ArtSEA: Remembering Town Hall Seattle director Wier Harman

Plus, Intiman Theatre’s ‘Black Nativity’ retakes the stage and garden light shows shine from Bellevue to Bainbridge. 

photo of a man with brown hair and glasses standing against a wall painted with flowers

Wier Harman, longtime director of Town Hall Seattle and local arts leader, died on Dec. 11. (Dan DeLong/Town Hall)

This week Seattle lost a bright light in the arts firmament. Wier Harman, the longtime director of Town Hall Seattle, died on Monday, Dec. 11 after six years in treatment for lung cancer. He was 57.

After working many years in the theater world, Wier took the reins at Town Hall in 2005 (succeeding founder David Brewster, who also founded Crosscut). He spent the next 17 years expanding the venue’s arts and culture programming, working to draw younger audiences and recently leading a $35 million renovation of the Neoclassical church-turned-cultural hub.

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I attended a hardhat tour with Wier during that renovation, and remember him stepping nimbly through the forest of scaffolding that had sprouted up in the domed great hall. 

The revamp was running late due to several surprises unearthed in the 100-year-old-building, but he was enthusiastic about better acoustics for concerts, new artworks that would grace the walls, a clubby new downstairs venue — things that would foster and amplify lively gatherings. 

Wier was always generous in inviting me to participate in Town Hall events, and I did so as a moderator, interviewer and reader over the years. This week I recalled a coffee meeting with him at some point just before his 2017 diagnosis. 

That day he was as smart and funny as ever, but was struggling with terrible back pain and considering all sorts of treatments. We talked about acupuncture and Rolfing and other options, but it turned out to be something much harder to cure.

He kept going, determined to bring people together in the name of music and storytelling and civic discussion. Then in June, 2022, Wier announced he’d be stepping down from Town Hall at the end of that year. (In the months between, he couldn’t help but launch a literary festival.) 

In his departing message, Wier spelled out what he hoped for Town Hall — which by no coincidence is also a solid charter for the arts community at large: “Our role is simple and profound: to remind us that some things must be experienced together, and that ‘coming together’ is often its own reward.”

Kearia Keke Duncan dances as part of Intiman Theatre’s revival of ‘Black Nativity’ at Broadway Performance Hall. (Joe Moore)

The power of joining with neighbors in storytelling and song was in full effect at Broadway Performance Hall earlier this week, when I went to see a preview of Intiman Theatre’s Black Nativity (through Dec. 30). 

Based on Langston Hughes’ gospel play from 1961, the show was a beloved holiday tradition in Seattle from 1998 through 2012. During those years, it featured a huge cast of gospel singers (thanks to legendary local Rev. Patrinell “Pat” Wright and her Total Experience Gospel Choir). A decade later, after many community requests for it, Black Nativity is back. 

This new adaptation — co-presented with The Hansberry Project and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton — has been slimmed down a bit (without the Total Experience), but the gospel voices still shine forth from the stage like the rays of a glittering sun. 

Also glittering: the regal circular headpieces worn by Shaunyce Omar and Esther Okech, who play key characters. I was struck by the costuming throughout (designed by Danielle Nieves), from lushly colorful robes to simple shepherd clothing to the pleated gold cape/angel wings wielded by dancer Kearia Keke Duncan.

Yes, in addition to the live band and 16-person choir (directed by Rev. Sam L. Townsend Jr.), five dancers enact the central plot via wordless movement choreographed by Vania C. Bynum

The birth story moves along quickly, thanks to the spare script and continuous, joyful voices singing gospel songs and carols. (Another miracle? How fast Mary, performed with grace by DaeZhane Day, is able to leap up and dance after giving birth in a manger.)

Even those of us who aren’t churchgoers can be moved by light pouring through a chapel’s stained-glass window. Here too, the art inspires connection — the passion is palpable, the talent is divine. And in the end, you’re invited to join these voices in song.

Astra Lumina is a flashy new holiday light walk at the Seattle Chinese Garden. (Daniel Spils)

You’ll find all manner of light displays around town this time of year — a sparkling and welcome remedy for the Big Dark. My favorites tend to be those in gardens and parks, where you can bundle up and experience nature, illuminated. 

This year, the most high-tech (and heavily advertised) light walk is the new Astra Lumina, a “celestial pathway” co-staged by national experiential companies Fever and Moment Factory. It’s spread out over the Seattle Chinese Garden on the campus of South Seattle College

“We’re always told to reach for the stars, but what if the stars could reach for us?” reads the stoner-101 tagline (whoaaah, dude!). And with that, a narrative about stars coming to earth carries you through the grounds.

You can easily disregard the storyline, but you can’t ignore the blasting “astral” music (think John Williams meets Enya). I’m betting the surrounding houses can’t ignore it either. 

Granted, it does include some very cool lighting moments — one transports you deep inside a pink disco forest. The experience gets you out on a one-mile nature walk and affords some primo Instagram pics. Adult tickets are $41 (plus $12 parking), and it took me about 25 minutes to take in the nine installations. 

Call me old-school, but I prefer light walks like the one at the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way. The Winter Bonsai Solstice event (Dec. 16, 4 - 7 p.m.) features the museum’s world-renowned outdoor bonsai collection, subtly lit to accentuate the dramatically pruned trees. 

Or head to the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, where two Silent Solstice Walks (Dec. 19 & 21, 6 p.m.) feature quietly led group lantern tours of the gorgeous grounds. 

At Lakewold Gardens, a historic 10-acre estate on Gravelly Lake, you can explore the Winter Solstice event (Dec. 14 - 31), including live music, twilight garden walks and Coming to Light, a show featuring sun-splashed textiles by the Contemporary QuiltArt Association. 

The Washington Park Arboretum is holding a Winter Solstice Walk (Dec. 22, 3 - 8 p.m., advance registration required), combining a luminary-enhanced forest stroll with swag-making and festive holiday beverage swigging.

And if you long for a little more pizzazz with your plants, there’s always the annual Garden d’Lights at the Bellevue Botanical Garden (through Dec. 31), featuring some 500,000 twinkling lights in the form of flora and fauna. 

And finally ... more! art! markets!

Note: I’ve returned from a few holiday art markets with important news. Whereas last year the mushroom was the most recurring artisanal image, embellishing all kinds of crafts, this year the pickle is making a strong showing.

So pucker up and head out to shop with art in mind. Here are seven more seasonal markets and art sales: 

Black Artists Market at Seattle Opera’s Tagney Hall, Dec. 16, 11:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m.

MiniMart City Park Mini Mar(ke)t, Georgetown, Dec. 17, noon - 5 p.m.

Tractor Tavern Makers Market, Ballard, Dec. 17, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. (21+ only)

United Indians Native Art Market, Daybreak Star Cultural Center, Dec. 15 - 17, times vary.

Modern Glaze Collage and Clay Art, cool ceramics, Shoreline, Dec. 16 - 17, noon - 5 p.m.

Seward Park Clay Studio’s Holiday Show and Sale, through Dec. 26, noon - 6 p.m.

Ghost Gallery’s Holiday Mini Art Exhibit (online), with prints, paintings and felted cuteness.

Davidson Galleries’ Holiday Guide (online), with loads of art prints $250 and under.

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