Underground Seattle conjures images of musty, labyrinthine turn-of-the-century tunnels where remnants of a very old Seattle still linger. But there’s another underground thriving beneath Capitol Hill, nested in a basement on E Pike: an artist-organized playground-cum-incubator called Studio Current. Over the last 14 years, it has operated mostly in the shadows, like a secret society where performers, choreographers, poets and musicians staged happenings far from the public eye. For anyone who bore witness to them, the cacophony of artists at play—wearing improvised costumes, howling with instruments, dancing to imaginary beats—could be terrifying or magical.
Studio Current recently underwent a metamorphosis. What was formerly operating on the veiled periphery has gradually shifted to the public sphere, regularly presenting interdisciplinary artwork and performances, along with other community-oriented programming. During the week the studio opens for yoga classes, potlucks, workshops or Sunday brunch with marimbist Erin Jorgensen, who plays Bach while guests eat pancakes.
Past an unmarked door, a short twisting stairway leads to a weathered industrial space, its concrete floors crisscrossed with faded markings and spattered with paint—a blend of professional workspace and casual clubhouse for creatives working in body-based artistic practices. The largest room is tricked out with a raised dance floor. A few walls are lined with shelves full of art books, theatrical props and armatures.
“I know this as a haven space,” says Katherine Cohen, Studio Current’s artistic director, propped on a vintage velvet-upholstered theater seat in the hours before April’s Capitol Hill Art Walk. “I’m not a Pollyanna person, but I’m really grateful for it.” Cohen has worked as a multidisciplinary artist for years, creating music, film, live performance and installations with her company, Mother Tongue.
For Art Walk, the walls have been hung with large-scale figurative paintings by barry johnson (disclosure: johnson works for City Arts) and a series of equally vibrant geometrical abstractions by Jazz Brown. Two artists-in-residence, Keely Isaak Meehan and Corina Dalzell, sit at a table in a common area unpacking skeins of colored yarn and long, unwieldy cuttings from a Japanese maple; they’ll perform before a public audience throughout the night, but what they’ll do is anyone’s guess. Finished product isn’t the point here; instead the focus is practice, praxis, play.
Cohen, who’s done multiple stints at Studio Current as an artist-in-residence herself, began managing the space two years ago with help from a team that includes musician/composer Angelina Baldoz as well as Elby Brosch, Markeith Wiley, Laura Aschoff and Julia Sloane, all of whom have backgrounds in dance and work across disciplines. Vanessa DeWolf ran and self-financed Studio Current for its first 13 years, during which time it operated in a spacious studio space on 10th Avenue, on the same block as Neumos.
“Every time I look at spaces I have dreams,” says DeWolf, who’s organized half a dozen artist spaces since moving to Seattle in 1994, including Project: Space Available, a platform for large-scale immersive installations that operated in the mid-2000s. “Since the start I’ve wondered what would happen if space was free but community was required. What would happen if what we shared was more about the process than the product?”
Under DeWolf’s leadership, Studio Current remained mostly private, a true underground; the latest iteration under Cohen’s direction is spreading wings and opening up. Artists still burrow in for months at a time, spinning out ideas that flail or fluster or emerge full-fledged. But on days like today, strangers stream down the staircase to wander and watch performances unfold.
“What constitutes community might have changed over the years,” DeWolf says, “but culture is pliable. I hope we can be adaptive, that we can adapt our ideas about what art is and what it means. The current Studio Current responds to the current times.”