ArtSEA: Historic Soul Pole returns to Seattle’s Central District

Plus, glitches at the Henry Art Gallery and ghosts at ACT Theatre.

Carved wooden pole with worker to the left unveiling it

A worker unveils the "Soul Pole" on April 5 at the Douglass-Truth branch of the Seattle Public Library. The pole recently came back to its longtime corner after a yearlong conservation project. (Margo Vansynghel/Crosscut) 

Earlier this week, as the April sun broke through puffy white clouds, a cadre of workers in orange hats and reflective yellow vests wiggled and shimmied a 21-foot-tall, carved wooden pole into its base on the lawn of the Douglass-Truth library in Seattle’s Central District. The pole swayed briefly but didn’t budge.

As I witnessed the reinstallation of the “Soul Pole,” which arrived at the library in the early 1970s, the tableau felt like an apt encapsulation of the story of the beloved beacon itself. Despite nearly 50 years of exposure to sleet and sun, its wood contracting and expanding with the shifting seasons, the pole never buckled. 

Last year, as it became clear to Seattle Public Library staff that the pole was in need of upkeep, it disappeared from its longtime spot for a substantive conservation project, which helped stabilize its internal structure and repaired damage from insects and weather. The only visible reminder of the pole’s “gap year” is a zinc cap placed on its top, to protect it from water seeping in. The refreshed Soul Pole now again rises from its perch at 23rd and Yesler.

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Depicting a series of figures representing 400 years of African American history, the pole represents the tenacity of community in the Central District, said Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, during a celebratory press event this week. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” 

Left: Gregory X, former art department director of the Rotary Boys Club, watches as the 21-foot-high "Soul Pole" is installed in April 1973. (Courtesy MOHAI). Right: Installation of the Soul Pole after its renovation, April 2022 (Margo Vansynghel/Crosscut)

Johnson-Toliver has been digging in to the local history of the pole, which came together under the auspices of Raqib Mu’ied (formerly Gregory X), who once served as the art director for the Seattle Rotary Boys Club. In the late sixties, he enlisted local youth, most of whom attended Garfield High School, to carve faces into a donated telephone pole. 

Debra Gulley-Collins, daughter of the executive director of the club, was around 8 years old when she helped with the project. “Learning to use a chisel and how to carve that wood was a great time for us as kids,” she told me. “I remember spending so much time getting splinters.” 

The pole represents “the significance of standing tall and being proud of who you are,” she said. “And right now, seeing it restored, oh my gosh, it feels wonderful.” 

Installation view of “Donna Huanca: MAGMA SLIT, 2022,” Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington. (Jonathan Vanderweit)

At the Henry Art Gallery, standing in front of a 30-foot-wide painting representing springtime, I once again felt myself pondering this unpredictable, convulsive time of year. Brushstrokes of oil paint mixed with sand had left thick churns of oceanic azure, sky blue and jade interspersed with puffs of white paint and flashes of daffodil yellow. It felt like the sky and grass had collided, swirling into one as it would in the eyes of someone lying intoxicated in the spring grass. 

This sensory, bodily experience of the seasons is very much the point of MAGMA SLIT, an engaging new exhibit by the Bolivian-American artist Donna Huanca at the Henry (on view through Feb. 5, 2023). 

Four sets of combined paintings, each dedicated to one season, line the walls and will switch positions during the course of the exhibit. Made from oil paint and sand layered on top of digital photo prints, these mural-sized paintings feel monumental.

The overhead soundtrack is a sonic collage made from layers of sounds Huanca recorded out in the world and collected on the internet. Featuring chirping birds and sounds seemingly coming from deep within the earth like roaring magma, it enhances the installation's sense of scale. The cycle of seasons churns with or without us. 

Also monumental is the exhibit’s eye-catching central sculpture, a large, bulbous stagelike base filled with white sand, lit by skylights from above. A mirrored screen slices through the middle of the base, like a room divider or metal veil. The laser-cut slashes and openings in the screens seemingly take the shape of countries on a made-up world map, but are actually based on Huanca’s drawings of small groups of human figures and crowds. Now, in the absence of those people, spotting a few other masked visitors on the other side through the gaps, these lacunae feel apt for this pandemic moment, where anything can happen after a major glitch: The gaps can widen, or we can close the distance.

The company of ACT’s production of The Thin Place, 2022 (Truman Buffet)

Speaking of glitches and thresholds: This weekend marks your last chance to see the haunting nail-biter The Thin Place (through April 10) at ACT Theatre

You know the thin place: that transcendental plane between earth and the afterlife, where souls of the dead linger and inexplicable things happen. “It’s sort of like if you were to imagine an octopus in an aquarium pressed up against glass … except that there’s no glass … and no octopus,” says mild-mannered main character Hilda, as she explains her fascination with this eerie borderland. She’s also spellbound by Linda, a medium who tricks rich people into believing they’re talking to the dead. But what is real and what is make-believe? Can you tell?

Seated in ACT’s theater-in-the-round, the audience surrounds the central action — much as in a séance. The traditional staging and set design initially appears to promise an old-fashioned, talk-heavy play, but that’s part of the conceit. (And here I’ll spare you from spoilers.) 

Written in 2021 by Obie Award-winner Lucas Hnath and directed by Seattleite Brandon J. Simmons, the play is packed with suspense and surprising twists — as well as some comic relief. Coming in right at the 90-minute sweet spot, it’s the perfect popcorn psychological thriller. Sure, it’s a ghost story, but while watching we learn some things are more haunting than the dead — and that it’s the liminal spaces, the moments of change and transition, that are truly the most riveting.

This spring has felt like Seattle’s arts and culture scene has crossed a threshold, too — particularly live events, which seem to be back in full swing. Here are a few to add to your cultural calendar this weekend:

It’s feeling a little bit like Halloween in spring around here, what with The Thin Place and a new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 classic, Ghosts, at the Seattle Repertory Theatre (through May 1; streaming April 13-May 1), featuring Broadway and film actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. 

Seattle’s The Klein Party, a self-described klezmer-ish party band, is organizing a series of benefit concerts for Ukraine featuring klezmer and traditional Ukrainian music. First up in the series is a concert by The Klein Party with special guests at The Royal Room in Columbia City. (April 10 at 3 p.m.)

The small but mighty new-ish Get Nice Gallery in Ballard is debuting a new group show dedicated to springtime. Featuring 10-plus local artists, including Stevie Shao, Brandon Vosika and Mary Anne Carter, BLOOM (opening April 9) is sure to be apt for the season. 

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