A Society of Artists, the Federal Government and a Top-Secret Studio

Federal Center South is an impersonal-looking gated office complex that appears to rise out of the Duwamish River just off of East Marginal Way. The buildings house a number of government agencies, including the FBI — which explains its undercover architecture. Yet this secret cluster of buildings has also accommodated some of Seattle’s most public art-world personalities for almost a decade: inside what’s called the Government Service Administration building, more than forty visual artists working in a variety of mediums rent studio space at a bargain.

It seems like an odd coupling: Government agencies are required to uphold regulations, while artists tend to question the status quo — or overturn it altogether. Yet in spite of this disconnect, the federal government has fanned the flames of collaboration: inside the GSA they peacefully co-mingle, cross-pollinate, and build private friendships alongside public commissions.

Democrats often cite Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Works Project Administration, which kept artists at work during the last great Depression. But sadly, under Obama, the remarkable experiment going on at the GSA may soon come to an end: in the spring of 2009 the artists received notice that the building is going to be repurposed by the federal government, and they may be evicted as soon as December.

Realist painter Michael Fajans was the first artist to rent studio space at the GSA. He originally needed room to complete a commission by the U.S. General Services Administration for the lobby of Seattle’s Federal Courthouse in the mid-nineties: a gargantuan mural titled Three Sets of Twelve painted on three nine-foot-by-eighty-foot panels of cherry veneer stacked one atop the other. Fajans painted highly detailed portraits of twelve people at their workaday jobs and contrasted these with views of the same men and women as jurors.

(from left) Mark Takamichi Miller, Couple Dancing; Dan Webb, Shroud Left

When he was finished with the mural Fajans asked the GSA if he could continue renting work space in their office building. The GSA said said yes and Fajans’ wife, Cathryn Vandenbrink, pricked up her ears.

Vandenbrink — regional director of Artspace , an organization dedicated to finding artists affordable housing — says, “I had a list of two thousand artists that were constantly asking for space, so I asked the GSA if they would be interested in opening up the building to more artists.”

The GSA gave the green light in 2001, and word spread about this strange opportunity coming from, essentially, the Bush administration. It was a high-security building — passes
were needed to get in, and no photographs were allowed, let alone journalists.

Here’s how a source conveyed the space to me via e-mail. Outside, the place has long, empty corridor-streets with angular shadows and stagelike lighting, with lots of deserted doorways. After submitting your security-clearance badge to the guy at the gate, you drive all the way around the giant building to reach the parking lot. The site is right on the waterway facing picturesque industrial buildings Charles Sheeler would love to paint. Inside, it’s like a big empty warehouse or airplane hangar, with extremely high ceilings and lots of partitions the artists built to protect their studios from the rain that leaks through the old roof and the constant, silent drizzle of dust that covers everything. High up, horizontal rows of windows cast a diffuse, dustlike light, but it’s dusky inside. You walk past parked cars and cyclone fencing with odd detritus behind it: antique dolls and Brother EM200 typewriters, a huge Salvation Army donation cup statue, a Christmas crèche, wooden musical instruments, a holy-water dispenser.

One of the first artists to consider joining Fajan at the building was Leo Saul Berk. It seemed fitting — Berk has frequently penetrated to seemingly inaccessible places: his 2001 Ribbon was constructed of eight-foot-high spiraling Douglas fir veneer. More recently he helped design the University of Washington Link light rail’s deepest station 110 feet below ground.

Leo Berk, Rattling House, 2008, urethane, pigmented epoxy, aluminum, 38 x 118 x 69 inches, photo by Mark Woods

Berk’s wife, artist Claire Cowie, was enthusiastic about the move. Cowie creates dreamlike creatures and topographies executed in a wide range of media that have won her critical praise in the Northwest. Both she and Berk were looking for studio space after the February 2001 earthquake rendered their South End studio unstable. As Cowie recalls, “We looked at Michael Fajans’ space and knew that to make it work we’d have to go in on it with other people.”

Claire Cowie, Homonculus (hyena), 2007, mixed media

Cowie and Berk had a short list of possible studio mates that included sculptor/carver Dan Webb, whose 2009 New You Machine allowed viewers to select various heads from a rotating wheel by manually turning a knob at the sculpture’s base; painter Mark Takamichi Miller, who has built portraits gleaned from found photographs; and Jeffrey Simmons, who produces brilliantly colored geometric paintings that recall Hasbro’s Lite-Brite. In spite of their radically different styles, these five artists successfully pooled their resources, raised the walls and installed electricity and plumbing. The artists’ temperaments were reflected in the ways they designed their spaces: while Cowie’s and Simmons’ studios are slightly further afield and their work more private, Miller’s, Berk’s and Webb’s spaces are interconnected and their doors are almost always open.

Seattle artists Eric Eley and Drew Daly have shared space at the GSA since 2005. Eley, typically reserved, his features obscured by dark-rimmed glasses, creates geometrically inspired landscapes with twine, wood and wire. Daly, bearded and affable, deconstructs then radically reconstructs ready-made objects, including wooden dressers and chairs, compressing them by using accordion-style pleats, or multiplying them through the reflective magic of mirrors. The pair met at the Archie Bray Foundation in 1999 as practicing ceramic artists, but have since distanced themselves from clay to concentrate more on sculptural and conceptual concerns. Eley describes their relationship: “We talk about formal concepts, but abstractly. We’ve seen each other’s work for ten years — Drew knows just about every piece I’ve ever made; I don’t need to tell him where I’m coming from.”

Jeffrey Simmons, Meniscus

Cowie remarks that with the best studio mates there’s ease in not talking. “There’s something very comfortable in being able to see one another’s work develop without having a compulsion to talk about it.”

If the life of an artist has perks (creative expression, flexible hours), stability isn’t one of them. Risk taking and transformation are often necessary for success. In contrast to the instability implicit in the art world, the GSA offered its resident artists a sanctuary of sorts by providing some of the cheapest and safest studio space in all of Seattle. Then the eviction notice came in April. After years of working together in their enclave off the Duwamish, the artists must have found the news of an impending eviction nothing short of seismic.

Here’s an example of how these artists work together: In 2007, Vulcan Inc. commissioned Berk to create an art installation for the Rollin Street Flats apartment building. With only two days’ notice to pick up material from the site and transfer it to the GSA, he called on Matt Mitros, another artist renting space at the GSA, to organize a crew to help him unload forty-eight thousand pounds of twenty-one-foot-long salvaged fir beams, transporting them from one end of the building to the other. So while the brain behind the commission was all Berk’s,
the piece’s execution was made possible by the brawn of the GSA “family.”

Berk declares, “Our work really has influenced each other.”

Webb agrees but then adds, “But maybe we’re the only ones who can see it.”

Cowie explains, “Someone might come in and make a minor observation that leads me in an important direction. But most help comes in the form of lifting things, moving things, mixing things. There’s also a lot that’s technical.”

“Take Jeff,” says Cowie. “He has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything related to paints, resins, pens and drawing supplies. He’s like my Google. I can ask if epoxy would be better than something else and he’ll come back with at least ten links for me to look at. I call on Dan for advice about glue or wood. And Leo, of course, more than anyone knows what I need help with or not.”

Other help comes in the way of administrative counsel. Eley says, “Leo has given me advice on stuff like contracting, how to analyze a budget. And Dan has offered great advice on public commissions, committees — all stuff I didn’t have as much experience with.”

Eric Eley, prospect fields, 2008, wood, twine, acrylic, photo by Mark Woods

Eley and Daly decided early on that no matter what was going on outside the studio, the work that was produced inside would take precedence. Eley, who has taken up the bulk of their common area studio space with a twelve-foot wood and twine structure to be included in his upcoming exhibit in Cologne, Germany, says, “The space might be used for other purposes sometimes, but the art trumps all. Everything else takes a back seat.” Daly nods.

Claude Zervas, whose work uses custom electronics and light-emitting diodes, says of sharing studio space at GSA, “It’s nice to be part of a community. It’s like living in New York; you can feel the energy.” That same energy can translate into substantial noise as artists pound, saw and grind. Webb says, “If they have a jackhammer and a welder going at the same time, well, that’s just part of studio work. It’s not a deal killer.” Most of the artists wear headphones. “If we didn’t,” Eley says, “Drew and I would talk all day long like a couple of little old ladies.”

But even seemingly rock-solid relationships don’t always work out. The impending eviction has forced a reevaluation of some formerly committed partnerships. Instead of trying to find a different studio space with Daly in Seattle, Eley has opted to pull up his stakes and join his fiancée in Dallas.

Splits such as those occurring between Eley and Daly are like amicable divorces involving substantial property settlement. The upfront costs associated with building out a studio space frequently run into the thousands. Because of this, studio mates often require the kind of commitment normally reserved for legal partnerships.

“Artists considering a move ask how much it costs to build a studio and you never hear from them again,” says Daly. Many of the artists working at the GSA have purchased major pieces of equipment jointly and share their own gear communally. Mitros, a sculptor whose work includes drips of monochromatic resin, says, “You’re invested in the physical project together — you need to feel like you’re with people you trust.”

With Eley leaving for Texas, Daly might hook up with Berk and Webb. Webb is enthusiastic; as he suggests, “If we join forces with Drew we’re going to have the über-shop.”

Daly and Eley say they’ve always had a five-year plan. Eley ponders his forthcoming departure, explaining, “Drew’s got a family. I’m getting married. This was always a temporary thing. I didn’t plan on being here forever.” He pauses for a moment looking wistful, then suggestively adds, “Drew’s back on the market. He’s got lots of good tools.”

Asked if he and his studio mates would go their separate ways if evicted, Webb looks momentarily shaken. “Man, I hope not,” he says.

Daly says, “I’ll drive in late at night and see Leo or Eric’s car and know that there’s another artist working. At two a.m., just knowing that they’re there can give me the lift I need. Art making is a solitary endeavor, but doing it in parallel universes helps.”

Michael Fajans died in 2006 when, en route to his studio on his motorcycle, he collided with a vehicle on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In Three Sets of Twelve, displayed in the courthouse lobby, the portraits of individual men and women contrast with their unity as jurors within the court. Fajans emphasized the uniqueness of the people he portrayed, and the strength and joint wisdom they achieved in coming together. Cowie says of Fajans, “He set the tone at the GSA. He was very generous in offering information. It’s not a joint effort where we share everything all the time, but we’re there for one another when we need something.” When Webb says, “No one can afford to have a studio on their own,” it’s unclear if he’s referring only to matters of money, or to something more spiritual.

In the coming months, the GSA artists will be waiting for a sign that their fate has changed and they can stay. Recently they’ve heard rumors: the building might not be up to code to be rebuilt as a government facility; potential seismic and environmental problems may defer the eviction. This, to the artists, is good news — it means the government might throw out its plans to redevelop the place and leave them there to thrive in relative obscurity.