There’s a new public art mural on the block (at the corner of Jackson and 16th, specifically), and just in time for May Day, the piece will feature bold, colorful scenes that tell the story of working peoples' struggles for economic and social justice across the state.
It took two days to install the huge panels depicting scenes from the region’s storied labor rights history—some well-known, like Seattle’s General Strike of 1919, the Everett and Centralia Massacres, 1999’s WTO protests, and the Japanese detainment. But other scenes in the mural capture a hidden history, too, including stories of farmworkers, migrant organizing, the Chinese expulsion, and more.
Lynne Dodson, the Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, says the organization got the idea to make a mural when they moved into the building about three years ago. “And the first thing we thought was that this is such an important place, because we're right where the International District and the Central District intersect.”
The Washington State Labor Council dug deep to find the stories that ultimately ended up on the mural. They held community ‘charrettes’ to get feedback on designs from community members, and interviewed key Seattle labor history people like King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, and Filipino-American community organizer Cindy Domingo. They also found and talked to dozens of locals in the neighborhood with labor history roots. All told, they interviewed and got feedback from over 800 people.
“I did a lot of door knocking and talking to local businesses,” says Katherine Chilcote, lead artist on the project. “It's just that labor history is often unknown. And so to find those core stories was very intimate.”
Chilcote, a fine arts painter from Cleveland, has been living in Seattle for the last five years, and is the founding artistic director of Building Bridges, a nonprofit arts collaborative that works on large scale public murals (the Jackson Street mural is their first one in Seattle, but they've done upwards of 32 other pieces in Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago).
Painter Devon Midori Hale was told about the opportunity by Beverly Naidus, a faculty member at University of Washington-Tacoma who initiated the project. Hale has generations of family history in the ID, and was working on a project involving her families’ stories when she joined the project as associate artist.
“I thought that this was an amazing connection to something I've just begun to scratch the surface of, and then a whole bunch of other histories and subjects were opened up from there,” she says.
The two artists worked together to cull through photo archives at UW and HistoryLink.org for visual inspiration. The idea behind the mural, Hale says, is that when the told and untold stories of labor history are placed next to each other in a continuum, people will look at them in a new way.
“We ended up making a composition of panoramas that wove everything together, and considered them all in one reality, instead of the separate narratives as we'd been reading them in our research,” explains Hale.
“And that's a lens that only mural work can do,” Chilcote adds, “because your white wall is not a gallery, it's the sky.”
Envisioning what to paint for the “future” section of the mural proved to be the most challenging part for Chilcote and Hale. How do you make something timeless, that later generations will see 20, or even 50 years from now, on their street corner?
“We looked at so many paintings of utopias or heavens and hells, and places that you'd go into that thinking of the future,” says Chicolte. “In a way, utopia is a heavily daunting subject that blocks us from really being able to plan our future. And, of course, it's based on principles of a surviving capitalism.”
Also, the changing political environment during the three years that the artists worked on the project informed their choices as well.
“When we started this project, it was pre-Ferguson riots, pre-Donald Trump,” says Hale. “And it was at times very difficult to dream, and keep up with how fast everything was changing as the current climate shifted.”
In the end, the artists went back to the basics of plentitude—a future where food and shelter are available to everyone. What does that look like? You’ll have to see for yourself—the unveiling block party for the mural happens this Sun, April 30.