Artists don't know the name Jon Kvistad. At museum and gallery openings, he is a man apart, hanging around the edges of the party, a sandy-haired, middle-aged fellow in sharp architect glasses and dull suits who walks with a cane that makes him look vaguely mythical. In many ways, Kvistad is like any other philanthropist: He is a man of means who started his art collection young, and when he saw that artists were being displaced by gentrification, decided to take up their cause.

Except that Kvistad is a Republican, and a Bush appointee, and the director of the regional office of the federal government's property-management division, the General Services Administration (GSA). His contribution to the art world is stealthy.

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He provides studios, at half market rate, to almost 50 artists, in the most improbable place in the world: at the local headquarters for the secretive activities of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the ATF, FEMA, customs, and border enforcement. As a result, Seattle's largest—and growing—artist colony is at the heart of a gated federal compound, in a place where having a glass of wine requires written permission and on-site photography is discouraged for national-security reasons.

The place is called Federal Center South, and it is an alternate universe, where federal laws are the only ones that apply. From the outside, it looks like a faceless factory complex set in a spectacular location: at the edge of the Duwamish River just south of the West Seattle Bridge, where the brutish monuments of concrete plants and a leafy bird sanctuary coexist across the water, and barges growl by in the dusk. Inside, the warehouses feel empty, inhabited chiefly by subtext. Something is going on, but what is not clear. Lights come from the enclosed artist studios, but other than the little art enclaves and the constant presence of roaming security guards, the warehouses feel abandoned most of the time. Artists keep their heads down when they see intelligence-gathering vehicles around, or seized drugs arriving in the middle of the night, or bomb-sniffing robots on tank treads being tested. They try to block out the signs that threaten 30 days of imprisonment for trespassing without authorization, and the men in full-body camouflage who guard those doorways.

In the areas where artists are allowed there's an odd mix of stuff. In one large section, a furniture maker stacks vivisected trees in a semicircle and an industrial fan, set to high, stands before them like an orchestra conductor. Behind another fenced-in stall, the Salvation Army keeps stacks and stacks of portable mattresses, drinking water, and an improbable quantity of sealed boxes marked "Hallmark Greeting Cards."

The studios—held by some of Seattle's most prominent artists—are difficult to locate amid all the random debris, from dusty piles of castoff office furniture to an abandoned Corvette covered in a layer of grime. The first artist to have a studio here was the painter and muralist Michael Fajans, and Fajans's success in the place gave Kvistad the idea, shortly after Kvistad was appointed in 2001, to put out word among art dealers that this was a perfect place for serious artists in need of secure working space. Now he hopes to get 75 or 100 artists in the building before his tenure ends in 2009, with Bush's term. He envisions renaming part of the complex "Government Art Space, or something like that," and holding a festival on the site.

Meanwhile, the artists love their cheap, safe, raw studios as much as they despise the administration that is indirectly subsidizing them. It isn't always easy reconciling the two. Debra Baxter, a sculptor, sounds tough when she says, "I'd rather pay five bucks per square foot for my studio than have Bush in office." But a tiny photograph she made earlier this year reveals a deflated Baxter. Its message, written at the far end of a set of footprints in the snow, is partly directed at the president. "You make me want to stop trying," it says.

* * *

Contemporary art and the federal government seldom come into contact. The culture wars ended funding for individual artists, and now the National Endowment for the Arts pays for canonical, educational, and feel-good art. Any other art happens in spite of the government.

Except at Federal Center South. As long as Kvistad has his way, the art here is safe. Very safe, actually.

Brian Murphy—who won this year's Neddy Fellowship and who already has the Seattle Art Museum's Betty Bowen Award for his light pink, disappearing paintings of his plump naked body—used to have a studio here, and it was the only place he ever worked where he didn't worry about somebody breaking in. To him, Federal Center South is "a shell of government with artist interiors, like an M&M with a peanut inside."

To get in, you first pull up to a guard gate just off East Marginal Way after Highway 99 ends south of downtown. The guard takes your ID, writes your information on a sign-in sheet, and you tell him which artist you've arranged to visit. Once every few times you visit, he'll ask you to pull over to have your car searched. It's just like entering a military base. "Sometimes, people in the arts maybe try things—have them try things elsewhere," Kvistad says, putting on his official hat as if sending a message to protect his potentially controversial tenants. "For instance, on federal land, using marijuana is a federal drug crime."

Inside the chain-link perimeter fence with its barbed-wire edge—past the guard gate and past the occasional white Chevy Blazers from Homeland Security that patrol the entrance stop signs ("Those guys aren't kidding around," one of the more relaxed GSA guards says)—three buildings are straight ahead. On the right, nearest the river, is a 15,000-square-foot warehouse with some studios. On the left is an L-shaped building housing the administrative offices for the complex, where, from a certain angle, a metal detector frames a view of portraits of Bush and Cheney on the wall. In the reception area are signups for day care and fitness classes, and handouts of checklists for what to do upon receiving a chemical, biological, or bomb threat by phone. This building is full of secret uses that require higher security clearance. No artists have studios here.

Most of the studios, instead, are in the middle building, a very long, gray, high-bay warehouse of 348,000 square feet that you drive into, as if it were its own small city. All the artists got when they moved in was the cement floor, an exterior wall, and a communal bathroom in the middle of the building, which seems a little like governmental karmic atonement for Guantánamo—here, you also get bare walls and empty floors, but you can do anything.

A DIY ethic is a prerequisite for occupancy. The artists put up their own walls and wired electricity for heating and tools. There are cushier spaces in the city to make art, like the ones at the Bemis building near Safeco Field, which charges between 60 and 70 cents per square foot for studio space, compared to 30 cents at Federal Center South. The NEA may have tightened its purse strings, but Kvistad has, in a totally aboveboard way, loosened the purse strings of the General Services Administration to compensate. Federal Center South is nearly full.

"We've been renting almost exclusively to artists for the last two years," says GSA real-estate manager Kerste Conner.

* * *

Dan Webb points to the leftover rectangles cut into the cracked concrete floor of his studio. The two large, original buildings of Federal Center South are part of a national legacy left by Albert Kahn, the industrial architect who innovated replacing wood with reinforced concrete and built more than a thousand buildings for Ford Motor Co. In the 1930s, these buildings were an assembly plant and a service station. Then the smaller building was built in 1941 as a port to send Army kids to war, and after the war, the Army Corps of Engineers took over the complex until Boeing started making missiles here in 1959. The rectangles in the floor are left over from the machines that manufactured missiles.

What goes on in Webb's art reflects the tension in the studio environment. His high-craft wood and plastic sculptures are constantly exploiting the gap between the general public's expectations about art as handicraft and the academic bent of the art world. When government agents occasionally drop by his studio, the awkward conversations, before they peter out entirely, are mostly about which tools he uses. That's okay with Webb; he long ago adjusted to being an anomaly. "If I get very far outside an urban center and someone asks me what I do, I just say carpenter," Webb says. "It's easier." In this way, Federal Center South is a microcosm of the country at large, where artists are fringe characters initially met with reactions ranging from bewilderment to skepticism to suspicion before being largely ignored.

Flying under the radar has been the artists' strategy, and Kvistad's. At a rare open house he organized a few months ago where collectors were invited inside the compound, one called him the Quiet Patron, and he is still buzzing from the compliment. His Republican friends think he's crazy. Higher-ups might have given him resistance if he had been more vocal about his artists project over the past five years. But considering Seattle's outrageous property prices, he didn't feel like he could, in good conscience, sit on a major piece of real estate that would be ideal for desperate artists. "I can't help it, I just love this stuff," he says, pointing around him at a recent show of obsessive, repetitive mountainscape paintings by a contemporary artist at the Frye Art Museum, where many of his tenants have shown.

Tenants Leo Saul Berk, Claire Cowie, Webb, Juniper Shuey, Mark Takamichi Miller, Claude Zervas, and Jeffrey Simmons all have gallery representation (which thwarted Kvistad's idea to turn some of the warehouse space into a gallery). Berk, in a studio next to Webb, is cooking up a quarter-million-dollar commission for the lobby of a Vulcan condo project. (He can't talk much about it yet.) Webb and Berk remember the building before September 11, before war, when the guard gate was only staffed during the day (evening entry meant swiping a card) and the artists had more parties.

Even though Webb has no plans to leave Federal Center South, he sees the current government as a personal enemy ruining the future lives of his two children. He is outraged at the aggression, the environmental destruction, the obscene debt. "We're at a razor's edge, man," he says. He's able to rationalize staying at Federal Center South because the people he sees on his regular rounds are not the ominous, secret-squirrel types, whom the artists almost always only glimpse and almost never interact with, but the jocular guards of the General Services Administration. One of them, a flirtatious middle-aged guy named Larry, has mentioned to Baxter, a sculptor of nervous knots of blowup lifejackets and water wings and pool floats, that his boat club may be in the market for a fish sculpture, for a very good price, if she's interested. When he heard she was working with boat imagery, he gave her an old blue pontoon that now sits outside her studio.

"The GSA is the guy in braces out at the gate, the poor schmo who was probably living in a trailer park before joining the Army," Webb says. "Am I protesting him?" And anyway, if he left the building and stopped paying rent to the GSA, which is supporting artists, he'd still be paying taxes to fund the militaristic programs he loathes, he says. The way he figures it, his contribution to the GSA is one of the least offensive donations he's making to the feds.

What did make Webb consider leaving was a rattling incident that brought the authority of the place directly to his door. He was arrested in 2005 by an overeager Homeland Security cop who mistook him for a license-plate thief when in fact he was the victim of license-plate theft. A whole wing of studios was staked out for an entire day, and when Webb went out to his car in the rain, he was handcuffed, yelled at, searched, and detained for questioning. The groundless case was swiftly dropped in court.

"You feel differently when you lose all of your freedom," Webb says quietly over lunch at the cafeteria, not sounding at all like his usual swaggering self. "It does instill a sense of paranoia." He asked, for instance, to read this story before it was printed out of fear that something in it would get the artists evicted, although they've done nothing wrong. "There is something about coming to a place of self-censorship that I notice, and that scares me. We've all learned fear."

None of the artists cop to being influenced directly by the strangeness of the site, but echoes of it, and of the larger feeling of being a stranger in this strange, overbearing, hyper-secure land are all over their work. In his time at Federal Center South, Claude Zervas has made digital images that resemble surveillance photography. Baxter's stuff is obsessed with security. Cowie based an entire 2004 show at James Harris Gallery on the striking views at the site, depicting forlorn factories, boats, and birds in mostly empty, alien, watercolor-collage landscapes. They've all made a certain separate peace with the place. "I'm still totally afraid of my government," Berk says, "but just seeing normal people doing their jobs makes it different."

When the national terrorism-threat level rises, the guards search the artists more often on the way in, but that's all. The war on terror has brought simulations of "toxic situations" with helicopters swarming overhead and HAZMAT suits chasing each other around outside the studio windows, but those are only simulations.

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What will happen to the artists long-term is uncertain. There has been talk of commercial development on the site, and the government can always evict the artists if it decides to do something else with the buildings. Or Kvistad's replacement in '09 could see things differently than Kvistad does. (He had to do some convincing to get his staff to let artists share space with FBI agents.)

The artists are used to this place, and maybe its tension feeds their work. At the very least, it brings them together. In a way, they're like every progressive American who hasn't fled to Canada. Or like moderate Republicans—Oregon native and environmentalist Kvistad included—trying to find a way to exist in a party that has gone wrong. They struggle to find the good in this place, to figure out what they can gain from it without losing themselves. And weird as it seems, as long as Bush is in office, they can stay.

jgraves@thestranger.com

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