Straight ahead when you walk in the gallery door, you're faced with the life-sized cutout portraits of Amelia Bonow, the young Seattle woman leading the #ShoutYourAbortion movement, and Dorli Rainey, the stalwart Seattle activist who was pepper-sprayed by police during Occupy Seattle in 2011, when she was 84 years old.
Each woman is posed in a protest stance. Fist up. Megaphone ready.
But their clothes and faces are muted. They wear light tan jackets matching in tone. They wear expressions not of rage or even mild upset, but of naked perseverance. Absolute determination.
Lips together, eyebrows raised, gaze straight at you, waiting for you to figure out you need to join them.
They aren't frozen in action, as heroes of activism can be captured in news photographs, but rather standing still, breathing calmly, fixed in their convictions. They're the enduring spirit that motivates activism, not its moment of outburst.
Their backdrop is another painted photograph from Seattle, of the brick wall at the Union Gospel Mission in Pioneer Square. It's muted tan, too, its own monument of quiet endurance. The city is the character NTG addresses: You still feel like home, despite how much you disappoint, strand, hurt, even kill.
These women might be shamed and attacked but they won't be persuaded it's time to give up.
No Touching Ground is the artist who made the portraits, as part of his show You Still Feel Like Home at Glass Box Gallery. Last night, he led a tour through the show, and Rainey was present, wearing the same tan trenchcoat she does in her cutout portrait. NTG arranged and shot the photographs, cut them out and mounted them to stand, and overpainted them using watercolor.
No Touching Ground uses a pseudonym partly because he works in unsanctioned venues like abandoned warehouses and the alleyways behind police stations, in addition to occasional gallery shows. His last gallery solo in Seattle was in 2010 at Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes's Pun(c)tuation. He works outside because more people can see his art that way. His work has never seemed interested in the perceived glamor, intrigue, or belligerence of street art "scenes."
At that time, No Touching Ground created two large-scale outdoor murals in association with what was on display inside, and they lasted for months and left indelible impressions in the minds of those who lived and worked on Capitol Hill at that time. Each one appeared, one after the other, on the large wall at the corner of 11th and Pine streets. Each one pictured, writ large, the face of a man attacked by police: first Alley-Barnes, who was brutally beaten by four officers in 2005, and then John T. Williams, who was shot to death by officer Ian Burke that year.
NTG is no less haunted by Williams' killing now. John T.'s older brother, Rick, had been moved by NTG's mural and brought NTG a drum, asking him to paint his brother on it. NTG wanted to leave the beauty of the animal skin drum visible, so he painted a minimal portrait only in charcoal, getting his fingers as close to the lines of John's face as he could. After he gave Rick the portrait on the drum, he made a mural of the brothers together, one alive and one remembered in fragile charcoal.
That mural went up outside the East Precinct station.
In the streets of Seattle each year, there are two art seasons: NTG season, and no-NTG season. He goes away to Alaska to fish, then comes back to Seattle to do his art. You know he's back when you catch a glimpse of his work as you're running to the bus, or turning a corner.
For the last three years, he's been away most of the time, pasting up murals of people who inspire him in South America, where art lovers and activists have also come to appreciate him. But like the pigeons he uses in his imagery, NTG is a homing creature. He returns to Seattle, where he first began making art using the signature symbol of a man's body embedded inside the shape of a bird in flight. He created it when he was living in Pioneer Square and facing eviction. How do you find your place in a system designed to leave people out?
In the installation Valkyrie, NTG printed his own crime scene tape with the names of people abused by police. It is presided over by taxidermied pigeons (live ones were at the opening, and bless them, they climbed up on top of the "Seattle Crimes" banner and sat there in a row).
Another installation is a wall mural portrait of a quiet moment in The Jungle, Seattle's longtime homeless encampment under I-5. A chainlink fence stands in front of the mural, like the one politicians recently proposed to enclose The Jungle. Dirt from the site gathers on the floor.
There's a man in the portrait, running. NTG explained that he came running to clear out NTG when he saw the artist photographing. In last night's talk, NTG downplayed the man's importance in the final piece, saying the composition was what mattered most to him. But to me, the man is central. Even seen at a distance (he is hard to make out on computer but hiding in plain sight on the gallery wall), this small figure in motion brings an important rushing presence to the experience of looking at The Jungle from the outside.
The sleeping mat in Eviction is a Proposed Land Use Action sign NTG found; you can pick them up just about everywhere in Seattle these days, as new construction is booming yet the price of housing and the number of people without homes continues to rise. (Victoria Haven has used these signs in her work; maybe soon we'll see an entire exhibition of artist takes on them.) The pillow is a plastic bag filled with Real Change newspapers.
NTG mined the streets for materials to bring into the gallery, and he also deposited murals of Bonow, the Williams brothers, and others on those same streets. But a picture doesn't make a body warm, so knowing that the month of February is often Seattle's coldest, NTG instituted his own activist cause a few months ago that he called Free Blanket February. He printed those words on the front of a Stranger box he grabbed under the viaduct. He stocked the box with gray blankets stamped with his bird emblem. He returned to restock on a regular basis, and other people surprised him by joining in anonymously, leaving their blankets in the box as demand kept rising. They inspired NTG to consider expanding the project next winter and enlisting help.
In addition to the installations and interventions, NTG also made charcoal drawings of stills from police brutality videos, again getting close to his subjects by choosing a medium you hold right between your thumb and finger. There's John T. Williams flat on the sidewalk next to a car reflecting a burst of sunshine from that August day. There's a teenage girl attacked by multiple officers insider her solitary confinement cell. The terrible subjects are rendered beautifully, so you keep looking.
With this exhibition, NTG's return feels like the homecoming of a trusted friend, a hardworking citizen artist. Seattle needs NTG. These works are deliberately modest engagements with the documents of our history.
Sounds come from inside a darkened room. Video projected on a painted mural is the last part of You Still Feel Like Home. You may have already seen some of this footage of dash cam videos and news broadcasts of police brutality, juxtaposed with a joke music video made by the Seattle Police Department itself in 1986 as "an attempt at humor" about life under the viaduct. To the tune of Under the Boardwalk, actors stumble around as drunken bums. It ends with a police officer in his car smiling as he hits his palm with his baton, readying to beat down the homeless clowns.
But you haven't seen this material in this way. NTG has made it strange again. The painted mural where the videos are projected is a giant hand holding an iPhone in its palm. The videos play as if on the phone, as if you're capturing them happening now, though they're made strange in this cave-like chamber. Between videos, the screen goes blank so there's only the white of the wall. It's painted almost iridescent white, so that it glistens, eerily.
In one video, an elderly Black man is waiting to cross the street at 12th and Pike, leaning on a golf club he uses as a cane. A female officer pulls up in a car and accuses him of swinging the club at her. The video plainly shows he has done nothing of the sort. She escalates, yelling louder and louder at him to put the club down. Amazingly, she notifies him that he has been videotaped and audiotaped—although that's the documentation that will eventually completely exonerate him and demonstrate her abusing him. It's as if she really believes what she's saying.
Then she arrests him.
Bystanders walk past, baffled. It is a sad but understandable response: You really cannot believe that what's happening is happening.