Dozens of COVID 19 murals going up on Capitol Hill from Pike and 10th to Broadway and Pine, in Pioneer Square, and a third group in Ballard. The idea is that plywood over closed stores provides a great surface for painting. Many types of artists are involved, and the procedures vary. Sometimes an individual store owner directly chooses artists, as with the Globe Bookstore, Molly Moon, and Oddfellows; other times it is an organization like the Alliance for Pioneer Square and Pioneer Square Business Improvement Association. Here is a link to a website that lists all the artists and murals there in Pioneer Square. See pioneersquare.org/experiences/murals-in-pioneer-square. Another organization is “Signs of Hope” by CreativityThatConnects. creativitythatconnects.com/collections/seattle-locations-1.
In some cases, artists simply paint beautiful imagery such as lush green foliage (Josephine Riceflower Wakuda) or mountain peaks (Nikki Frumkin). Often there are encouraging words: “Keep Going,” “Slow Down” “Stay Strong,” “Stay Home,” “I can’t wait to see you again,” etc. The theme of the mural is frequently directly related to the store that commissioned it, as in the cheery works of Morgan Zion on Molly Moon’s Ice cream stores and Coastal Kitchen (a nautical theme of course).
Steve Shao, Ballard. Photo by Jeff Hou
Collectively the murals suggest a reassuring outburst of creativity as we all fear the loss of all of our cultural organizations. Many of the artists come from a street art/graffiti background, or a pop culture focus. Others are obviously highly trained illustrators and fine artists. If you go to look for the murals, be forewarned it is easy to miss some of them. The walking tour map of Pioneer Square (from link above) showed me that I missed at least half of them. Even on Capitol Hill to which I returned three times, I missed some based on photos sent to me by Jeff Hou, UW Professor of Landscape Architecture, who kindly sent me a link to his facebook.https://www.facebook.com/houjeff/media_set?set=a.10221629106098228&type=3 . Hou’s images include Ballard which has an outstanding group but does not have a website.
I encourage you to look at the murals closely and individually even as you experience the collective spirit. The styles are wildly contrasting. I have a couple of favorites. On Retail Therapy on Capitol Hill a mural by Burgundy Viscosi depicts birds with large lungs. I love this image. The mountain scene by Nikki Frumkin in Ballard, “Ascent Outdoors,” was stunning (she is a professional painter of mountains). But the Globe Bookstore images by Sam Day of famous literary figures made my day. Globe Owner John Siscoe personally commissioned them. (For more imagery see my blog posts at artandpoliticsnow.com/blog/.)
Patrick Nguyen(Dozfy), Ballard. Photo by Jeff Hou
These artists all have distinctly contemporary approaches, which is appropriate for this existential moment in history. They did not concern themselves with the long history of mural painting starting in Italy in the fourteenth century and continuing in a direct line through to the twentieth century with Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the most famous of the Mexican muralists who worked in the United States at various times ( New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles). Judy Baca, who studied with Siqueiros continued those grand mural traditions in the 1970s and later in both her own work in Los Angeles and that of many others. Then of course there are the Indigenous traditions of large-scale painting, all over the Americas.
Another historical reference for public murals is Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal which commissioned artists to paint murals between 1933-1943, some of which still survive in their original locations. The Public Works of Art Project, part of the WPA, paid artists an hourly wage as workers because artists identified with unemployed factory workers, mine workers, and many other industries in marches and protests. They were very, very visible. The government programs for visual artists, writers, theater artists, musicians, and dancers, was brilliantly promoted with the slogan “preservation of skills.”
Today, we have a government that would not even think of providing employment to any workers, much less artists. Furthermore, we are prevented from getting out in the street and protesting. The COVID 19 mural artists, paid by individual business owners and community organizations, can only express hope and solidarity, not a critique of the system in which we are living.
But I am inspired by the fact that these creative artists are getting support from the community.
So, here is my hope for the next step:
I would like to see some of these and other artists connecting the dots on the virus and climate change as affiliated, intersecting crises. The denialism of the virus is the same as denialism of the climate crises, which is escalating even as lots of people temporarily stay home. We can’t wait to get back on the road (I definitely include myself in that). The disintegration of the systems of the planet through our actions, is part and parcel of the disintegration of our bodies.
A big positive of this quarantine as seen in these murals and every day: a shared experience. We all hope to build on that sense of connection, and the sharing spirit of “stay at home.” We need to for our own survival.
Art & Politics Now