Seattle artist Kristen Ramirez designed the mural in 2014, saying she wanted to create a “cinematic, moving experience” for all who travel through. She enlisted community volunteers to help paint it, then celebrated their work with a roller disco party inside.
In 2015, the tunnel mural won an Americans for the Arts Award, national recognition for the best in public art projects. Now, it stands as one of the many arts legacies of Kristen Terry Ramirez, who died Nov. 9, 2021. She was 50 years old.
Close friends and family have only recently begun speaking publicly about her passing. After a sudden and intense struggle with depression, Ramirez died by suicide — shocking everyone who knew her as a highly engaged mother, sister, partner, friend, teacher and unrelenting artistic force.
“I’m not comfortable with the phrase ‘she took her own life,’ ” friend and fellow artist Jodi Rockwell says. “That phrase feels inaccurate. It was like a monster had hold of her — we couldn’t extract it.”
After growing up in Sacramento, Ramirez graduated from University of California Santa Cruz with a degree in history. She went on to get an M.A. in education from San Francisco State University. In a 2017 interview, she told me she “came of age” among the murals of the Mission District and became interested in the Mexican political mural tradition in part because of her heritage — as a boy, her paternal grandfather immigrated from Durango, Mexico, to San Francisco to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution.
In 2002, Ramirez headed north for a very different reason: to attend the University of Washington, where she earned her MFA in printmaking. She excelled at colorful visual mashups of iconic advertising signage, natural beauty and infrastructure — portraits of place infused with appreciation.
A recent Ramirez mural, commissioned by the 2+U building downtown, recalls her smaller scale cityscape prints. In it, she imagines the pink Elephant Car Wash sign frolicking amid ferns and Mount Rainier.
From early in her career, she believed art is at its most powerful when shared with the public. She taught drawing and printmaking at various local institutions, including the Pratt Fine Art Center, Cornish College of the Arts, Edmonds Community Center and the University of Washington, influencing countless students with her community-engaged approach to art.
“We both believed art can change people’s lives,” says dear friend and frequent collaborator Elisheba Johnson. She and Ramirez bonded while working at the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. (“Meeting was like soul mates,” Johnson recalls.)
Ramirez was a public art project manager there for more than six years, working with artists to develop and install works as part of the 1% for Art program. During that time, she was also artist in residence at the Seattle Department of Transportation, serving as an artistic liaison between the departments and generating project ideas for both.
“She forever changed the world of city government,” says Randy Engstrom, former director of the Office of Arts and Culture, who was also a close friend and neighbor of Ramirez. “She brought imagination … and pushed institutions to imagine more.”
One example, he says, was the Public Art Comes to Your Front Yard initiative, created during those first unsettling weeks of the pandemic. With the city locked down, and neighborhood walks serving as a rare diversion for residents stuck in their homes, she commissioned a series of yard signs by local artists featuring simple, visual messages of perseverance and hope.
“She pulled that together in two weeks!” Engstrom marvels. “It was just yard signs, but it was so moving and impactful. She was able to find the money and the artists and bring it to the world when we needed it so much.”
Her desire to connect with the public was reflected in her own mural-making, too. Sometimes Ramirez surveyed community members before embarking on her public works, and she often talked with passersby who approached her as she painted. “It’s like unlicensed therapy,” she told City Arts in 2018. “Your interactions with the public are so unusual. You don’t have those opportunities often.” Her big, bold wallscapes thrum with color and movement, reflecting her fondness for the large-scale colorful geometry of one of her favorite artists, Sol Lewitt.
Ramirez’s influence is evident throughout the region. She contributed a piece to the SoDo Track Mural Corridor, coordinated a community mural in View Park near Harborview Medical Center, painted another bike tunnel, in Boise, Idaho, and covered Seattle’s public steps and utility boxes with vivid stripes and shapes. “She really wanted to paint this gray town orange,” Rockwell says.
In 2020, Ramirez completed a two-story tall mural inside Amazon’s Nitro building in South Lake Union. The piece features her signature turquoise and orange color palette, with circular shapes that seem to tick forward like clock gears. Inside one of the circles is a quote from Muhammad Ali, his simple poem: “Me. We.”
Kristen Ramirez in 2009, when she was the inaugural artist in residence at the Fremont Bridge. Her project involved collecting voicemails from community members who wanted to share thoughts about the bridge. Since her death, friends have created a voicemail box (206-552-0467) so that people who knew her can share remembrances. (Steve Korn)
The first time I met Kristen was in 2009, on the Fremont Bridge. I was writing a profile about her for Seattle magazine as she embarked on the inaugural artist residency in one of the bridge towers. I had been a fan of her print work from afar, but I was wowed when she showed up dressed in the same deep blue tones of the bridge, her auburn hair emulating the rust-colored architectural accents on the towers.
As we climbed up the narrow tower steps to the windowed perch, I was already getting swept up in her can-do spirit and unconventional ideas. Her plan was to collect voicemails from anyone who wanted to share memories about the bridge, then weave those together with the atmospheric sounds of the bridge (seagulls, the groaning lift of the spans, boats honking their requests to come through) into a shareable sound collage — an audible cityscape and oral history. The grand finale: a community parade across the bridge.
“That Fremont Bridge project is pretty telling,” Rockwell says. “Seattle is content to be subdued, but she brought the fanfare — a parade, honking horns, people sharing their stories. She was a real community builder.” In 2016, as part of her city job, Ramirez jump-started the then-defunct residency, and eventually expanded it to the University Bridge Tower.
Somewhere around that time, I got to know her more personally. She and her husband, Morgan Hougland, had divorced, and she was dating a friend of mine. I admired her sharp wit, her ribbing sense of humor, her no-nonsense attitude.
In 2017 she asked me to take a look at a memoir she was working on — conversational explorations of the “split identity” she felt as an Irish-Mexican (“It is a strange thing to be so white but feel so Mexican,” she wrote); her bisexuality; the competing demands of motherhood, work and art; quotes from beloved writers and artists; her enormous love for her son. The essays are revealing, funny and questioning, like her.
When I recently visited the Beacon Hill home Ramirez shared with Andrea Ramsay, her girlfriend of five years, it felt as if she were still living in the single-story brick house. Her presence emanates from the deep turquoise and burnt orange colors on the walls, floors and furniture. The open living room and kitchen are hung with works by local artist friends, as well as pieces by her and Hougland’s son, age 14. Vintage photos of her grandparents on the mantel, a stack of Margaret Kilgallen art books on a shelf, a Diego Rivera puzzle on the kitchen table — all spoke her name.
“Most of the time I don’t know which analogy to use — I took the wrong Matrix pill, I had a weird dream — it just feels impossible that’s she’s gone,” Ramsay says. “Sometimes I still think I’m just taking care of things until she comes back.”
Outside, at the north end of the communal backyard shared by several other families whose homes surround it, is a mural Ramirez painted behind an outdoor dining table. Orange-striped arrows all point to the center, where a single word on a light blue backdrop reads LOVE.
It’s the same word Elisheba Johnson says when I ask what she thinks Ramirez’s legacy might be. “Love,” she answers right away. “Maybe that sounds trite, in some ways, but not in her way. … She just believed in humankind.”
Diana Falchuk, another close friend, says the sentiment echoed through her work. “Her art is loving,” she says, “loving but also inviting and motivating. … She would find these truths about the world and say them in color.”
At the other end of the backyard is an unfinished mural Ramirez had started working on in early July of 2021: three intersecting circles in shades of blue that vibrate with the feeling of a close-knit family. On Instagram she posted a photo of the work in progress, writing, “Playing on the wall in my side yard with made up rules. Like, only use leftover paint that you find in the basement, no pre-planning the composition, make circles with push pin and dental floss. …” It remains incomplete, the unfilled outlines sketched in thin white. “She was going to add the orange next,” Ramsay says.
Soon after, Ramirez’s mental health deteriorated. Her partner, her ex-husband and several of the friends I spoke with believe her sudden depression and anxiety was related to the onset of perimenopause, the time of life when hormones start to shift dramatically, leading up to menopause. Symptoms can be serious, both physically and psychologically, and can manifest in different ways for up to 10 years (by way of example, I am currently in my eighth year of varying symptoms). It’s a normal part of aging, yet there still isn’t much medical knowledge about it — and the topic remains taboo, even among women.
“She was talking to people about menopause,” Falchuk recalls. “But I didn’t really get it because nobody had ever talked to me about that before — and I’m almost 45.” (Perimenopause usually happens between ages 45 and 54.) “We can talk about sex ed, abstinence, abortion,” Falchuk says, “but menopause? It’s complete silence.”
When Falchuk started researching, and read that women in this age bracket are seven times more likely to experience suicidal ideation than women of other ages (and men of any age), she thought, “Why the fuck aren’t we talking about this all the time?”
At one point, Ramirez expressed to Rockwell that she’d never experienced anything like this, saying, “These hormones are intense.” She canceled plans and told several people, “I’m not myself.”
This came on top of the stress wrought by two years of pandemic isolation. “At first, in early August, it seemed kind of normal for 2021,” Ramsay says. “There’s a lot to be anxious about.” Ramirez had previously expressed worries to Rockwell about things like the increase in wildfires, the homelessness crisis and pandemic repercussions. “That stuff got to her,” Rockwell says, “but it wasn’t going to take her down.”
Ramsay agrees. “She was dealing with all these things,” she says, adding that Ramirez’s father had died in 2019. “But with the menopause component, she really lost sight of herself.” Insomnia is a common symptom and, according to Ramsay, by the fall Ramirez was sleeping only about two hours a night. Both Ramsay and Rockwell believe the exhaustion and psychological impact of the hormonal changes tumbled her into a dark place.
“It was literally like a switch,” Johnson recalls. “She is so optimistic, but she was really heartbroken — ‘humanity is broken’ she kept saying to me.”
Ramsay says she and Ramirez were doing everything possible to get help. “Her doctor was trying different medications, but it takes a while to see what’s working, to get the balance right,” says Ramsay, adding that Ramirez’s health care provider didn’t have a perimenopause expert.
“I have a lot of anger toward our health care system,” says Hougland, Ramirez’s ex-husband. They split in 2014 but remained friendly, as co-parents and neighbors. “She had so much trouble getting help. It’s such a tragedy.” He says over the years she experienced some anxieties, “but it was never debilitating, it never prevented her from doing anything…. She was not a person with depression.” On the contrary, he describes her as passionate, driven and impatient to execute on big ideas.
“If I made a list of people I know, and the likelihood that any of them would do self-harm,” Engstrom says, “she would be absolute last.”
Johnson echoes others who say it felt like something came and took Ramirez away. “She wouldn’t want her legacy to be that this happened to her,” Johnson says. “But she would want other women to get help.” Friends hope more open discussion of perimenopause and its mental health effects might be one positive thing that comes out of such loss.
“In those last three months she was tortured in a way we can’t imagine,” Falchuk says. “She had been completely hijacked.”
Ramirez would have turned 51 on April 6. Her spirit lives on in her son, and in his art — which she fostered enthusiastically, arranging coffee shop exhibits and making sticker versions of his drawings. Her influence is there in the students, artists and friends she inspired and elevated, as well as in the ongoing public art projects that she had embarked on with collaborators Engstrom and Johnson. (“I hear her voice telling me, ‘You got this,’ ” Johnson says. “It feels good to keep her alive with this work.”) And she’s here visibly, in the murals that enliven our cityscape.
In the course of writing this, I drove up to the Wayne Tunnel on a dismal gray evening and dove inside its pinky-orange glow. As Ramirez had learned from the tunnel users she surveyed, the acoustics are incredible. Passers-through frequently yell or whistle — which is why she painted two fish at each end, with speech bubbles reading “HELLO,” “HONK,” “HOOT” and “HOLLER.” My husband and I walked its length, whooping and cawing, and then he surprised me. “Kristen Ramirez!” he shouted, and her name echoed back and forth, resounding in the air and art all around us.
If you or someone you know needs support for mental health, here’s where to find help.
Crisis Connections: Covers King County and surrounding areas with five programs focused on serving the emotional and physical needs of people across Washington state. Call 866-427-4747.
Washington 211: Free referral and informational help line that connects people to health and human services, available 24/7. Call 211.
Washington Recovery Helpline: 24-hour crisis intervention and referral assistance for substance abuse, mental health and gambling. Call 866-789-1511.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: National network of local crisis centers that provide free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 800-273-8255.
National Alliance on Mental Illness: The nation’s largest grassroots mental-health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
The North American Menopause Society maintains a regional database of practitioners specializing in menopause related illnesses.
Locally based company Gennev offers telehealth appointments specifically for perimenopause and menopause related concerns.