A Former Grocery Store Becomes an Art Space

Jake Fennell's "Reality Is Mutable" installation

Tucked inside a residential neighborhood on Beacon Hill, one building stands out among the houses, a big box of a 1929 brick building on the corner of 21st Avenue S and S Stevens Street. Wide banks of windows face the quiet street and sun-bleached, tattered signage remains fixed to the facade. A former grocery store, the building is among the last remnants of what used to be a booming commercial strip on Beacon Hill, a spot where longtime neighbors reminisce about buying penny candy and smokes back in the day.

The building languished for five years before artists and curators Janet Galore and Demi Raven stepped in to undertake a substantial facelift. Tearing out antiquated walk-in freezers and turning storage rooms into light-flooded studios, the couple transformed the building into an arts space. Now called the Grocery Studios (or the Grocery for short), it comprises numerous interconnected smaller spaces and a 1,100 square-foot gallery. It joins an ever-growing neighborhood arts community that includes the Station, El Centro de la Raza and Beacon Arts.

“I’m gonna die here,” says Raven as the couple stands on the sidewalk out front, contemplating the Grocery. “We wanted to create something that can live on after we’re gone,” Galore agrees.

Galore and Raven both work for Amazon, she leading R&D teams that dream up new uses for nascent technology, he writing firmware for the company’s autonomous robotic delivery system. They’re also patrons, curators and artists in their own right. (Raven’s large-scale, hyperrealistic oil paintings have been displayed at the Smithsonian.) The Grocery is their ultimate art baby.

“I feel strongly that doing this is also an opportunity to be an example,” Raven says. “We know there’s a certain amount of disjunction between the tech world and the art world, but I live in both, which is great. I have an opportunity to be a bridge of sorts, on a minor scale, trying to very intentionally live as an example of how one can bring one’s resources and intentions to create culture and support culture.”

Raven and Galore have been toiling for two years to renovate and modernize the interior on their own, preserving the historical exterior, and in the meantime they’ve hosted various events and exhibits, including traditional fine-art shows, fundraisers, musical performances, screenings of short films and a computer day camp where children worked with robotics. Nearly every two weeks they host an artist gathering where visitors are invited to imbibe wine, make art and commune in the old-fashioned spirit of art salons. Last month featured two evenings of performance with live music and immersive dance by Degenerate Art Ensemble and Mizu Desierto.

In September, the Grocery mounted a cinematic virtual reality installation by Jake Fennell, an artist who also works as a freelance software developer. Reality is Mutable used 3-D spherical video technology designed by Fennell to create an immersive sci-fi story experienced in first-person POV. Visitors were invited to take a seat amid rows of chairs mounted on swiveling platforms, to encourage 360-degree VR gazing. VR goggles revealed an alternate Seattle where skies shift searing neon colors and dinosaur-size koi float above tall pines; where fortunetellers divine possible futures amid a sacred grove in Volunteer Park; where a tour guide shows swirling portals to spirits and steam gods lurking in the Georgetown Steam Plant. With a script by playwright Scotto Moore and featuring performers such as LaChrista Borgers, Erin Ison, KT Niehoff and others, the piece transcended eye-candy VR narratives that leave one dangling in space, body-less. Fennell’s installation retained a palpable sense of physical presence and allowed for decision-making and divergent storylines along the way.

“This space creates ideas,” says Galore. “If someone comes to us and has an idea for something they want to try, we want to provide a safe space to do it. We don’t know if it’s going to work, but that gets me really excited. If they need help, we want to put our money toward it, or locate the expertise they need, to collaborate with them.”

“This project might just be a minor wave,” Raven says. “Oftentimes people do things that are minor waves. But it’s minor waves that make the ocean, right?”

This month the Grocery hosts Underworld Alchemy, an evening of exploratory jazz with visuals by Galore.