Free Sheep Foundation makes art happen in unused commercial spaces and buildings soon to be torn down, with intriguing installations in storefront windows and blowout multimedia performances.

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If you’ve been walking around Belltown the past few months, you may have wondered what’s going on inside an oddly occupied building at Third and Battery — the one with intriguing things in the storefront windows and signs proclaiming, “Free Sheep Foundation” along with a giant “Notice of proposed land use” billboard.

The thing that first grabs your attention right now is a display that seems more suited to the Woodland Park Zoo than a downtown building. Look through the corner windows into a room that’s billed as the urban habitat of Toshi, a 1,200-pound Japanese sloth bear. A news release tells us the display is a collaboration between The Zoo To You Foundation and Seattle’s PDL (Jason Puccinelli, Jed Dunkerley and Greg Lundgren), and “a rare opportunity to see this threatened species in an accessible, urban environment.” You won’t pry anything else out of me.

Even if you have already been to one of the performances sponsored by the Free Sheep Foundation, you could be left wondering exactly what the place is and who’s behind it. This is the kind of art project that’s easy to love, an unexpected jolt of creativity that carries no intention of making money or inhabiting a museum. It exists because somebody had an idea and made it happen.

Co-founder NKO (say Nee-ko) Rey says he and performance artist D.K Pan started Free Sheep “to locate and occupy disused spaces and open them for artists as performance and exhibition space.” They wanted a place where artists could explore work that wouldn’t fit in a commercial gallery, “to emphasize experimentation and play.” You might know them as the guys behind last year’s Bridge Motel project — a one-night stand to honor the last night on Earth of a seedy but storied motel on Aurora Avenue (see — and a reclamation at the Belmont, a Capitol Hill building that was demolished last year.

And why do they call themselves “Free Sheep?”

That came about by musing on a sheep who doesn’t follow the crowd, who stands “apart from the flock,” says Rey. “Is he lost or simply wandering?”

The Free Sheep Foundation has been animating the down-at-heels Belltown building since July, with changing installations in the storefront windows as well as collaborative projects, including live performances, in the interior gallery, and a nightly display of projected video visible from the street (this assembled by Adam Sekuler, program director at Northwest Film Forum).

So, how did they talk the owner of the building, real-estate developer Martin Selig, into letting them occupy the place?

Purely by happy accident, says Rey, a graphic artist who recently completed a mural on 11th Avenue between Pike and Pine streets. “We started putting out feelers, and someone knew someone. The building had been unoccupied for a couple years, and they gave us a really good deal on the rent and said basically do what you want.” By letting studio space to four artists, and partnering with government agencies such as King County 4Culture, the foundation is able to fund its operations.

The Belltown deal will soon be over, though. Free Sheep must vacate the property by year’s end. But don’t worry: Other projects are in the works. The next is slated for a University District icon — the defunct spa Tubs at 50th and Roosevelt.

“We are going to do a memorial for the Tubs building … have artists in to do site-specific installation work, with murals outside the building,” Rey says. “What we’d like to do is open the space for two weeks as a gallery and then have a festival, a wake if you will, at the end of that time.” Look for the event the first two weeks in February.

Sheila Farr: