THINKS A LOT ABOUT:
Bees, bats, birds, butterflies, nodding onions, Nootka lupines, woolly sunflowers, yarrow.
Urban planners, homeowners, ornithologists, 67 volunteer gardeners, and hundreds of college students.
When Sarah Bergmann took the stage to collect her Genius Award for art Saturday night, she stood in the spotlight for only the briefest of speeches—nine seconds, captured on video—and she said almost nothing except to toast Dan Webb and Amanda Manitach, her fellow finalists in the art category. Webb, Manitach, and Bergmann genuinely like each other so much that four nights prior to the awards, they’d joined up and pub-crawled their way into the back room at Vito’s, finishing the night with pictures photo-bombed by the bar’s resident taxidermied cougar. Openly anticipating the awkwardness of one winner and two losers, they also pointed out that the nominations helped their art; Manitach poignantly explained that she’d given up on being an artist for financial reasons when the windfall of attention brought commissions and collectors her way. “It literally changed my life,” Manitach said.
So on Saturday, after the award was announced, it wasn’t weird when another, non-nominated Seattle artist who was perched on the edge of the Moore Theater’s winding staircase pronounced, “I love Dan Webb and Amanda Manitach!” She then continued excitedly, without lowering her voice: “Dan Webb is a personal friend of mine. Amanda is obviously fascinating. It’s just that what Sarah’s doing is something that could only happen in this city, right now.” Some version of these opinions seemed to circulate throughout the room and ripple out into the city.
“What Sarah’s doing” is The Pollinator Pathway. She started it in 2008 and, when it’s finished in a few years, it will be a stripe down Seattle’s back. It may be the largest art installation ever created here. It’s a series of gardens—there will be 60 in all—spanning a mile of Columbia Street, planted in the parking strips. Most of the plants are native, and they will draw insects along a new thruway that links one existing green space to another. (The two dots being connected are the well-tended Seattle University campus and Nora’s Woods, a pocket forest at 29th Street; visit the gardens anytime.) Bergmann’s art is especially social. Before any planting begins, she needs the consent, buy-in, and participation of every building owner along the way.
The Pollinator Pathway is a microcosmic urban solution to the global megaproblem of pollinator decline, particularly colony collapse in honeybees, which help provide most of our nongrain foods. Robin Held, the longtime Seattle museum curator who now leads Reel Grrls, once wrote simply, “The Pollinator Pathway changes the way we understand our city.” Bergmann is adamant that her gardens are not the “flipping” of urban land into protected, walled-off park spaces. Rather, they demonstrate the regenerative potential of the city pretty much just the way it is.
Bergmann was trained as a painter, and she graduated from Cornish in 1999. In her early plein air paintings, she’d capture the light, the views, the birds—but, she says, “it was BS!” Missing were the buildings, parking lots, plastic bags. How to capture the entire system? She stopped painting, moved to New York, and found herself at an environmental ad agency working with, of all companies, Walmart, causing her to read up on distribution systems and, by extension, pollinator decline. To create Pathway, she returned to her home city, where her mother had selected her preschool according to how many plant species grew along the walk. The Pathway is a landscape painting made with the broadest brush she could devise.
Tiny yellow “road” signs (for insects and bees to read!) dot the Pathway gardens if you kneel down to look. Bergmann hustles for grants and works mostly for free. Back in her basement studio in a North Seattle rental house, she’s also quietly painting a new naturalist book, after Audubon, but adapted for the so-called Anthropocene or age of humans. “You know,” she explains, “a naturalist book with semitrucks.”