Just as it takes many trees to create a forest, it takes many artists, organizers, sponsors and visionaries to transform a seven-story, 130-year-old warehouse on Pioneer Square into a sprawling art event in just a few months. Forest For The Trees is the name of this indigenous arts festival, which features immersive art installations, group exhibitions, on-site murals and performances, and activities in the alley behind the building.
It’s essentially a four-day block party from July 21-24 — featuring more than 100 artists from Seattle and elsewhere — strategically timed to coincide with the Seattle Art Fair, which is bringing thousands of local artists and out-of-town art lovers to the Lumen Field Event Center, just a short walk from Forest For The Trees.
“This is huge,” said Amanda Manitach, a Seattle artist who co-curates one of the Forest For The Trees exhibits. “It’s a massive undertaking that shows how Seattle artists are going to band together to do these really big things.”
Forest For The Trees is also the name of one of the event’s key organizers, a non-profit organization led by Seattle artist Gage Hamilton, which facilitates public art projects in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, often finding opportunities in newly developed lots or empty spaces between tenants .
About a year ago, Hamilton began brainstorming with Henry Watson, property manager for RailSpur, for a new three-building redevelopment project in Pioneer Square by Denver-based Urban Villages, a company specializing in the environmentally responsible remodeling of historic properties. While Hamilton and Watson have a personal connection (Watson is a cousin of Hamilton’s sister-in-law) that fostered the creation of this project, Watson says this type of “vivid and authentic programming” fits the “dynamics of urban villages approach” to Cultivating Vibrant Neighborhoods.
Initially, the idea was to use only the ground floor of one of the buildings: 419 Occidental Ave. S., a converted old warehouse that will contain office and retail space. The old brick and wood building has been beautifully restored but tenants have yet to move in.
Hamilton quickly brought in longtime collaborator Dominic Nieri, an arts documentarian, creative producer and founder of Seattle-based ARTXIV (pronounced archive), which now produces the entire festival. They first came up with the idea of using the ground floor as a kind of studio for local and upcoming artists to create wall-sized paintings.
Then, just two months ago, Watson gave them permission to take over almost the entire building — 77,000 square feet over seven floors — plus the roof and the alley. According to Hamilton, although the timing was very tight and there was no initial funding, they didn’t think twice because “opportunities like this don’t always exist. And as the world grows and changes around us, it was important to us to create spaces for creative people and art. That’s what makes a city thrive.”
Hamilton and Nieri reached out to other artists, curators, and groups—people who, according to Hamilton, “would bring a good mix of experience. We could trust their process and perspective.” He added with a smile, “We also only asked artists because we love their work and felt they could fill thousands of square feet with ease.”
In this way, the entire building is “activated,” with each floor filled with contemporary art, on-site performances, and interactive events such as poster giveaways and immersive installations.
In keeping with Hamilton and Nieri’s original vision, 16 artists will be exhibiting on the ground floor, who will use the space to create murals and large-scale canvases on-site in the week leading up to the opening.
The top two floors host a group exhibition of over 60 emerging and established artists – all local, in line with the vision of XO Seattle, the team that put this show together. XO Seattle is a self-proclaimed “roving curatorial practice” with a history of taking on spaces in transition. Co-curators Julianne Johnson, Austin Bellamy Hicks, Erik Molano and Moses Sun have compiled a long and impressive roster of artists for what they describe as a “love letter to the Pacific Northwest creative community”.
XO Seattle is also throwing the grand opening party on July 22 with Hrvst House, a Seattle-based black-owned production company. Music and art performances will continue every Friday night through August 19th.
The other floors will be programmed by curators and artists, including Axel Void, a Miami-based, Haitian-Spanish artist, who has dubbed his exhibition “12.143. The beauty and absurdity of this happening itself.”
Christopher Martin, an Oakland, California-based tattoo artist and textile artist, will install his traveling exhibit, Ancient as Time, which combines fabric hangings, sculpture, and graphic design with his personal experiences of life in the South and the history of the African diaspora.
Coming from Portland, the collaborative team of rubén garcía marrufoa self-proclaimed “frontier artist” and Maximiliana multimedia concept artist, will continue her ongoing work, which according to her artist statement, “is inspired by Gaspar Yanga, an enslaved African in Mexico who escaped to found a maroon society in the Gulf of Mexico coastand draws from the mixed cultures of artists who, in the course of empire, cross physical and metaphorical borders.”
The fifth floor will host HOWL, a group exhibition of large-scale works by female and non-binary artists who use their artistic voices for urgent and contemporary expression on themes of collective healing, bodily autonomy and survival. According to co-curators Manitach and Lele Barnett – key members of the Seattle art scene – “HOWL” was created as a rallying cry. Major works by regional and national artists include a balloon giveaway tribute to Félix González-Torres (an artist known for his intimate, interactive art) by Amanda James Parker (Seattle), an installation created by Megan wrapped threads Prince (Seattle) and viral images from the national organization Shout Your Abortion.
In keeping with this festival’s expansive, unconventional approach, the art is not confined to a floor-by-floor plan. Even the eight-story stairwell is transformed into art through the colour, light and sound installation by Christopher Derek Bruno.
The alleyway outside the building will also come alive with art, including an augmented reality experience by Brooklyn, New York-based Iranian artist Marjan Moghaddam, an internationally recognized digital art pioneer. Future Arts, the Seattle-based new media artist collective curating this Moghaddam-based multisite installation, says in a statement that visitors to the RailSpur alley can scan a QR code to “unleash an animated #GLITCHGODDESS that struts.” and changed their forms”.
Of course, a lot will happen in, around and on this old warehouse. But Forest For The Trees organizer Hamilton points out the bigger picture: “It’s all part of a larger ecosystem that we’re trying to create – an ecosystem of support, like a forest. We want artists to have room to grow.”