2020 didn’t just take away our ability to partake in many favorite cultural activities, it took away many beloved people involved in creating the arts, culture and food that we love. Here, 11 Seattle-area community members pay tribute to a few of those cultural figures — local and national — we lost last year.
Virginia Wright, art collector and philanthropist
By Chiyo Ishikawa, former deputy director for art and curator of European painting and sculpture at Seattle Art Museum
I first met Virginia Wright in 1990 when I started at the Seattle Art Museum, and I had the pleasure of watching her and learning from her for 30 years. She was as important to the museum as Dr. Richard Fuller. He founded the museum and ran it for 40 years, but it was Jinny’s vision and leadership that turned it into the institution we have today, at the center of community and with a pervasive presence of contemporary art. She saw that the museum couldn’t remain an isolated jewel box on Capitol Hill. To be part of a growing, ambitious city, it would have to be downtown, a part of the community. And she firmly believed cities need the arts to flourish and achieve greatness. She and her husband, Bagley, supported many other arts organizations in Seattle.
It took a lot of work to convince the board that the museum flagship should move: there was free parking at Volunteer Park after all, and some were afraid to venture downtown, which was considered pretty sketchy then. But Jinny was a strong voice in support of that effort and took the museum from a kind of ivory tower to something that had a much more public dimension — and helped transform downtown in the process, especially once the Olympic Sculpture Park opened in 2007.
Others looked to Jinny for leadership, and she spoke up about things she cared about, but she didn’t feel the need to opine on every issue. When she did speak, she was succinct, direct and convincing — you paid attention because she didn’t waste words. And if Jinny got behind something, you knew it was going to succeed. Her leadership model was a magic formula: a beguiling but tenacious personality, generous funding to support good ideas, and a collaborative spirit that invited the talents of others.
As a collector, Jinny thought very much like a curator: She was a good researcher, wrote beautifully, and trusted artists to lead the way. She was interested in the ways works of art work together and in different combinations. She inspired other collectors to seek out the high level of excellence she’d brought to hers.
Jinny had a very delightful, disarming personality; you could have a real conversation with her. She had this wonderful husky voice, and laughed very easily. She was our North Star, and we really miss her.
Elizabeth Mar, co-owner of Kona Kitchen restaurants
By Angela Okumoto, daughter and co-owner of Kona Kitchen (as told to freelancer Chris Talbott)
The most important thing to my mom was family. I think it was her life goal to keep her children and grandchildren together as one family unit. A lot of times, in America especially, families grow apart as they expand. But what was important to her was for us to remain close. You can also see this in the Kona community that evolved over the years at our Seattle and Lynnwood restaurants.
It’s an 18-year-old community, centered on family. We use the Hawaiian word “ohana.” And we typically refer to not only our employees, but our customers and friends as a part of the Kona ohana. It really has become a community gathering place. It’s always fun to see our customers running into friends at the restaurants. My mom was a big part of creating this community. She was there all the time.
She was at Kona on the weekdays and then she’d also come in for the weekend morning brunch. That’s how she connected with a lot of our customers, because Saturday and Sunday mornings are so busy. And she was always there, greeting you with a smile and her warm aloha. So I guess that’s how she became such a staple icon, the grandma that you come and visit, or the auntie, depending on how old you are. And the kids would refer to her as grandma or Grandma Liz. A lot of kids would actually ask their parents, “Can we go see Grandma Liz?” I guess it’s just the way she welcomed you into the place. It’s our home. And she always opened our home to anyone that needed one. People come to Kona, not only to eat comfort food, but to visit their Kona ohana.
Jean Falls, co-founder of Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre
By Susan Trapnell, retired arts consultant and former managing director of ACT Theatre
Jean and Greg Falls started A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) together and provided the DNA that identifies the theater to this day: a combination of risk taking and good fun, high standards and deep respect for what it takes to make theater. After the first few years performing at ACT, Jean pursued the writing that she loved. “Seattle Eclectic” was the first of many an evening of song with lyrics by Jean and music by Rob Duisberg, or other combinations. Those songs were a perfect reflection of Jean’s humor and aesthetic, poking fun at our human foibles.
That show was the launch of Songworks at ACT, a program to develop new music for the stage. No matter her role, Jean was witty, warm and supportive. And that extended to every creative endeavor in the city that needed help.
Her home reflected the complete Jean Falls: her whimsy and her taste (porcelain jazz shoes on the piano, David Hockney on the walls adjacent to the work of a local designer); her heritage (a 17th-century hutch in the dining room or sterling silver passed down from generations on the table); and her festive gatherings. She entertained a broad array of friends, from performing artists to visual artists, Seattle’s elite to Seattle’s unknown, her own lively children to their own best friends. Sometimes her parties were spontaneous and sometimes they were planned down to the third fork. In either case, any and all of us present felt her warmth, kindness and lively spirit.
Her manners were impeccable and consistent. They were never superficial and never calibrated to the “status” of another person. She appreciated other people and found what was interesting in them. I owe my career in theater to Greg and Jean. They saw something in me that I never saw in myself. I believe there are artists and arts workers all over this city who could say the same. Jean Falls had a fierce wit and intellect but she never used either to diminish another, only to enhance or embolden or advance something or someone she loved. And to add spice! What a gem she was.
Lynn Shelton, director and champion of Northwest filmmaking
By Megan Griffiths, filmmaker and friend
2020 has been a year defined by loss. The loss of Lynn Shelton was shattering to those of us who loved her, and to so many others who knew her through her creative work and the indelible mark she left on this world.
The last time I saw Lynn was Jan. 3, 2020. She flew to Seattle from Los Angeles on a late flight and had arranged to crash at my place near the airport when she arrived. She knocked on my door at almost 11:30 p.m., stepping in out of the rain, pulling off her black felt hat and giving me one of her big, generous hugs. My then-fiancé (now husband) Ben and I had made twice-baked sweet potatoes earlier that night, and I’d set aside a plain one for Lynn in case she showed up hungry. Lynn had many food sensitivities but the woman loved a root vegetable, and she devoured that plain baked sweet potato like I’d served her a Michelin-star meal.
Neither of us are really night owls, but we found ourselves staying up for several more hours that night chatting away. We both worked out of town a lot and it was rarer and rarer that we found ourselves in the same city. When our schedules did align in Seattle, we’d usually try to meet up at a karaoke bar with other friends, relaying stories about our work lives and personal lives between songs. But this night, it was just the two of us in my living room, Ben in the next room somehow managing to sleep through our chatter and Lynn’s frequent and characteristically unrestrained laugh. The next morning Lynn headed out to spend time with her family, a final hug as she departed.
We chatted and texted regularly over the next several months. She made elaborate plans to be at my wedding in March but, when the coronavirus forced Ben and I to do a pared-down ceremony and a delayed celebration, Lynn reluctantly determined that she could hold off for the rescheduled event and she canceled her trip.
As a COVID-era substitute for our beloved karaoke nights, we made a plan to attempt a Zoom singalong and scheduled it for May 17. When Lynn died, suddenly and tragically, on May 16, instead of canceling this singalong we decided to transform it into one that would honor her. About 50 people gathered at Gas Works Park, socially distanced and masked, to sing in Lynn’s memory. Over a hundred more joined via Zoom.
Remembering my last night with my dear friend — sharing food, sharing stories, sharing space, sharing a few of those deep, sincere hugs of hers — makes the loss of her all the more acutely felt. But remembering these details is also a comfort, and a reminder that these memories are being formed all the time, and we just never know which will ultimately sustain us.
George Bakan, longtime editor of the Seattle Gay News
By Aleksa Manila, activist and drag performer
George Bakan commanded a room with his hypnotic storytelling; he was a powerhouse and community leader. It was also natural for me to think of him in the context of the newspaper Seattle Gay News (SGN). In 1982, he took the reins of the third-oldest LGBTQ newspaper publication in the country. Its blood ran through George’s veins.
From doing missionary work in France to being drafted in the Vietnam War, the Seattle-born pioneer stepped outside his hometown to “explore the world.” But when I think of the “world,” I think of a very special, colorful world full of unicorns and rainbows. And boy, did George explore it!
Many of his generation have stories, but given George’s position and privilege, he had a powerful opportunity to tell his side of history. He was at the forefront of early AIDS activism, Seattle Pride, March on Washington, and the list goes on. He went beyond exploring the world; he helped create safe space for us, who are now benefiting from anti-discrimination protections in the workplace, marriage equality and adoption rights for same-sex parents.
With other leaders and pioneers, he paved the road so our journeys of exploring the world would be smooth and safe. Thanks to his courage and candor, passion and perseverance, he has influenced both individuals and organizations to survive and thrive in the Seattle scene against the national backdrop of society’s skewed view of “our world.”
Rahwa Habte, community organizer and cultural innovator
By Hollis Wong-Wear and Gabriel Teodros, musicians and friends
Rahwa’s name meant “the calm after the storm.” She was born into a family of leaders and resistance fighters, born when her family was displaced by a war in their native Eritrea. She grew up between cultures that at times felt like different planets, and as she moved through these worlds she found a way to make place out of placelessness, and homes for the forgotten and left out.
When Rahwa and her sister Asmeret took over Hidmo Eritrean Restaurant on 20th and Jackson in 2006, they grew a restaurant and bar in Seattle’s Central District into an all-ages music venue and an organizing hub, while never displacing the regulars who already came to Hidmo. She believed that everyone in the neighborhood was important, and she worked hard to meet the needs of everyone who walked through her door. From ad hoc board meetings to all-ages hip-hop shows, Rahwa ensured Hidmo practiced radical hospitality, even when it came at the expense of her business. She was a global connector, hosting music and culture from Detroit to Palestine. Her green chicken was unmatched. She was an intuitive organizer, intersectionality embodied, arms outstretched, smile wide and laugh crackling, warmth radiating, melting the Seattle freeze. She created space that hasn’t been replaced.
In her work with OneAmerica and the city of Seattle, Rahwa was deeply trusted by the most marginalized, and unrelenting in her advocacy, introducing the framework of participatory budgeting (in which community members determine how city money is spent) that is now at the center of work being done among Seattle abolitionist organizers working to transform unjust systems. She was a visionary civic leader, and would await just-naturalized citizens with a voter registration form in hand. Rahwa planted possibility that has grown into a vibrant, defiant community of organizers and artists, refusing to let our city be gobbled up by corporate white-collar complacency.
Rahwa was a connector. A wounded healer. She used humor and courageous honesty to tear down walls between people. We miss her so much and we also feel her everywhere, her legacy breathing through our city, her spirit now an ancestor.
Chadwick Boseman, actor, “Black Panther” star
By Carolyn Davis, freshman at The Overlake School in Redmond and member of the TeenTix Press Corps
When I first saw “Black Panther” in 2018, I assumed I would not understand it because I had never seen any Marvel movies. But I could not have imagined the impact it would have on me. I was awestruck, amazed at all the power and Black excellence I saw. And chief among the reasons I was awestruck: Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of King T’Challa, the Black Panther.
As a young Black teenager, seeing Black people in mainstream media wasn’t an anomaly for me, but the power of his performance still struck me. As T’Challa, he was coolheaded and poised while leading a powerful nation and putting his people first; he truly earned respect instead of abusing power. And older generations of my family spoke about “Black Panther” with astonishment and disbelief — seeing a movie with Black people in almost all the roles is an opportunity they did not have. Watching “Black Panther” was a deep moment of pride for my community and gave me a chance to appreciate the resilience of leaders and justice-seekers of the past.
By depicting an African civilization as the epitome of technological advancement and a model society, the film broke barriers and delivered a message about our opportunity as future Black leaders and communities. Seeing a powerful Black kingdom inspired me, and though I have always had big dreams for my future, the Black women warriors and African kings and queens in “Black Panther” normalized my aspirations and gave me the drive to achieve them.
A mural commemorating Boseman lies on Roy Street, between Fourth and Fifth Avenue North in Queen Anne; it features a graffitied work of the characters he portrayed. The image of Boseman as King T’Challa sitting on his Wakandan throne, which references the Black Panther Party founder from the 1960s, Huey P. Newton, reminded me of the fight for racial justice. Boseman gave his characters a complexity that made them grounded and real — qualities this mural captured perfectly. Throughout his career, Boseman made a crucial difference in the movie industry and inspired generations to come. He — and “Black Panther” — gave me hope, letting me know that I can reach any goals I want.
Bela Siki, UW emeritus faculty pianist
By Robin McCabe, professor of piano at the University of Washington and former student of Siki
Bela Siki, the man and his music, made the world a better place. He touched the minds and hearts of legions of gifted students over the years, creating an enduring, indelible legacy in all the music making that will continue into the future.
Courtly and elegant, Professor Siki, as a teacher, chose his words and gave advice carefully, leanly. As a consequence, we students hung on every syllable. As an undergraduate member of his strong studio class at the University of Washington, I always lobbied for the last lesson of the day, hoping that I might be able to wheedle some extra time from him! He has been a significant, major presence in my life for the past five decades.
Bela was a world-class artist, touring, recording and performing throughout the globe. He was also a devoted husband and father. But in the piano lesson, it was clear that he was completely and optimally focused on the student and the potential for learning and discovery. “Teaching,” he often remarked to me, “has to be essentially selfless. All the art of the suggestion has to be harnessed for the student.”
Now Bela has left us for another sphere, but I am confident that he is still tossing off the Liszt Dante Sonata, and the Franck Symphonic Variations, with the deft panache of a sword swallower. He has now joined George Eliot’s “the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.” Our lives are all the richer for having known him.
Alex Trebek, longtime host of “Jeopardy!”
By Ryan Fenster, “Jeopardy!” champion and graduate student from SeaTac currently studying abroad
As much as we are all tired of hearing it and tired of saying it, 2020 has been a rough year. And in November we received another tragedy: the death of Alex Trebek. “Jeopardy!” is an American institution, something that even those who don’t watch know about, and the loss of its host is a loss to our collective cultural fabric.
I can only really speak to my memories of him. He died three years and a day exactly after we first met. It was my 24th birthday. I was 1 ½ months into a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, and about $20,000 short of paying for grad school. That day, Alex Trebek and all the good people of “Jeopardy!” gave me the best birthday gift ever. They gave me the freedom to get healthy, to travel abroad to study, and even to survive abroad, in Iceland, during a pandemic we never could have seen coming. They changed my life.
In both the first time I met him, and the second time when they brought me back, I never saw any side of Alex Trebek apart from the consummate showman we all knew and loved. He was firm but kind, grandfatherly and sage with a dry wit. When I heard about the cancer diagnosis I was shocked beyond words. Still, he defied the odds and pulled through long enough to give us his tremendous final seasons, with absolutely titanic players like James Holzhauer.
When I arrived in September of 2019 to tape the “Tournament of Champions,” jet-lagged and weary, I finally got to meet Alex off set. He came back to the green room as we were all gathering. No trademark suit; he was in jeans and a T-shirt. His head was shaved and he had a beard, and while he looked healthy, he looked even more tired than me. It was the first and only time I ever saw any other side to him. I hope he is resting well now, and that I can thank him again someday.
Black trans women
By Jaelynn Scott, executive director of Lavender Rights Project
At the time of this writing in 2020, there have been a reported 41 violent killings of trans people in the U.S. The majority of these people were trans women of color, the majority Black and Latinx trans women. I say “reported” because there are as many or more who are never identified as transgender by state coroners’ offices.
The Black trans community knows every name, we know the gory details of their deaths; Dominique Rem’mie Fells, dismembered and left on a muddy riverbank in Philadelphia. Nina Pop, stabbed repeatedly in her home in Sikeston, Missouri. Brayla Stone, 17 years old, her body left in a car in Sherwood, Arkansas. The international statistics for Black and Brown murders are highly unreliable, especially in countries that do not recognize transgender and nonbinary identities. Of those we are sure of, we have learned Black and Brown trans and trans-nonbinary persons have been burned alive, suffocated, shot and stabbed.
Each death is exhausting; Black trans people are living in a constant state of mourning, trying our best to find ways to remember that those lost are not statistics but people who have had beautiful lives. Lost to us this year also, Monica Roberts, founding editor of TransGriot where she normalized unapologetically naming Black trans people lost to us. Monica taught us the power in naming our lost siblings and refusing to let the world look away.
We in this moment, this short time, hold rage and love together. We commit to naming each and every one of our siblings lost, to whoever will listen and even to those who refuse. In this moment we name that just holding our own truth, just accepting ourselves is radical. We mourn today but we will not be mourning forever; we will fight and continue to celebrate the absolute beauty and gift of being trans and nonbinary.