Roger Wheeler needs studio space more than living space.
“I was living in storefronts and office buildings and it was always touch-and-go with the landlord because it could not be revealed that I was living there,” said the 67-year-old painter, who now lives at the Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts in Pioneer Square. In his current live-work space at the TK, the rent is affordable so he doesn’t have to choose between a place to sleep and a place to make his intricate papier-mâché masks.
“Moving into a space like that where you feel legitimate and you don’t have to play hide and seek with the landlord, having the rent — it’s very important,” said Wheeler of the artist work-live complex celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
When the Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts opened in 2004, it was the first large, affordable housing space for artists in the artistically driven neighborhood. Today, it remains an art hub and the focus of the First Thursday Art Walk, with 25 commercial galleries and work-only studios to complement the upstairs live-work spaces. In its previous life, it housed businesses, social services, a farmers market, and most prominently, the Tashiro Hardware company.
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Now, 96 artists and their families live in 50 lofts, including painter Paul Komada, paper artist Celeste Cooning, and conceptual artist/installation maker Susan Robb. Rent runs between $759-$1,267, depending on the unit; those range in size from 800 to 1,863 square feet. To be eligible, artists must have an income of less than 50 or 60 percent of Seattle’s median income (less than 50 percent for two people is $34,500 per year) and have proved their dedication to their craft to a peer-review committee. There are more than 1,000 people on the waiting list.
“It’s really important to have those spaces for artists where the market isn’t making demands or any other motivation that’s fueled by money, where there’s this freedom and you can just hang what you want, experiment and try things out,” said Lynn Schirmer, a visual artist and president of the Tashiro Kaplan Tenants Association.
For other residents, an estimated 70 percent of whom have been at the TK for the last 10 years, the building’s vibrant energy and strong community are what enable them to keep pushing forward with their own art.
“It keeps me honest. The people around here are doing their work and it’s work that I want to do, too,” said Sheri Brown, a dancer and performance artist who is currently the artistic director of the DAIPANbutoh Collective. “And it supports me, not just energetically — if I’m missing an extension cord or need advice on theater things, there’s always an expert in something and I can go knock on their door.”
Cathryn Vandenbrink, one of the chief community organizers who started pushing for the space in 1996, believes that the TK’s influence is instrumental not only in the lives of the tenants, but also in the Greater Seattle arts scene.
“I am so stunned by how it continues to be such a vital art creative presence in Seattle, not just in the Pioneer Square community, but the tentacles that reach out throughout the city,” said Vandenbrink, who worked as a jewelry artist for 20 years before devoting herself to Artspace, the nonprofit that developed the TK. “People who live in our building who are running dance companies, theatrical companies, teaching in schools, and creating programs throughout the city.”
But Pioneer Square isn’t the best place to walk your dog at night, which Lisa Lukas discovered one night during her dog’s bathroom break, when a club’s bouncer told her she needed to get off the streets. Lukas has raised two children in the TK while working to support her recently deceased husband’s photography.
“There would be people shooting up heroin as (her daughter Nicole) was getting on the school bus in the morning,” Lukas said. “I was on first-name basis with 911.”
However, the neighborhood has changed significantly since the TK opened a decade ago.
“When I was first here, I was actually afraid to put my head out the window,” said Brown. “I actually thought if people saw me they might shoot me … but now I’m not afraid to put my head out the window and see people and be seen. Being here in this place where there’s a need for some transformation, it calls me to do it for a good reason.”
In celebration of the anniversary, the tenants of the Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts are throwing the Art of the City Art Street Fair on Saturday, Aug. 2, which will feature an outdoor stage with dozens of performances by tenants and regionally known musicians, interactive sculpture, live painting, impromptu performance art and plenty of food (La Bodega is hosting a pig roast).
It’s events like this that prove why spaces like the TK are instrumental in maintaining a dynamic culture in Seattle, where artistic innovation has the square footage to breathe and flourish.
“For a city to be interesting and vital, we want to have music venues, we want to have theater, we want dance, we want orchestras, ballets, performance, we want galleries, we want street festivals,” Vandenbrink said. “We want a city that has a rich and vibrant life.”