The coronavirus pandemic has made it almost impossible to operate the arts venues where people tend to gather and linger: galleries, arts education spaces and bookstores were all closed for months. For Ballard’s Push/Pull — a combination of outsider art gallery, small-press bookstore and education space — COVID-19 could hardly have been more devastating.
Director Maxx Follis-Goodkind says 2020 has basically been cursed from the start for Push/Pull: “There was major construction on the street for all of this year up until just a few weeks ago,” she says. “So we were already struggling and trying to figure out how to reach more people and establish different revenue streams.”
It’s not like it’s ever been easy; you don’t create an underground arts hub to get rich. Push/Pull was founded by Follis-Goodkind and her now-husband, artist Seth Goodkind, as a stall in the Greenwood Collective communal arts building. In Push/Pull, she says, “we wanted a space that was about art and illustration and comics and printing, encompassing the entirety of an artist’s career.”
Follis-Goodkind quickly found herself at the center of a burgeoning, cooperatively run community of artists, cartoonists and crafters. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Push/Pull moved into its Ballard space in November 2015. Each of the leaderless collective’s 10 artist-members take turns working the register and pitching in around the space, with Follis-Goodkind handling the majority of the business and administrative operations.
Push/Pull closed its doors for the first time in almost five years on March 23, when Gov. Jay Inslee called for nonessential businesses to lock down. Since then, its operations have transitioned online. The Push/Pull website now offers some 600 small-press titles, zines and comics — many by Washington state and Pacific Northwest artists — broken out by subjects ranging from all-ages books, mental health stories and books by Native American/Indigenous artists. When you add the wide selection of stickers, greeting cards and other art objects, Push/Pull offers some 3,000 items on its website.
“We’ve also moved all of our classes and community events online,” Follis-Goodkind says, including free art classes for teens, summer camps, drawing and painting classes and peer critique sessions.
“I’m actually learning to enjoy hosting video events,” she admits.
“Before I went into art, I went to school for horticulture,” Follis-Goodkind explains. So for her botanical illustration and watercolor classes, for example, she’s not just sticking a bouquet in front of a webcam and kicking back for an hour while students muddle through at home. “We’re learning how to draw a tree, but we’re also learning about how the tree grows, and the shapes of its leaves. I’ve taken apart flowers to show people how they get pollinated.” After a crash course in the anatomy of a plant, the artists bring a deeper understanding to their finished portrait.
At the time of this writing, Push/Pull has reopened on a four-days-a-week schedule, Thursday to Sunday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Now that construction on Northwest Market Street has finally finished, curbside pickup is also available.
All these necessary shifts in business have taken a financial toll on Push/Pull, which had finally reached something approximating a breaking-even point last year. In addition to the lost revenue and ongoing expenses, “we had to spend a couple hundred dollars on hand sanitizer, masks, gloves and outfitting the space,” Follis-Goodkind says.
They’re making Push/Pull as safe as possible, but those safety rules mean that only four customers are allowed in the space at a time, and browsing has to be restricted to 30 minutes. Given that Push/Pull is intended to be a clubhouse for the Seattle arts community to hang out and interact, Follis-Goodkind adds dryly that the COVID-ready space is “a very different experience for us.”
Follis-Goodkind has been heartened to see customers buying gift certificates as investments in Push/Pull’s future, and customers from around the country have ordered art and books from the site in the hopes that when they visit Seattle again, one of their favorite destinations will still be open to greet them. But for right now, she says, “our neighborhood, especially, just has businesses closing constantly — it seems like there’s a new one every week. It’s been hard to keep the momentum going.”
It never pays to bet against Push/Pull; the cooperative has been building community out of thin air for the better part of a decade now. But that doesn’t make the hard times any more fun, or any easier to navigate. “We have been able to get funding from [King County cultural funding agency] 4Culture and from some private organizations,” Follis-Goodkind says, “but it will never make up for what we have lost so far.”
What are Push/Pull customers reading?
Follis-Goodkind says customers have been responding to “Emerald Reflections 2,” an anthology of pieces by and about South Seattle communities edited by South Seattle Emerald founder Marcus Harrison Green, who has also worked for The Seattle Times. “Seattle, and the North End in particular, is waking up to the reality that we need to be looking out for people that have been historically marginalized,” Follis-Goodkind says. “There are so many great voices in there — poets, writers, musicians. I go back to it frequently.”
Sanika Phawde is a New York City-based artist and cartoonist, but in many ways Push/Pull is her artistic home. “We’ve worked with her really closely for the last three or four years,” Follis-Goodkind says. “We were the first place she sold her zine and the first place that she had an art show.” Phawde’s latest comic, “You Are Here,” is “about a fake reality show that takes place in these people’s apartment. This realization that your life is all just made up — I think a lot of people are probably going through that existential crisis right now” in the pandemic, she adds.
Another collection of local talent, “The Gibson” comic anthology, was assembled by Ballard resident Michael Hall, who records hip-hop under the name Specs Wizard. The anthology of work from five local cartoonists (including Hall) comes with musical accompaniment and was funded in part by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture. Like Push/Pull itself, the book is “a good example of how we can support artists in Seattle if we actually give more money to arts and culture,” Follis-Goodkind explains.
Push/Pull is currently open Thursdays-Sundays, 1-6 p.m.; 5484 Shilshole Ave N.W., Seattle; 206-789-1710; see pushpullseattle.weebly.com for updates.