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An Afternoon on Pioneer Square

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

Seattle’s art museums are pricey for the average budget, but you can have a rich art experience exploring some of our intrepid art galleries. Here I focus on Pioneer Square. Several of these galleries have such a range of art that it is almost better than visiting a museum because it is more intimate. But even the small galleries with a single artist are fun to pop in and visit. You no longer need to plan ahead or make an appointment. Friday and Saturday are the best days to go, between 11am and 5pm (but check for small variations).

So I started in the Toshiro Kaplan building to see what had survived the pandemic. I started at the revitalized Center on Contemporary Art, although they wouldn’t let me in because they were having an event! But the exhibition is Tunisian American Rajaa Gharbi. A powerhouse personality and longtime friend of mine, Gharbi says “My art is a search for medicine laughter. “The exhibition is up to the end of October and there will be a celebration on October 7 from 5–8pm and a conversation with Rajaa on October 14 at 6pm.

There are several artist-run cooperative galleries in the Toshiro Kaplan Building each with a different personality. I recommend stopping in at SOIL, Gallery 110 and SHIFT.

SHIFT was featuring “Karey Kessler/ Imagined Topographies of a Vanishing Wilderness” lyrical black and white ink drawings based on topography maps and her own “wandering lines” as she calls them. They connect to her concern about how little wilderness is left on the planet.

In an enticing conversation with Kessler’s drawing is “Sung I Chun/Liminal Space.” The artist demonstrated how one of the pieces that appears to be a puddle of water creates subtle and changing reflections on the ceiling. I found her work delightfully subtle. She explores the boundaries of dark and light. You can meet both of these artists (in person!) at the closing on October 2 from 2–4pm.

The METHOD Gallery focuses on installation, often a single large piece, as was the case with Fumi Amano’s “Where are you from?” The bright red woven sculpture that filled the gallery was intense. I was invited to climb inside of it. Although I declined, I could imagine balancing on the network of red string. Furthermore, the piece was actually a giant representation of ovaries and a uterus, so in climbing inside we are reverse birthing.

On to the long-established commercial galleries after coffee at the Caffe Umbria. The Davidson Gallery on Occidental Square always features contemporary artists as well as historical work and has an extensive antique print collection. I particularly loved Seoul Kim’s hand-colored etchings speaking to the absurdity of consumerism. But as you move to the back of Davidson’s you will find stacks of prints to enjoy in bins.

The Greg Kucera Gallery is also a mini museum experience. Aside from the featured exhibitions, one of which currently is Richard Gilkey, that haunting second generation Northwest artist, if you keep going into the back, you will discover treasures including the always tantalizing Humaira Abid, as well as world famous artists like James Washington Jr, Jacob Lawrence, Michael Spafford, Roger Shimomura. Another favorite is Gregory Blakelock an obsessive recorder of, for example, “Lilies, Piranhas, Saws, Wild Cats, German Shepherds, Beets, Pumpkins, Flags and Airplanes.”!

Way in the back, if you keep going, you will discover another large gallery space. It features what is called the garage sale, or resale room: just a few examples there are Kiki Smith, Gaylen Hansen and Alden Mason.

The fun of the gallery is you can go on discovering and exploring. The ladies’ room is filled with work by Roger Shimomura and there is an outside deck with sculpture by Deborah Butterfield, John Buck and others.

Drew Michael, Yup’ik and Inupiaq Brown Angel, 2021
Drew Michael, Yup’ik and Inupiaq Brown Angel, 2021. Basswood, Myrtle Wood, Vintage Pony Hide, Poly Fabric, Wire, Beads, Feathers, Caribou Hair, Acrylic, Copper Wire, Metal Tacks, Rabbit Fur, Air System Ball Joints, Nails, 29 x 25 x9”

And finally, the Stonington Gallery is another museum experience. The featured exhibition up front included Drew Michael, with amazing masks such as the “Brown Angel-Owlet” illustrated here. He explained that four moths appeared in various places in his studio while he was experiencing extreme anxiety during isolation. This mask was designed after the Brown Angel Shades-Owlet Moth. “I named the piece Brown Angel to pay tribute to the BLM and POC movements and to share some of the beauty that has given me some relief.”

Go into the back rooms (one after another, don’t stop too soon!!) and you will find works by Preston Singletary, Lillian Pitt, Rick Bartow, Robert Davidson and much more. You can have a thrilling up close view of these outstanding artists.

I loved the informality and serendipity of these experiences, not to mention that they are all free. Since exhibitions change over in October, there will be different artists to see, but I encourage everyone to take a Friday or Saturday afternoon and explore our valiant Pioneer Square galleries. They survived the pandemic. Let’s show our appreciation for what they contribute to the art life of Seattle.

~Susan Platt, PhD


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