The waterfront along Shilshole Avenue Northwest in Ballard is barely visible behind the old maritime industrial buildings and the dusty disused train tracks. It's more a waterback than a waterfront, and the little art den that's moved in on Shilshole is a back-of-house affair, too.
It's a windowless subterranean place with the energy of a beehive, if a beehive could be slightly goth.
On a recent Saturday, a bunch of people signed up to draw 12 pages of comics over 12 straight hours around a big table while members of the art collective ferried them coffee and snacks. They're working up to an event that will last for 24 hours.
Every month, there's an open critique. There are open life-drawing sessions. There's ladies' night. An annual indie-comic market.
A themed exhibition is always up on the walls—there's Come Hell or High School, say, or Beautiful Trash 2, or the current Backglass & Playfields, a pinball art show—but please do not call this a gallery.
"We're just Push/Pull," Maxx Follis said, giving a few reasons for the distinction.
One, Push/Pull is a collective, an LLC with seven artist members. They all teach, exhibit work, gallery watch, and contribute to Push/Pull's functioning. It's open every single day.
As an engine for art rather than strictly a showplace, Push/Pull also presents events all over the city. Lovely portrait illustrations of authors by Seattle's Christine Marie Larsen didn't seem to fit in the back-of-Ballard underground space, where there aren't any windows, so that if you want to show paintings of homicidal nuns or dragon orgies, the neighbors can't rightly complain.
In a joint production between Push/Pull and Seattle Review of Books, Larsen's work is up this month at Essentia, a memory foam mattress store in Belltown, where at the opening, Seattle writers read from their works and the store raffled off a free body pillow ("$489 value!").
"I'm trying to do an approach that makes art more accessible to everyone," said Follis.
Everybody in art says they want to be "accessible." Not everybody has an art center with studio space rentable by the hour, where art supplies are stocked, and where the middle of the room has that big, inviting table rather than empty space. I love white-cube galleries; Push/Pull is a different, also essential, creature in the art zoo. I'm not partial to much of the work I've seen on the walls, but Push/Pull has a good, special feel and function. (Plus, body pillows.)
Follis and cofounder Seth Goodkind first started Push/Pull within Echo Echo Gallery in Greenwood Collective. Echo Echo became more painting-focused. Follis's fundamental focus is drawing, and "to some people in the art community, that's not real art, that's a drawing," she discovered.
At other galleries, "there was this consumer art happening, with cartoon birds and stuff that was cheap and that the artists make hundreds of them a year," she said. She didn't want to become that kind of place, either. "I wanted a compromise where the artists get to make what they're passionate about, and where we treat illustrators and fine artists as the same thing instead of two totally different things."
Coincidentally, Seattle Art Museum this summer is doing some of Push/Pull's proselytizing work for it. The museum has its first-ever large-scale graphic arts exhibition. The show is more than 400 prints and drawings, from 18th-century English satires by Hogarth to R. Crumb's new Book of Genesis, seen in its mind-boggling entirety.
Throughout history, drawing has been used for making both discrete images and multi-picture stories. Thus Push/Pull is also a bookstore. Its indie-comics rack is a blooming tree of goodness. Sit and flip through on the plush couch by the fireplace.
Every weekday this summer, Push/Pull will host art classes for kids at the Ballard location. It's the first time they're trying the program. There will be printmaking, drawing from observation, figure drawing, collage, and comics.
One afternoon earlier this month, a free teen comics workshop had just finished when I walked in to find a young teen who'd stayed after to talk to the teaching artist, who has wild hair and great big glasses.
She asked the team what kind of art he likes, and he froze up. Trying to let him off the hook, she started to change the subject when he insisted on trying to name a work of art. "I've always liked that one by Leonardo da Vinci—I can never remember the name." She didn't miss a beat. "Yeah," she started, elaborating on how hard it is to choose what kind of art you like, and they began a conversation that was probably the first good talk about art history this kid has ever had.
"We have generations growing up that don't understand that art is a profession and that it should be part of your everyday home and your life rather than something you just visit," Follis told me later by phone.
Push/Pull is in the basement of the restaurants and bars Ocho, Hotel Albatross, and Hazlewood, which front Market Street. Their businesspeople owners are also musicians and artists, good landlords for Push/Pull.
Before finding this place, Follis scoured Craigslist ads for months and wouldn't get calls back once she said she was an artist. She still looks at those other ads occasionally. They're still up. In the meantime, "We've paid our rent on time for six months straight," she said, so there.