April 22, 2015

Is That All There Is?

“Let’s meet at The Boom.”  I can’t count how many times I’ve said that to someone, and they knew exactly what I was talking about. You know it, too.  It’s become a landmark, a well-known and beloved backdrop to Cal Anderson Park, a cultural icon.

You can’t set out to make art into an icon. I’m sure there are some marketing whizzes out there that could school me on the science of taking criteria and filtering through an algorithm to turn out a crowd-pleasing widget.  (I’m pretty sure this is how one-hit-wonders are born.)  But a true icon worth its salt can’t be forced – people just feel and embrace it, and it becomes so. It’s a blend of the right energy at the right time, met with a little bit of magic.  And I boldly say that yes, Boom! is, or was, a cultural icon.  How do I know this? Do a quick Google Images search of “boom! Capitol hill Seattle wall” and just see what you find: it’s a topic on several Flickr collections;  it has filled many a Facebook feed with photos of people covering their ears, running for their lives, jumping, etc;  it’s been used as a backdrop for a number of couples’ engagement portraits - though I wonder about their photographers, who carefully copyright their own photos, but don’t consider any copyright or attribution of the artwork itself (I digress); it has even figured in a couple of homegrown music videos and a Riz Rollins love-letter to Seattle.

Even I couldn't resist interacting with the art, along with a few of my Sound Transit cohorts. Photo © 2010 Reb Roush

This artwork has always been a favorite for me as well.  It’s real title is “Is That All There is?” which was inspired by the Peggy Lee song of the same name.  In the song, Ms. Lee expresses how greatly underwhelmed she is over seemingly big milestones of life – a tragic event, first love, and ultimately, death.  Artist Tim Marsden takes that idea and applies it to his 3-dimensional cartoon style, imagining how one might feel after witnessing an explosion.  Five years after it was installed, it still makes me laugh – especially because he took planks of wood, covered them in paint, and made them look like planks of wood.  So. Very. Meta.

A few weeks back, Boom! was scheduled for demolition.  I was anxious to see how it would come down – would it be in a blaze of glory, or would it be a slow, sad dismembering befitting its name? Personally, I was hoping to find they’d fashioned a cartoon batch of TNT connected to a cartoon detonator.

On the appointed day, I had my preschool son with me, and like all preschoolers, he has a special sixth sense for knowing when I’m in a rush and therefore dragged his feet every step of the way.  However, knowing how the construction world works, I figured I would arrive just in time for the show, even though I was 20 minutes late.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As I pulled up to Cal Anderson Park, I was immediately disoriented.  I couldn’t find the familiar bends of the wall, and stymied for a moment as I tried to get my bearings.  Suddenly it dawned on me that there was an excavator at work, quietly munching  on the last of the vertical beams that held the section of wall where Boom! resided.

Removal of the section of wall containing "Is That All There Is?" took less than 20 minutes. Photo © 2015 J. Babuca 

The artwork on the wall was always intended to be temporary, and as such, was created inexpensively, with materials that weren’t built to stand many years out in the elements.  Still, there are some pieces that I secretly fantasized could find a new home after construction was done.  Though I knew it was time for Boom! to come down, I was caught off guard at how its removal seemed to happen in a fast and rather anti-climatic manner, shrouded in blue tarp and cyclone fencing.  Nondescript, and no fanfare: Is That All There Is?

The Red Wall quickly became part of our everyday lives on Capitol Hill, and now it is quickly going away.

A clandestine peek over the curtain and through a fence, reveals a scene that will repeat until the last of the wall is removed. Photo: © 2015 J.Babuca 
-Jennifer Babuca

April 1, 2015

STart and Capitol Hill: In the beginning

The first time I really walked around Broadway was to meet Ellen Forney with Barbara Luecke in 2008.  We were there to do research in advance of our search for an artist for Capitol Hill Station.  Although I’d lived in Seattle since the late 90s, Capitol Hill had never really been on my radar.  Don’t get me wrong: I’d been on the hill before, but usually for very specific reasons – Christmas at St. Mark’s, up to Volunteer Park and SAAM – but always passing through Broadway in a car to somewhere else.  You don’t get to know a place in a blink-and-miss-it car trip.  Once I did get out and walk around, it was a bit like a homecoming.

Ellen Forney and Barbara Luecke on Broadway Capitol Hill
Ellen Forney and Barbara Luecke discuss the character of Capitol Hill. Photo © 2008 J.Babuca/Sound Transit. 
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona two blocks from 4th Avenue, an eclectic district just north of downtown and west of the University of Arizona campus.  4th Avenue is a great stretch of small shops, restaurants, a vibrant arts scene and a gathering spot for a mix of artists, college students, tourists and the homeless.  There is no place else like it in Tucson, where the norm is usually six lane roadways and huge parking lots in front of big boxes. (Hey, when you have room to spread, you spread.)

Notice sign at Twice Sold Tales
This sign, posted at Twice Sold Tales, conjures up memories of my beloved high school stomping grounds. Photo © 2008 J.Babuca/Sound Transit.

Walking down Broadway, I was reminded of my days spent walking up and down 4th Ave, headed to school, the library or just wandering.  It has the same pedestrian-scale feel, intimate enough that you can feel the energy of everyone else there, bouncing off the storefronts for you to soak up. There wasn’t anywhere else along the light rail lines thus far that compared to it, so it was clear that the impact of construction here was going to be very different from the experiences Sound Transit had had before.  Barbara and I immediately agreed we needed to preserve that energy somehow.  We began to formulate how we could take out a major stretch of Broadway without damaging the intimate, electric vibe of the neighborhood, and thus STart on Broadway was born.

There was a lull between Sound Transit purchasing the buildings and when the actual demolition would begin.  The plan was to board up the windows, put a fence around the spaces and pepper it with “No Trespassing” signs.  The result would have been a dead zone for two blocks from John to Howell streets.  Definitely this was not a formula for preserving community vibrancy.

While Barbara started selling the idea of storefront installations, I set to work on looking for artwork that could be used to cover up the plywood that was inevitably coming.  Banner covers were an easy sell, of course, but the storefronts were another story.  Once a site officially gets turned into a “construction zone,” the rules of who/what/when/where/how become very controlled.  Liability is at the heart of most of those requirements, so opening up the buildings to artists who may or may not have construction experience was going to take a leap of faith from the owner’s side.  We were worried as well – will the artwork be safe? What if someone breaks in and steals or destroys something? We’d only done one other storefront installation before, and it was on a much smaller scale than this.  But in the end we decided any risks would be far outweighed by the benefits STart on Broadway would provide, and we soldiered through.

Photo: Eileen Court Apts, Before and After
Banners like these at Eileen Court are de rigueur at constructions sites, though they normally are used on walls and fences, and not as window camouflage. Artwork by Jennifer Babuca.  Photo © 2008 J.Babuca/Sound Transit
One day, in the middle of planning and discussing, we got a call: Jack in the Box had been boarded up.  It wasn’t the contractor who had done it, but rather Jack in the Box themselves, their final act of moving out.  Soon, the houses along Denny were also covered in plywood.  We had to mobilize, and fast.

We had already talked to a group that Ellen was a member of, The Friends of the Nib.  They had given us some artwork to use, and that quickly went up on Jack in the Box.  It didn’t go off without a hitch.  As a worker was installing the sections of banner, someone grabbed one off of his truck.  He had to chase the guy down the street to try and recover it.  I still shake my head at it – swiped as it was being installed!  After it went up, someone cut out a section to take and hang on their wall at home.  Despite it being screwed into the wall behind a chain-linked barrier, somebody figured it was free and up for grabs.  Then we invested in industrial glue and put up a sign, courtesy of Friends of the Nib.  That ended that.

Image: Notice Sign, Please do not remove art
Sometimes you just have to spell things out for people. Sign created by Jim Woodring/Friends of the Nib.

We also quickly covered up those houses on Denny.  First, I ran out to Cal Anderson Park and photographed anything and everything that caught my eye.  With an assist from Tom Long in our graphics department, a couple hours later we had banners printed up and screwed in – starting with photos of Kay Rood’s cat on her former home, and happy clouds on the house next door.  The other houses and Eileen Court apartments were soon given the same treatment – mostly abstract photos of details from the park – moss on the trees, water cascading along the texture pool, et al.  As Tom and I were hanging banners on what would become known as “The Cloud House,” a passing car stopped and honked at us.  “Thank you for doing this!” the driver called out with a smile and wave.

Operation: Art Intervention had begun.

Flickr member Fecki gives a shout out for Sound Transit's "added creativity" for The Cloud House. Photo © 2008 Fecki

-Jennifer Babuca