Keeping Tradition Alive

Three years ago, Phoenix native and Whitman College grad Ben Hunter, now 29, started Community Arts Create, a nonprofit that offers folk-music classes and a mural program and runs the Columbia City Art Walk, among other things. For years CAC operated without a home base, until seven months ago when Hunter and his volunteer cohort opened the Hillman City Collaboratory, a multi-purpose arts and co-working space on the corner of Rainier Ave. S and S Orcas St. Now a new arts hub is taking root there. LEAH BALTUS

How did CAC start?
It started with the Columbia City Art Walk, which provided this really good foundation for meeting people, for having the conversations that eventually led to where we are now. For example, Taste International, our culinary arts program, was a vendor for the Art Walk at first.

How did you find your way to community work?
I stumbled upon a job at the [arts education] nonprofit Arts in Motion about six years ago as a violin teacher. But not everybody wants to be a musician. For me, the idea isn’t to create an army of performing artists, but an army of artists generally. People who are imaginative and want to use their creativity for whatever they want to get into.

How did you identify Columbia City as the place where you wanted to work?
When  I first came to Columbia City for Arts in Motion, I remember walking around and everything was so different. I see black people—regularly. People of color. And people say hi on the streets. The rest of Seattle is so different. Not just culturally—economically, development-wise. People in South Seattle need to own South Seattle. We need to build up this community the way this community wants to build it up and not at the hands of developers who have no intention to keep the cultural traditions alive in this neighborhood.

What’s it like now that you have the Collaboratory?
This space has been a big step for us. In the seven months we’ve been open, I’ve developed relationships with people on a whole new level because people can come in and just talk. It’s been really enlightening. I can ask questions and listen to what people from all backgrounds have to say, what they see, what they’re hoping to see. A lot of people have ideas about what they want this place to become and a lot of people want to talk about what once was.

One of the first guys I met in this neighborhood, Joe, sweeps the sidewalk pretty much every day. He works at the mortuary down the street. He’s got an interesting perspective because he sees the kids that get shot and killed; he works on them. He’s lived here for a really long time and he’ll come in to get coffee. He’s a beautiful piano player.

Back Street Bazaar just got started and it kicked ass. We had a 10-piece brass band, we had three chefs here cooking and giving out food. There was a guy who came who a lot of people would probably consider a thug. He just saw this place, walked in and was like, this is cool. No one needs to know who I am or what I do. I can just come in here and be.

On a Thursday or Friday night, I usually cook some food and suggest a donation. It’s bring-your-own-beer, like a living room concert, which goes back to the whole idea of folk in the first place. We’ve done three months of installations in our art gallery. And there’s a community garden out back, too.

How does your love of folk music connect to the Collaboratory?
Folk music is a tradition. It’s this idea that you pass down something from one generation to the next or one family to the next. From some person to some other person, you’re telling a story. Maybe retelling exactly how it was told to you, maybe reinterpreting that story and changing some of the storylines. America’s music and arts scenes lost that connection with the people before us and we’ve lost our responsibility to pass that down to the next generation. There’re a lot of musicians and there’s a lot of artists in our culture. Who are they learning from and who are they teaching?

Back Street Bazaar takes place the first Sunday of every month at the Collaboratory.

Illustration by Shannon Perry