They knew it would end, and nobody was complaining. How long can 40 scraggly artists hide out in Homeland Security central, anyway? Last Wednesday, I signed up for the final time with the guard at the gate, drove up the short ramp, and entered the long, long, unheated warehouse on the bank of the Duwamish River that was a haven for Seattle artists for a decade. I'd invited Jon Kvistad to join me; he was the reason the artists were there. Ironically, Kvistad—a federal administrator who also happens to be a contemporary-art collector and a lightly eccentric marvel—was an appointee of President George W. Bush, and he'd made the place an artist hive. When Obama came in, the artists went out. This afternoon, Kvistad couldn't make it. He was out of town, and anyway, it might have been too sad. "Give my regards to everyone," he e-mailed. "Let them know I did the best I could and wish I could have prevented this."
It was less than 24 hours before all the artists had to be out—by 4:30 p.m. on December 31—and most were gone already. Studio doors hung open. Walls wore splatters of paint in search of their canvases. In one room, a big photographer's studio light lit up a chair in front of it, but the rest of the room was dusty and empty. The sign at the door read "Bill Wickett Artists' & Illustrators' Photography Services."
Painter Jeffrey Simmons had gone through with a camera and documented the abandoned rooms—Claude Zervas's studio overlooking the river and close-by Kellogg Island, where Zervas watched the same bald eagle for years; the airy room that housed Leo Berk's giant CNC router machine, which Berk had to hire a rigging company to move. Berk unpinned a painted poster that depicted a bunch of the artists as mustachioed vaqueros, then started pushing the tack back into the wall. "What am I doing?" he said, stopping himself. "Putting up the pin for the bulldozer?" The 1,100-foot-long, 330-foot-wide warehouse—built in the 1940s, adjacent to a historic Albert Kahn–designed 1932 Ford Motor Company assembly plant on East Marginal Way in South Seattle—is going to be torn down to make way for office space for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using money from Obama's economic stimulus package.
Back in 2006, when I first wrote about the warehouse—known as the GSA building, since it is owned by the federal General Services Administration (and housed some of the more secretive activities of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, ATF, FEMA, customs, and border enforcement)—artist Debra Baxter quipped that she'd rather pay five bucks per square foot for a studio than have Bush in office. She almost has to: Like all the artists I talked to, Baxter is moving to a smaller space for more money. She's paying double for half the footage in Ballard.
Artists don't dwell when things aren't easy; it's the norm. "We knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Dan Webb. Webb and a clump of other artists have taken over a building in Georgetown. It has heat, but they can't really afford to use it.
Near the entrance, Ben Hirschkoff faced a lot of work before the deadline. He's moving into the basement of the Bemis Building. His studiomates—Tivon Rice, Matt Mitros, Jamie Potter, and Tim Cross—are scattering.
In the women's bathroom halfway down the length of the warehouse, Baxter and artists Matthew Offenbacher and Margot Quan Knight were huddled around an old-timey communal hand-washing tub. They'd gotten permission to remove it for an installation at the Henry Art Gallery. The other two big peach-colored tubs would presumably be bulldozed.
The GSA was the closest thing Seattle had to a studio colony. (No one lived in the building; they just made work there.) Space cost 30 cents per square foot, far below market rate. On Facebook later that day, Mandy Greer posted: "Paul finally moved all my stuff out today. I am kind of in a pit of depression, my work fills an entire garage and two sheds... my life is at capacity and I don't know how to justify keeping making all this stuff."
"It was pretty amazing," Zervas said, back at the building, about to leave.