John Grade has been a staple of the Seattle art world for a while. For years he’s exhibited frequently at Davidson Galleries—murky, ethereal charcoal drawings and smaller sculptures, pieces subtly mirroring or responding to the environment. But lately Grade’s work has blown up, figuratively and literally, mimicking the mass and scale of the earth itself.
Many will recognize his colossal Middle Fork sculpture installed inside the main entrance of Seattle Art Museum earlier this year. Made from thousands of interlocking wood pieces, it’s a simulacrum of an old-growth hemlock that Grade created by making dozens of direct plaster casts to a tree in the foothills of the Cascades. Now the behemoth dangles overhead, mid-air in the museum’s Brotman Forum. Currently he’s recreating a similar, even more massive sculptural tree, complete with delicately rendered intertwining root system, to be permanently installed at Sea-Tac Airport (its backbone is pictured above).
Grade’s work has always responded to aspects of environment—last year he spelunked and charted a 400-foot lava tube in Idaho to create the monumental piece Spur—and his latest projects revolve around the Arctic, one of his passions. He’s been traveling there frequently, spending days at a time in the wilderness mapping notable elements of terrain, making plaster casts or documenting with drones. He’s particularly fascinated by pingos, the dome-shaped mounds of soil that form gradually over ice in permafrost conditions. His forthcoming kinetic sculpture Murmur uses hologram technology to recreate a visionary pingo that visitors can enter and experience from inside and out.
Along with the scale of his work blossoming Brobdingnagian, Grade’s studio needs have scaled; he now works with a team of roughly two dozen assistants, artists and volunteers who operate out of two South Seattle studios. The larger one buzzes with constant motion and machinery, lined with more gorgeous old-growth wood than a lumber yard. The smaller, older studio is more intimate, with the feel of a walk-in curiosity cabinet. The walls are covered in prints and drawings and schematics rendered in charcoal, of past and yet-imaginary installations, cabinets bursting with old bones collected on his travels around the world. We recently toured both.
Photos by Kelly O