At Joe Bar on Capitol Hill, with its charming paned windows and creaky stairs leading up to cozy balconies, you can overhear a lot of chatter, from political talk to “Can I pet your dog?” Occasionally, someone will glance around and comment on the art that fills the warm green walls, perhaps without knowing that this beloved coffeehouse displays monthly shows of high-caliber art by some of the most interesting artists in town (and sometimes from outside Seattle, too).

“Coffee shop art” gets a bad rap. It can be a mild insult for work that’s pretty but bland. But ever since owner Wylie Bush took over Joe Bar in 2000, the various curators (yes, it’s a curated space!) have ignored that stereotype to show aesthetically varied, conceptually rich, often edgy art.

The current exhibition is even more exceptional than usual. Almost 50 evocative works by as many artists make up the 100th Joe Bar show curated by Ben Beres, a Seattle-based artist and curator.

Joe Bar on Capitol Hill has shown aesthetically varied, conceptually rich, often edgy art ever since owner Wylie Bush took over in 2000. (Ben Beres)
Joe Bar on Capitol Hill has shown aesthetically varied, conceptually rich, often edgy art ever since owner Wylie Bush took over in 2000. (Ben Beres)

Beres is widely known as one-third of the internationally-admired artist collaborative SuttonBeresCuller, who create unique art projects and performances. John Sutton, Beres and Zac Culler show art at the esteemed Greg Kucera Gallery; were hired to revamp Bellwether (a big, annual art show in Bellevue); and are building Mini Mart City Park (a cultural center in Georgetown).

Beres also works independently in the media of print and glass, just finished a residency at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, and teaches at the nearby Cornish College of the Arts. (Full disclosure: I work at Cornish too.)

In other words, Beres is a busy guy who doesn’t particularly need to beef up his résumé by curating art shows in a coffeehouse. But it was a gig he wanted. After a string of thoughtful curators — Jess Van Nostrand, Chris Crites and Sierra Stinson — there was a vacancy and Beres jumped in.

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One hundred shows later, he still gets a lot out of the process. When he and I sat down to talk, he explained, “It’s nourishing. It keeps me sharp, keeps me engaged and looking.”

But Beres is the first to say that it’s not about him, despite the fact that several of the artists in the current exhibition have feted (or teased) him by including his portrait in their contributions to the show. His bearded face can be seen in works by Jed Dunkerley and Boyd Richard, among others.

Mostly, Beres speaks about supporting artists and contributing to a community. “This is another way of creating and disseminating art,” he said.

Ben Beres installs artwork at Joe Bar on Capitol Hill. (Aidan Sakakini)
Ben Beres installs artwork at Joe Bar on Capitol Hill. (Aidan Sakakini)

Beres has a knack for opening up possibilities, whether it’s offering new-to-Seattle artists their first show or well-known artists a chance to experiment.

One of those well-known artists, Joey Veltkamp, says, “One of my favorite things about Joe Bar is that it’s a great equalizer! You have folks exhibiting there who are fresh out of art school, alongside more established artists like Robert Yoder, Jeffry Mitchell and Kelly Bjork.”

Last year, Beres offered young artist Markie Mickelson the entire space, helping her install over 300 cut-paper “scrambled leg” forms all over the walls and ceiling. Mickelson states, “It really meant a lot that Ben considered and trusted me for a solo show. It was easy to worry about show prep, work quality, ‘do I deserve this?,’ etc., but he was so genuinely trusting and supportive that these things were soothed.” Through the show, Mickelson sold some art and received more exhibition opportunities.

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Owner Bush, who says he started having art shows because so many local artists hung out at the coffee shop, gives Beres free rein with curating and does not take a cut from any sales. “It’s just nice to know that we’re helping sustain art,” he says. “It’s hard to make a living as an artist in this town.”

Beres says, “As artists we make the work and we also have to bang the drum. If you put the work in front of people, it starts to happen.” He notes that a lot of people come into Joe Bar for coffee and “accidentally” buy art because they happen upon something they love.

Manager Devon Beck, who’s been with Joe Bar for 19 years, says, “The art is as much a part of things as we are behind the counter. It’s all about community. Art gets people talking and asking questions.”

Longtime customer Andrews Bryant often comes in to sit and work for hours. “I don’t really know anything about art,” he says. “I’m more of a coffee person, but the art shows bring in a lot of life. I like that they’re constantly changing.” Pointing to a painting by Kelly Bjork, he says, “I just took a picture of that and sent it to my wife. It’s really beautiful.”

Veltkamp, who runs a home-based gallery with his partner, Ben Gannon, says that this kind of encounter — outside of the white cube of a gallery — can foster deeper connections to art. “Joe Bar does that in such a tender way, simply by being a hospitable place. Come in for a coffee or crêpe and spend meaningful time with art.”

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“Joe Bar 100” group art exhibition, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through July 6; Joe Bar Cafe, 810 E. Roy St., Seattle; 206-324-0407, joebarseattle.com