The eclectic art collaborative SuttonBeresCuller has spent nearly a decade trying to turn a polluted patch of land on Ellis Avenue South in Seattle into a new place to show, generate and discuss art — with green space, too.
The lot is vacant now and overgrown with weeds. It’s hard to believe this modest slice of land in Georgetown is primed to become an art and community center — the Mini Mart City Park — expected to open next summer. Over the course of 10 years, the project unearthed many thorny problems, challenging the artists behind the project, John Sutton, Ben Beres and Zac Culler, who operate as SuttonBeresCuller, an artist collaborative.
Seattle-based SuttonBeresCuller is known internationally for its smart, engaging installations and performances that playfully expose social dynamics and human foibles. The members’ creative energy is eclectic and expansive, with projects ranging from fabricating an island — complete with palm tree — that floated on Lake Washington to wearing giant electric arrows on their backs, spinning them to point to people and objects.
Much of the artists’ work points away from themselves and away from traditional art settings. Sutton states, “We’ve always been interested in engaging a broad public through art and action and performance, taking things outside of a gallery context, questioning art’s role and what it can do for a community, culture, society.”
It almost seems inevitable that these interests would lead to creating an arts-oriented community center, not only giving the city a new place to show, generate and discuss art, but new green space, too.
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Yet it all started out very differently.
In 2007, SuttonBeresCuller leased the property, intending to temporarily explore how to repurpose an abandoned mom-and-pop gas station. The group was also thinking about access to parks and culture, an idea that had manifested in other projects like “The Trailer Park” — a charming portable park built on a flatbed trailer in 2003.
The old filling station on Ellis Avenue South was ideal for the group’s new experiment, on the border between neighborhood and industry, with scarce green space. But as soon as redevelopment began, there was bad news. According to Sutton, an environmental review “uncovered the worst-case scenario. The contamination wasn’t typical of a normal gas station.” From fuel leakage to pesticides from a nearby nursery, the soil was badly contaminated.
But they wanted to tackle soil remediation and site reclamation head-on. For almost nine years, they dealt with environmental studies and grants and city-permitting bureaucracy. With a laugh, Sutton says they were told to walk away several times. But whether through “perseverance, stubbornness, or the excitement of actually being able to do this,” they kept going. “At each point when we were feeling a little overwhelmed by the scope or scale of it, somebody or some organization came in and breathed new life into it.”
It evolved. They bought the land. They spoke with community members about what the neighborhood needed. The once-temporary art intervention would become a permanent arts-driven, multiuse community center and park. The trio established a nonprofit and engaged in yet more grant writing and fundraising.
The need to demolish the old gas station was tough to face, but it led to a partnership with architects Jon Gentry and Aimée O’Carroll, co-founders of goCstudio, who caught the artists’ attention with their “Floating Sauna” (yes, it’s a functioning sauna that can be steered around Lake Union).
In turn, O’Carroll says the project was appealing because “we recognized that it was a labor of love, and we were excited about collaborating with these artists.”
From the signage to the gas-stationesque overhang, the new structure will refer to the past. But Gentry also describes it — and the varied functions it will serve — as a “new kind of filling station,” creating a flexible gallery and meeting space that will be filled with people and art.
With movable walls and ample green space, the design is geared toward gathering. It will host installations, artist residencies, talks and performances, and it will be free and available for community groups to meet.
Never one to think small, SuttonBeresCuller hopes that the Mini Mart City Park provides a model for how to recuperate and reuse some of the 700-plus derelict gas stations in the Puget Sound region and the 200,000 or so stations nationwide. Imagine creative pocket parks across the country and artsy road trips that take us from station to station, where we can stop to fill up the creative tank.