Fall Arts | 14 Seattle artists on making art while the world falls apart

Prominent artists from the Puget Sound area tell us how they’re feeling (and what surprising hobbies they picked up during the pandemic).

(Valerie Niemeyer/Crosscut)

Having mostly written off last year’s fall arts season it’s tough to pinpoint the 2021 edition: Are we plowing ahead or flashing back to the dark days of the pandemic? Opening up or closing down?

We have long relied on artists to shed new light on social shifts and upheaval. So more than a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, amid this strange delta variant limbo, we asked 14 prominent artists from the Puget Sound area to tell us how they’ve fared and how they’re feeling about the future (and what surprising habits they’ve picked up along the way). 


This story is part of Crosscut’s 2021 Fall Arts Preview.


Whether cutting your own bangs or creating new art, what is your proudest pandemic accomplishment? 

Louie Gong
Artist
Entrepreneur

I learned to turn the living room lights off by throwing a pillow at the light switch while lying on the couch. If you try it, downward rotation on the pillow is the key.

Anthony White     
Visual artist        
     
A lot happened that I am definitely proud of; a Neddy Fellowship, a solo exhibition.… Somehow I was able to follow through and hit my deadlines and be present and make it to the studio every day, especially when I felt mentally incapable. I’m just proud that I didn’t slip up. Things were at their ultimate low, but, damn, it definitely could have been so much worse.
Tomo Nakayama
Musician        
I released a new album [“Melonday”] in April of 2020, weeks after the lockdown began. All of the gigs I had planned to promote the album were canceled, so I pivoted quickly to host a livestream record release show from my house. I was shocked by how successful it was, and we sold out of the first pressing of the vinyl.
Kira Jane Buxton
Writer        
I started growing lion’s mane mushrooms! On purpose! It’s a fairly involved process that entails making a “shotgun fruiting chamber” and catering to every whim of some temperamental fungi. It has certainly made me an even worse conversationalist (“What are your thoughts on bacterial blotch?!”), but I am proud of my efforts. I also learned to cut my husband’s hair and cleverly misrepresented several large bald spots as “an edgy style.” 
Sara Porkalob
Theater artist    
I've been able to focus on my physical lifestyle, and started weight training. I'm technically now a powerlifter and bodybuilder. I guess I'm most proud of the fact that I can squat and deadlift over 200 pounds.
Bao Tran
Filmmaker

I finished a feature film [The Paper Tigers] and we released it in theaters! We’ve been on tour ever since and trying to make the most of it.

Eva Walker
Musician        
     
There’s three things I’m really proud of: No. 1 was marrying my best friend, Jake! No. 2: Honestly, learning more about my natural hair. I know this seems like a strange answer, but when you're Black and your country has only shown white hair and white shampoo commercials to you for over 30 years, it isn’t so strange. I’ve learned about curl patterns, oils, hair follicles, fine vs. coarse, porosity and I’m still learning. No. 3: Being on-air at my employer KEXP and doing programming [that] people seemed to really appreciate during the pandemic.  
RYAN! Feddersen
Visual artist        
Completing “Mini-Tahoma,” a public art intervention on an approximately 175-by-30-foot defunct brutalist fountain [in Tacoma], from start to finish within the pandemic.
Tariqa Waters
Artist
Gallerist        
Expanding [my gallery] Martyr Sauce to MS PAM (Martyr Sauce Pop Art Museum). I was able to take the trauma and frustration that I experienced this year working with establishment arts institutions and turn it into motivation to expand my own practice.
Vivian Hua
Filmmaker
Publisher    
I've finally gotten preproduction significantly underway so I can shoot my next short film, Reckless Spirits, in December! It is a metaphysical buddy comedy featuring a Latinx gender-fluid performance artist and Asian American therapist and will be a proof of concept to help me create my larger feature later on.
Clyde Petersen
Filmmaker
Artist 
I launched the Fellow Ship Artist Residency, a weeklong paid residency in a cozy camper trailer, two blocks from the beach on Guemes Island... I literally built an artist studio and a sauna in the forest. The project was created with the goal to provide a quiet space for queer and BIPOC artists to focus on their art practice, rest and organize for the future. I have hosted 30 artists so far, and it has been an incredible experience. 

Top row, left to right: Anthony White, Louie Gong, Tomo Nakayama; Bottom row, left to right: Kira Jane Buxton, Bao Tran, Sara Porkalob.

Top row, left to right: Anthony White, Louie Gong, Tomo Nakayama; Bottom row, left to right: Kira Jane Buxton, Bao Tran, Sara Porkalob.

Did you pick up any unexpected habits or hobbies during the pandemic?

Vivian Hua
Filmmaker
Publisher

I've definitely learned to cut my hair terribly and am now scared to go to the hairdresser since they are likely to be horrified.

Anthony White
Visual artist        
     
I noticed I was having a lot more conversations with myself out loud, haha. That was totally unexpected. I picked up a healthy habit of reading books, and started pole-dancing early in the pandemic, too. That has been fun.
Tariqa Waters
Artist
Gallerist
       
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a hobby, but during lockdown and with no factory assembly line at my service, I found myself cranking out over 20 giant ball-knocker beads by hand. I loathed every minute of it. It was so monotonous and time consuming, but the moment I was finished I immediately thought, “Ok, that’s done…. Now what else? How about two 3-foot disco balls!” 
Tomo Nakayama 
Musician       
My cooking improved greatly during the pandemic. I cooked through almost all of the recipes from Just One Cookbook, and experimented with a lot of ingredients and cuisines that were new to me. It was a way for me to feel like I was traveling and experiencing different cultures while stuck at home.
Clyde Petersen
Filmmaker
Artist
Microdosing, homesteading and watching FBOY Island

Artist and gallerist Tariqa Waters recently opened MS PAM, the immersive Martyr Sauce Pop Art Museum, in Pioneer Square. (Tariqa Waters)

Artist and gallerist Tariqa Waters recently opened MS PAM, the immersive Martyr Sauce Pop Art Museum, in Pioneer Square. (Tariqa Waters)

Kira Jane Buxton
Writer

I attempted to make “moss art” by filling an oversized frame with bits of moss. Unfortunately, I lost interest halfway through, so it’s still languishing on my dining room table. It has become a cat bed and now there is moss tracked all over the house. Picasso probably had similar problems. 

RYAN! Feddersen
Visual artist        
     
I dabble in many hobbies. But the most consistent return was to beading. I created a series of jawbreaker pins [beaded brooches] for family and close friends to symbolically mark the cyclical and personal struggles throughout these past 18 months. I recalled how jawbreaker candies were this kind of personal endeavor where you work through each layer. At points it’s sweet, but it’s often punishing.
Jody Kuehner
Performer
       
I bought an accordion! I've never played an instrument, and in early 2020 I was feeling such a need for a creative project I decided I'd learn the accordion. I've been taking Zoom classes and it's so hard and I love it.
Louie Gong 
Artist
Entrepreneur      
I started wearing bandanas around my head as my hair grew out. Now I’m a collector of bandanas.

On a scale from ‘Does watching Netflix count?’ to ‘I made more work than ever,’ what was your pandemic experience like for art-making? 

Jody Kuehner
Performer

So much of my work/process [as Cherdonna Shinatra] is based on playfulness, and I did not feel playful. My experience was lots of processing, not a lot of product. But the processing is what makes the art so it's all folded into each other. 

Tomo Nakayama
Musician       
     
I survived by throwing myself into the work of promoting my album and playing a ton of livestreams and engaging with my fans online. I also created new work in fits and spurts, but it was honestly really difficult to get in a creative mindset. I spent more of my time reading, walking and observing the world around me, which is a big part of the creative process. Also napping.
Justin Huertas
Theater/musical
artist
       
The running joke in our household is that I've never been this busy. Why did it take a global pandemic for me to be as busy as I've always wanted to be? I made a holiday special that served as a sequel to one of my musicals here in Seattle, The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion. The holiday special, which was filmed in quarantine on iPhones, was called A Very Merry Kraken Tea Party
Clyde Petersen 
Filmmaker
Artist       
I have continued to make films in the pandemic. I am currently working on finishing my second feature film, Even Hell Has Its Heroes, a documentary about the Seattle band Earth. I fluctuate between “what is the point of anything” and “I hope the aliens that visit this planet in the future will see my films.” 
Kira Jane Buxton
Writer
At the beginning of the lockdown, I developed what I believe is known to the medical and scientific communities as “pandemic pudding brain.” I spent most of the time lying on the floor. I wasn’t working out, and I developed the physique and posture of a well-boiled shrimp. Eventually, I started channeling a lot of what I was feeling (night terrors and incessant anxiety) into a new novel. Inflicting your anguish on a fictional character and making them suffer is surprisingly vindicating. 
Louie Gong
Artist
Entrepreneur

 
I made one new piece [a painting titled “FOO, the Black Sheep”], which is 100% more than last year. 
Sara Porkalob
Theater artist

I  really haven't spent that much time during the pandemic making theater. Zoom theater is not exciting to me. I woke up many days thinking that I would like to sit down and finally write that play I've been putting on the shelf. At first, I felt guilty for not writing that play, considering I had so much time. And then I was like, “Why do I feel the pressure to write this play? I'm just gonna read a book today.”

I'm on Day 20 of painting every day for 30 days, which is pretty cool. I enjoy other artistic mediums and I know that once I start working again this time that I've spent appreciating other art forms will make theater better.

Cherdonna Shinatra, aka Seattle-based dancer, director and drag artist Jody Kuehner. (Lou Daprile) 

Cherdonna Shinatra, aka Seattle-based dancer, director and drag artist Jody Kuehner. (Lou Daprile) 

What gave you joy or laughter during this past year and a half? 

Clyde Petersen
Filmmaker
Artist

Seeing local films debut online was a highlight. Potato Dreams of America by Wes Hurley, The Paper Tigers by Bao Tran, Thin Skin by Charles Mudede and East of the Mountains by S.J. Chiro brought me happiness. I started taking ASL [American Sign Language] classes online and that has been a great experience as well — to spend time weekly practicing sign language with other folks over Zoom. 

Eva Walker
Musician        
     
Oh boy, I’ve been binge-watching King of the Hill. I didn’t realize how much I had in common with Hank Hill, except for his social and political views. We both just really want a nice, uneventful day. Hahaha! Also Hulu is KILLING IT with the documentaries lately. 
Louie Gong
Artist
Entrepreneur

Two hilarious sitcoms led by Native talent — Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs — set off a new era in Native representation in mainstream media. I’ve never been prouder of something I had nothing to do with! Shout out to the Native writers, producers and directors who slogged away for decades waiting for this moment — then slayed it. Stoodis!

Anthony White
Visual artist
@offbrandheelz Instagram story compilation every Thursday evening.
Justin Huertas
Theater/music
artist

Recently, my partner, Tyler, and I started getting into The Goes Wrong Show. The whole conceit is that it’s a company of amateur performers trying to put on as professional a show as possible. Every possible thing goes wrong, but they keep their “cool” as much as they can. Just the act of them trying to continue and finish the play with dignity is the funniest thing. It makes me miss theater so much.

Top row, left to right: Vivian Hua, RYAN! Feddersen, Justin Huertas; Bottom row, left to right: Clyde Petersen Eva Walker, Olivier Wevers. 

Top row, left to right: Vivian Hua, RYAN! Feddersen, Justin Huertas; Bottom row, left to right: Clyde Petersen Eva Walker, Olivier Wevers. 

Olivier Wevers
Choreographer

Puzzling. It has been such an escape from reality, total mindfulness and great company when you join friends.

Tariqa Waters
Artist
Gallerist       
     
I was overwhelmed with pure joy when my son, DJ 9, got the opportunity to perform alongside iconic musical giants at an outside concert in Portland [in July]. Staying motivated and committed as a performance artist during such an unstable and dark time is no small feat, especially when your craft not only calls for public engagement, but large groups of people dancing closely together. 
Tomo Nakayama
Musician

@leendadong's Instagram. Her comedic Tik Tok vignettes are very relatable and brought me a lot of joy and laughs during quarantine.

Vivian Hua
Filmmaker
Publisher
I really enjoyed the TV series Euphoria, and was highly impressed with its vision and cinematography.
Jody Kuehner
Performer

I watched every season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians

RYAN! Feddersen
Visual artist
Looking for Tiger Lily” a solo [theater] show by Anthony Hudson / Carla Rossi. It’s an irreverent, yet earnest, exploration of growing up as a mixed-race Native within the dominance of white American culture. I found it funny, compelling and acutely relatable.

This past year, artist RYAN! Feddersen started making beaded brooches resembling cross-sections of jawbreaker candies as gifts to commemorate this moment. Like jawbreakers, she says, “at points it’s sweet, but its often punishing, devoid of nutrients, and entirely too much.” (RYAN! Feddersen) 

This past year, artist RYAN! Feddersen started making beaded brooches resembling cross-sections of jawbreaker candies as gifts to commemorate this moment. Like jawbreakers, she says, “at points it’s sweet, but its often punishing, devoid of nutrients, and entirely too much.” (RYAN! Feddersen) 

Do you still believe in art? 

Jody Kuehner
Performer

I do believe in art. And as someone who's been a full-time working artist for 15 years, believing in art is not simple. I'm a person who has had success, I've toured, received big grants, residencies, all the things a successful artist should do and I'm now 41 and can't afford to pay rent or take care of basic needs. And this is the truth before COVID. Artists prepandemic were working within a system that wasn't really working — not enough funding and toxic relationships with presenters and organizations. The pandemic brought forward these issues tenfold. 

Bao Tran
Filmmaker       
     
100%. We’ve retreated to art in the last year in an unprecedented way. I hope people will appreciate that the art has to be created by someone, and they put a lot of work into it and deserve fair compensation.
Sara Porkalob
Theater artist

I think art is as powerful as it always has been. What has become more revealed to me is our white supremacist transactional culture, not really giving a shit about anybody but millionaires and billionaires…. The homelessness and the housing issue here in Seattle [are] continuing to grow while we are one of the wealthiest cities in America — that's not just ridiculous, that is unacceptable. I'm tired of talking about my medium as if it saves people when we don't have universal health care.

Vivian Hua
Filmmaker
Publisher
My whole life is predicated around the belief that I believe art is an amazing vehicle for personal and societal change. That has not shifted due to the pandemic. However, the bleakness of news in 2020 led me to realizing that arts journalism needs to be much more celebrated because it is a positive celebration of human creativity, and I thus restarted my publication REDEFINE. It's felt life changing and uplifting for me to just write about other people's artwork and provide something to offset the bleak news.
Eva Walker
Musician

I ABSOLUTELY BELIEVE IN ART! I always will.

A photo collage of gallerist and artist Tariqa Waters riding a unicorn in front of her new art space, MS PAM. (Tariqa Waters)

A photo collage of gallerist and artist Tariqa Waters riding a unicorn in front of her new art space, MS PAM. (Tariqa Waters)

How has the pandemic seeped into your work or changed you as an artist?

Anthony White
Visual artist

It just further cemented the fact that community and collaboration are what keep the world going.

Kira Jane Buxton
Writer       
     
Unfortunately, I jumped the gun a bit and was already writing about a pandemic. During the pandemic I stepped away from the Hollow Kingdom series I am writing because a funny novel about a virus that wipes out the human race felt a bit on the old proboscis. The pandemic made me seek out humor and levity, and I’ve found that the new novel I’m working on is a lot fluffier.
Tomo Nakayama
Musician

It has really altered my relationship to time. I feel less restricted to a rigid structure and more free to create whenever I feel the need.

Sara Porkalob
Theater artist
People always talk about the magic of theater being live… [but] for many folks purchasing a ticket to see a show at 5th Avenue Theatre or the Seattle Rep is outside of their means. And even if they are able to purchase a ticket … getting to the city and then finding parking.... Theater is inaccessible as an artistic medium. I knew that prior to COVID; it just slapped me in the face every day when lockdown actually began. It actually had me rethinking what I want to do as a theater artist.... I'm like, ‘Goddamn, Sara, your ableism is showing. How did you not think before to fight for streaming rights so that people who couldn't otherwise see it can see it?’
Olivier Wevers
Choreographer

Everything just became more personal. It really is driving my inspiration towards the core of our humanity. The work of an artist is to help us heal and cope, to bring people together, to dive inside ourselves and make us question our condition. I feel even more empowered to keep creating things, and produce visions that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Sara Porkalob performs in her autobiographical play “Dragon Mama.” In early 2022, she’ll stage two Dragon Cycle plays at Café Nordo in a “farewell” tour, before she heads to Broadway for the 1776 revival. (Gretjen Helene) 

Sara Porkalob performs in her autobiographical play “Dragon Mama.” In early 2022, she’ll stage two Dragon Cycle plays at Café Nordo in a “farewell” tour, before she heads to Broadway for the 1776 revival. (Gretjen Helene) 

Is there a type of ‘pandemic art’ you’re already tired of? 

Eva Walker
Musician

Ugh! I hated doing livestreams. I love live shows so much that the streaming was starting to irritate me a lot. I don’t like playing for just a single camera. It doesn’t laugh, cheer or even boo. I need a reaction! 

RYAN! Feddersen
Visual artist       
     
NFTs. While the problem with non-fungible tokens isn’t isolated to art, until cryptocurrencies move to “proof of stake” and away from “proof of work” and the associated mining, the carbon footprint is mind bogglingly massive.
Tomo Nakayama
Musician

I'm trying to get out of the mindset of thinking about the art we create now as "pandemic art." It's become clear that this uncertainty, the waves of things getting better and then worse again, is just how it's going to be for a while now. The only thing we can do is to keep creating!

Jody Kuehner 
Performer
I love that so many artists were able to shift into technology. And also I hate Zoom. I will never do a Zoom performance. 
Justin Huertas
Theater/music
artist

Zoom readings. They're awful. Nothing beats the live, shared experience for me. Nothing beats the immediate reaction when I sing a funny lyric and someone laughs at it. Hearing sighs or applause. I'm an Aries sun, Leo moon, Leo rising. So the immediate validation and approval is really great.

Olivier Wevers
Choreographer
Pandemic art? You mean all the free content created on social media for instant consumption, that turns no revenue for the artists creating it? I do hope that people will return to theaters and live shows, and that they won’t just think that art should be free.

Bao Tran’s martial arts comedy “The Paper Tigers” was released during the pandemic and is now available on Netflix (The Paper Tigers). 

Bao Tran’s martial arts comedy “The Paper Tigers” was released during the pandemic and is now available on Netflix (The Paper Tigers). 

What art event/show/activity are you most looking forward to this fall? 

Vivian Hua
Musician

I just want to go dance in a cool, dark basement and feel safe about it! But also looking forward to Northwest Film Forum's Local Sightings Film Festival, which will celebrate Pacific Northwest film and mediamakers.

Anthony White
Visual artist       
     
The show I am curating, In Crystallized Time, has been years in the making, and I’m so excited to finally see it take shape in October at Museum of Museums. I am also excited about seeing my work alongside some of my favorite artists and heroes at the Frye Art Museum for their Recent Acquisitions in Contemporary Art, as well as Barbara Earl Thomas’ and Derrick Adams’ show, Packaged Black, at the Henry.
Eva Walker
Musician

Doing lots of shows with my band [The Black Tones], if delta doesn’t cause them to be canceled.

Tomo Nakayama
Musician
I'm playing a show with my full band at the Neptune on Sept. 18th. It's my first Seattle show since the pandemic began. I was hoping things would be better by now, but we're going to do our best to do it safely and have as much fun as we can together.
Clyde Petersen
Filmmaker
Artist

I am looking forward to my solo exhibition [Even Hell Has Its Heroes] at J. Rinehart Gallery, opening in September. 

Louie Gong
Artist
Entrepreneur
Eighth Generation, the company I founded in 2008 and sold to the Snoqualmie Tribe in 2019, is moving into a new 30,000 square foot headquarters in October. That same month, around Indigenous Peoples Day, I’ll be announcing an artistic collaboration with one of the largest companies in the country.
Kira Jane Buxton
Writer

I was tremendously excited and tried to get tickets for the Van Gogh exhibition: The Immersive Experience . It sold out, however, and I’m very vindictive, so I hope Mr. Gogh doesn’t experience any sort of notoriety. That said, if anyone has an “in” with Mr. Gogh, please contact my people. I am also contractually obligated to tell you that my new book, Feral Creatures, came out on Aug. 24th.  

Jody Kuehner
Performer       
     
I'm looking forward to On the Boards’ New Now Festival and my continued love for the monthly TUSH at the Clock-Out Lounge. I am excited for two new works of mine that are in process — this fall we get to actually work on them in person!
RYAN! Feddersen
Visual artist

I am extremely excited to open “Inhabitance” a major permanent public artwork in the newly constructed Concourse B expansion at the PDX Airport this November. It’s comprised of a Cloud Walk (glass), five lenticular Sentinels (metal) and incised Habitat tiles (wood). 

Justin Huertas
Theater/music
artist
This fall, Lizard Boy is returning to the stage at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in the Bay Area. And then I am world premiering a brand new show at Arts West called We've Battled Monsters Before, with Rheanna Atendido. And in the middle of December, the film version of The Winter's Tale that we're creating now will stream through Seattle Rep.
three dancers in a rehearsal spaces touching each other almost like in a fight, caught in motion

Images from recent rehearsals for a new dance piece by choreographer Rena Butler, which will be performed by Whim W'Him during live shows this fall. (Whim W'Him) 

Images from recent rehearsals for a new dance piece by choreographer Rena Butler, which will be performed by Whim W'Him during live shows this fall. (Whim W'Him) 

Sara Porkalob
Theater artist

The ArtsWest season is very, very exciting. I believe the opener for this season is We've Battled Monsters Before, Justin [Huertas’] new musical. I'm excited for Beauty and The Beast at Fifth Avenue [January 2022], primarily because one of my friends is directing it, Jay O'Leary Woods. And then I’m excited to see live music outside. I don't really know anything that's going to happen, because everything's kind of in the air with the delta variant. 

Bao Tran
Filmmaker       
     
Seattle’s own East of the Mountains, and an action thriller Snakehead are releasing in theaters and video on demand this fall. 
Olivier Wevers
Choreographer

Artists are leaving, and or moving on, dance studios are disappearing in Seattle, so I am proud and looking forward to bringing all the incredible choreographers this season to create new works for Whim W'Him

If you had to write a speculative fiction story about a Seattle artist in the year 2025, how would you set the scene?

Eva Walker
Musician

“It was 108 degrees, and no one had air conditioning ... just a guitar and a ceiling fan….”

Vivian Hua
Filmmaker
Publisher       
   
Sigh. The battle between artists reclaiming space in the city has been won by artists. All gentrifying corporate capitalist forces ... realized due to climate change and the ailing state of the world that they ought to be less evil!
Kira Jane Buxton
Writer

Pike Place sat in his writing room, battling an insidious case of writer’s block and lamenting that he’d been named after an Amazon warehouse that was once a lively market where people threw fish at each other. The words would not come. His creativity felt clogged. He stared out the window where a feral pack of robo-dogs deviled the streets. The cyber-dogs ran this town, and no one could do anything about it because of their steel jaws and lack of obedience programming. 

An Elon Musk-cab whispered by on its daily mission to ferry travelers to Mars for no apparent reason. Pike Place watched a charm of surveillance drones as they flurried around the window, seducing him into sleep with their buzzy insistence. A chime of the city’s Big Boeing bells later, Pike Place awoke with a start and the euphoric realization that he was not creatively blocked after all! He had simply forgotten to plug himself in. 

Tomo Nakayama 
Musician
Everyone has a home, kindness and cooperation abounds, we're on our way to reversing the effects of climate change and racism, and the Seattle Mariners have won the World Series. It is good to be alive.

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