So many of us have turned to art (streaming movies, doing craft projects, singing songs online) to get through these strange days. Arts are a salve and a spark. Even this mini-cybertour is getting me excited — about the next real-world art walk (whenever it may return), and about all the artists continuing to make beautiful, strange and surprising work in our collective solitude.

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