A big indie alternative to Seattle Art Fair opens in Pioneer Square

The ‘Forest for the Trees’ exhibit will feature 7 floors of art, more than 100 artists, live music, bars and roof-top installations.

Person with brown short bob installs a ceramic head on a piece of darker-colored ceramics

Artist Emily Counts installs her artwork featured in the “Forest for the Trees” exhibit opening in a vacant building near the Seattle Art Fair in Pioneer Square on Monday, June 27, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/ Crosscut)

When Seattle curators Julianne Johnson and Austin Bellamy Hicks first stepped out of the elevator and into the sprawling Pioneer Square space, they couldn’t help but gasp. The double-height ceilings. A grand wooden staircase leading up to a balcony dense with native plants, plus a nearly 360-degree view of Elliott Bay and the Seattle skyline. And most of all: space. Lots of it — 14,000 square feet, more than most curators could ever dream of. If there ever was a perfect place to show art, this was it.

The recently rehabbed RailSpur building, a vacant office–tower-to-be just steps away from Seattle's King Street Station, will be the site of one of the most monumental and ambitious art exhibits Seattle has seen in years. Envisioned by a group of local artist-curators, Forest for the Trees will coincide with and stand as a counterpoint to this year’s Seattle Art Fair (July 21-24). In contrast to the fair, tickets for Forest for the Trees are free, and you might even be able to afford more of the art. 

“Having it during that time period is specifically because there’s gonna be a lot of art enthusiasts and patrons in the area,” says Seattle artist Gage Hamilton, known for his work on the celebrated SoDo Track mural corridor. He’s one of the main producers behind the event. “This is the thing next door that’s maybe a little bit more experimental and immersive.” 

The name Forest for the Trees is a play on the old adage — “but the goal is [also] to help create an environment that gives space for artists to grow,” Hamilton says. Viewers may experience an expansive feeling as well. “We hope people can get lost a bit in the work,” he adds. From giant flags to sprawling murals, a stalactite made of sugar, neon and ceramic sculptures plus countless paintings and a massive uterus sculpture, Forest for the Trees will be a feast for the eyes meant to rival the visual overdose the art fair usually brings. 

Since its inception in 2015, Seattle Art Fair weekend has become a staple of the city’s cultural summer, in part because independent artists and galleries made good on Seattle’s DIY reputation by staging their own, more locally focused “satellite” exhibits during the for-profit fair.

The most ambitious and influential among those was Out of Sight, which — under the tutelage of local curator and art-space maven Greg Lundgren — brought together a cabinet of wonders of local art in rehabbed vacant Pioneer Square buildings during its three-year run from 2015 through 2017. (Other satellite approaches to the Seattle Art Fair have included Georgetown gallery Studio e's offsite show at the bottom of a business tower in 2018, and the Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair, a pandemic collaboration of local gallery shows in 2020 and 2021.)

A group of curators install a neon artwork by Kelsey Fernkopf on the roof of the RailSpur building. The artwork will be featured in the “Forest for the Trees” exhibit in Pioneer Square, which runs July 21-24. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

“We are modeling [our exhibit] after Out of Sight,” co-curator Johnson says, standing near the space’s grand staircase, which seems to be leading up to the sky. “Which was basically like: ‘Hey, Art Fair, you overlooked the Pacific Northwest scene — so we're going to do it ourselves.’” The official Seattle Art Fair’s lineup this year is more local, Johnson admits. Still, for her, the interest lies in doing something that is not as slick as a fair. “We're really interested in keeping it kind of weird,” she says, “highlighting people who haven't shown before — just opening up space for people.” 

Hicks and Johnson’s 14,000 square feet of art, dubbed XO Seattle (“a love note to the Pacific Northwest arts communities”), is just one facet — and one floor — of Forest for the Trees

The show is so massive and includes so many people that it’s near impossible to summarize without launching into a list of numbers and names: The building's seven floors, alley and rooftop deck will be filled with immersive installations, large-scale murals, group exhibitions, dance performances and live music. This is courtesy of a dozen curators and more than a hundred local artists — a true who’s who of Seattle art, including Moses Sun and the Vivid Matter Collective, Nikita Ares, RYAN! Feddersen, Stevie Shao, Baso Fibonacci, Jite Agbro and a slate of artists from Oregon, California and beyond. 

Left: Neon artwork by Yale Wolf featured in “Forest for the Trees” exhibit. Right: Work by Stevie Shao featured in “Forest for the Trees” exhibit. “The excitement and the energy is something that I haven’t felt in the last couple of years — because of the way people have been separated,” says Forest for the Trees co-producer Dominic Nieri. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Forest for the Trees co-producers Hamilton and Dominic Nieri, who runs a Seattle-based art production company and artist residency program called ARTXIV, were originally tasked with creating a few permanent installations for the new building as part of an art-forward strategy by the building’s developers, Urban Villages. But, during a tour, an Urban Villages representative mentioned that construction delays had left the building empty for now. “Gage and I, naturally, were compelled to do something crazy,” Nieri says. So they asked the developers: “Do you mind if we take over the whole building?” 

They agreed. “And then it was like: ‘OK, now, what do we do?’ ” Hamilton says. Since then, Hamilton and Nieri have been working nearly round-the-clock to make it all happen in a condensed time frame. (“We’ve got four people on air mattresses on my floor right now,” Hamilton wrote via text recently. “It’s like camp.”) “Normally, you [need] anywhere from 12 to 18 months for this,” Nieri says. 

Knowing they had 70,000 square feet to fill, Hamilton and Nieri reached out to half a dozen (mostly) West Coast curators, each of whom they gave carte blanche to transform “their” floor as they saw fit. 

Hamilton is curating the first two floors. On the ground floor, visitors will walk into a kind of atelier where, in the week leading up to Art Fair weekend, 16 local and national artists — including Stevie Shao, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Brandon Vosika — will be painting mural-sized canvases on site. The second floor, for now, is a “mystery exhibit” Hamilton declined to discuss, except to say that there will also be a bar and that it will be “a good place to go if you need a break from the exhibits and parties.” 

Seattle artist Gage Hamilton’s work is featured on the first floor of the expansive exhibit opening near the Seattle Art Fair. Other artists on the first floor will be painting directly onto canvases. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Taking the elevator up another story: The third floor will be dedicated to and named after Gaspar Yanga, an enslaved African man who led one of colonial Mexico’s first successful uprisings of enslaved people. The Portland-based artists behind the project, rubén garcía marrufo and maximiliano, will pull from their “mixed cultures” to envision an immersive, liminal space. 

During a recent visit, the sprawling wooden floors of the third floor were still bare, save a few pieces of white ceramics wedged in between the planks and a splayed-open suitcase. “The suitcase, for now, is how we are transporting our art,” garcía marrufo says, explaining they took the bus up from Portland. 

The space is dim; the artists have blocked many of the windows with black paper. Soon, the whole place will be dark. For now, though, one window is still uncovered, offering a front-row view of Lumen Field — the setting of the sixth edition of the Seattle Art Fair — just about 1,000 feet south. “I’ve been told that’s where the art fair is,” garcía marrufo says.

“It was a fun chance to be adjacent to this art fair, which feels really formal,” maximiliano chimes in. “This will be this place that you go when you’re done wearing a tie,” adding: “I'm just really excited for all the different art and energy that will be brought to the building and all the different floors.” 

And not just to the floors: Seattle color gradient artist Christopher Derek Bruno will be installing an 8-story light and sound installation called “Its~Olafur-You+Me” in the stairwell.

Curator Austin Bellamy Hicks, right, holds work by Priscilla Dobler, left, featured in “Forest For The Trees” exhibit opening near the Seattle Art Fair in Pioneer Square. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

While some of the floors are still in progress, Seattle curators Lele Barnett and Amanda Manitach, responsible for the fifth floor, have a locked-in artist roster. The idea for the show Howl, a survey of mostly local female-identifying and nonbinary artists, was born in the wake of the leak of the Roe v. Wade draft decision (foreshadowing the eventual overturn this past June). 

Because of the subject matter and the constraints of the space — which is huge, but doesn’t have a ton of straightforward wall space — Barnett and Manitach opted for “big pieces that could take up space and not have to sit on a wall,” Manitach says.

Visitors will be able to climb into a larger-than-life uterus sculpture by local artist Fumi Amano. Megan Prince will enlist local volunteers to help her build a sprawling string installation woven between the building’s wooden columns. Local artist Nina Vichayapai is installing a lush fabric garden and Amanda James Parker will let a bunch of balloons loose in the space. In a collaboration with Shout Your Abortion, Los Angeles artist No Touching Ground will wheat paste an image of the American flag — its stars white pills, the white stripes overlaid with red text reading “Abortion Pills forever” — across a large piece of wall. 

“Artists are messengers; they express our collective hurt and healing,” Manitach wrote in an email. “For that reason I think this year the art fair and evening we’re doing around it is going to be charged — poignant.” 

The work of artist Tina Randolph hangs on the wall in the Pioneer Square RailSpur building, as part of the “Forest For The Trees” exhibit opening near the Seattle Art Fair in Pioneer Square. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Up on the seventh floor, XO Seattle (which is the only show that will charge admission and will run through August) will feature an impressive roster of more than four dozen artists, including Mary Anne Carter, Sean Hamilton and Emily Counts, as well as some lesser-known names. Also enlisted were Erik Molano of Photon Factory and Moses Sun of Vivid Matter Collective as co-curators, who will put their own stamp on the show. Expect paintings and sculptures, but also an immersive “rainbow therapy lounge,” a Vivid Matter Collective pavilion and multiple installations — including one made from actual sugar — across the interior and sundeck. 

“We’re gonna put a beautiful Phillip Levine bronze sculpture made in the ’60s and ’70s [here],” Hicks explains on a recent, sun-drenched afternoon on the balcony. “We’re going to put a Kelsey Fernkopf neon portal door over there,” he continues, gesturing toward the building’s western, water view side. “The city makes such a good backdrop to everything,” Johnson says. 

That includes a pop-up bar on the rooftop, courtesy of Capitol Hill establishment La Dive (known for its boozy slushies). And more than two years after the pandemic devastated the local arts scene, partying amid the art feels apt. In a way, this XO show — and Forest for the Trees at large — is a jubilant comeback, a celebration of the richness of the local art scene. 

“The art scene in Seattle is unbelievable, and I feel like it gets underlooked or not given the respect it deserves … but you just pick up a rock and there’s art being made,” Hicks says. 

“We are so lucky to live in a wildly creative city,” Johnson adds. “There's just so much work to show.”

Installer Kate Fernandez hangs up an artwork by RYAN! Feddersen, which will be on view during “Forest For The Trees,” a sprawling exhibit opening near (and during) the 2022 Seattle Art Fair. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

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