The Art Community Seattle Needs
I moved to Seattle for it’s independent culture and small-business friendly environment. Unfortunately, I got to Ballard just in time to see it’s rapid transformation into a hub for corporate franchises like GNC and Jimmy John’s. As a small-business owner, it is getting harder and harder to grow in this community.
For most of 2015, Jason and I looked for a bigger space for the dojo. We ran bright-eyed and enthusiastic into multiple landlords asking inflated prices for their mediocre-to-haggard buildings (or insane prices for their freshly-drywalled, newly-developed ground floor retail outlets). Landlords and realtors aren’t interested in shaping communities right now, they’re interested in cashing in.
It’s tough out there. When any community-oriented small business, especially a cultural enterprise, finds success, it needs to be supported and encouraged. Push/Pull is that kind of business. In under two years this artist-run cooperative gallery has developed into a venue that’s represented nearly 90 artists, curated 16 groups shows of fringe art, and sponsored or hosted events to support local writers and musicians.
My friends (and fellow artists) Maxx and Seth are running a Kickstarter right now to raise funds to expand Push/Pull into a full-time retail space, and they deserve your support.
Crowd-funding is an opportunity for us, as members of this community, to say: I want this in my neighborhood. I want to stare at Seth’s batshit meticulous ink-drawings while sipping a plastic cup full of cheap red wine and discussing the finer points of VHS cover design on a plush couch with some of my favorite local cartoonists.
Culture is part of what makes a city worth moving to in the first place. And it is the artists who create culture. I know how hard it is to make an art business succeed. I also know how vital an art space can be to creating community.
When I moved to Seattle I opened two businesses (because y’know, #blackbelt). One was Fighting Chance Seattle, the other was Dead End Press, an art gallery and workspace I co-founded with printmaker Nate Stottrup.
Nate and I had our first planning meeting for Dead End Press the day after I got off of the plane.
We shared a vision for a community-oriented art space that aimed to make graphic art accessible and engaging to people who wouldn’t normally go to an art gallery. We wanted our space to feel like a giant living room where artist and audience would hang out all night.
We lost a lot of money.
In an effort to stop hemorrhaging cash, I came up with an idea: an interactive event that was part gameshow, part gallery opening, and entirely an excuse to spend a day drawing with other artists.
The 5 Hour Sketch Jam was born. A group of artists would meet at noon with art supplies and a blank canvas. We’d give them a theme and they’d have five hours to produce something good enough to hang for an immediate open-to-the-public art show.
I never liked the guests-as-spectators approach to art openings, so we encouraged the audience to participate by giving them points to award to their favorite pieces. Each guest would receive three tickets, each worth a different score for drawing, design, and the ever-elusive “it factor.”
At the end of the party we scrambled to tally up the points and awarded prizes to the top three high scores. Local small businesses like Benito’s Chicago Eatery, Arcane Comics, and Artful Dodger Tattoo would graciously donate prizes (Benito’s even provided free lunch for every Sketch Jam).
In July 2012, Sketch Jam participant and caricaturist Nolan Harris, co-owner of Over-the-Line Entertainment, hooked us up with the organizers of the Zombie Walk. This collaboration led to what might’ve been the greatest idea of my young life:
We’d do a 4th of July themed Sketch Jam. Each artist would pick their own Founding Father to render as a zombie and we’d present a warped history lesson to the audience.
After three events, we’d built a following: an amazing community of artists, musicians (I’m pictured here with 2/3 of Seattle street folk band The Mongrel Jews), friends, and random neighbors.
We decided to boost the theatrics. We made zombie Founding Father costumes and arranged an old-time photo booth, Nate painted a replica colonial flag backdrop.
And this is how I met Maxx. She helped to promote our events in the past, but this was her first time participating. We realized recently that this is where she met many of the artists she would eventually promote at Push/Pull, including Seth, she said:
“It was the first time I felt like I found an art community in Seattle that I wanted to be a part of. If I hadn’t spent five hours drawing a zombie version of Thomas Paine I don’t know where I’d be today.”
This would also be Seth’s first Sketch Jam. I’d met him a few months earlier through Nate.
Bummed out by the lack of diversity in Founding Father choices, Seth, a history buff, knocked out this beautiful, gnarly watercolor and ink portrait of zombie Crispus Attucks, the first American casualty in the Revolutionary War.
Seth stole the show, beating out Brian Britigan’s zombie Betsy Ross for first place. Seth and I came to be friends, he even taught me how to screen print. I think Seth is one of the best artists in Seattle. He’s also a tireless organizer and event promoter of Ballard Sketch Team, Exterminator City, and Kung-Fu Grindhouse (among other projects).
Plus, he’s a good dude to have a beer with.
Nate and I argued frequently about the name Dead End Press. I thought it was too negative, a self-fulfilling prophecy. We closed after one year. We lost a lot of money and a lot of time and we struggled to find our stride as partners. It was a hard disappointment to take.
As corny as it sounds, it was all worth it for the artists I met and got to call my friends. When I agreed to start Dead End Press, one of my goals was to find artists that inspired me, that made me want to be better. They didn’t just light a fire under my ass, they encouraged and supported me the whole way.
This is what community can be.
I hosted three more Sketch Jams under the Mythos Art Club collective moniker beforeteaching kickboxing at Fighting Chance Seattle took off and devoured my life. One of the highlights was creating The Anchor, Ballard’s first superhero, and hosting a two-day “drawing lounge” for kids at Ballard SeafoodFest. Erick was an original Sketch Jam participant (and is currently an apprentice at Arftful Dodger Tattoo), here he is clowning with Seth.
Around that time Maxx told me about her idea for Push/Pull, a gallery she intended to open with Seth as a founding member. I knew they were going to crush it.
Push/Pull is a success because Maxx and Seth are two of the hardest working people I know. They do what they say, when they say it, and well. This is rare for a west coast art business.
Push/Pull has a distinct vibe. It’s less an art gallery and more a demented, yet cozy living room. It’s what an art salon should feel like. A place where you can connect with the work, not just nod awkwardly and move on to the next piece. It’s also a retail outlet, selling pieces of original art and prints at reasonable prices.
I, and many other artists from Dead End Press and Mythos Art Club, have been proud to show my work in their group shows.
I took forever to throw my cash at their Kickstarter because I couldn’t decide on a reward. Too much good stuff. Then Seth posted an update, he was planning a western comic and for $50 you could have your likeness drawn in.
So, what do you say? $50 and you can be immortalized with me in words and pictures.
Or $5 for some buttons and stickers, and the gut-level satisfaction of throwing some momentum behind a community art force that deserves to grow.