An eclectic series of public-art installations and performances along Seattle’s Duwamish River this summer is meant to draw attention to clean up efforts and the value of the city’s waterway.

Share story

Dustin Slimp, equipment manager at Pacific Pile & Marine in South Park, usually operates the company’s barge-mounted cranes for marine work.

But come Saturday, Aug. 8, he’ll move the crane downriver for a different task: suspending an aerial performer above the Duwamish River in an illuminated moon, while members of a chorus contribute their voices to the show.

Artist Ben Zamora’s sculpture reflects the Duwamish River in beautiful and surprising ways. “Alone. Standing in the Middle of Darkness. Invisible.” stands at 12th Avenue South and South Elmgrove Street. (Sy Bean and Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)

“It’s not something we get to do all the time,” said Slimp. “[We’re] piling, dredging buckets, stuff like that, so to get the opportunity to have somebody do a performance from the crane, it’s pretty special.”

For aerialist Tanya Brno, the performance is an opportunity to draw attention to the river.

IF YOU GO

‘Duwamish Revealed’

The series of art installations, public performances, field trips and more continues on and around the river in Seattle through Sept. 30. Full schedule: duwamishrevealed.com.

“Most people don’t even hang out down here … ” she said. “So maybe it will encourage people to take better care of it, and hang out in the places that we pay for.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Brno’s performance is one of many spectacles Seattleites may see on and around the river this summer as part of “Duwamish Revealed,” a series of art installations and performances that’s as varied as the history of the river itself. Straightened from its original windy course in the early 20th century for the purposes of industrial shipping, the river was declared one of the most toxic waste areas in the nation in 2001.

Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency has addressed all of the most concerning waste areas in early action plans, which cover half of the contamination. The art series comes at a time when the community is still planning the next stage of cleanup, which will take 20 years. Funded by an ArtPlaceAmerica grant given to the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS), its primary goal is to use the arts to inspire people to care about the river, as well as address safety concerns for those who fish there.

It’s a project that’s bringing industry — Boeing and Pacific Pile & Marine are two examples — to work together with environmental groups and artists in producing a variety of river-themed works.

For “Duwamish Revealed’s” artistic directors, urban planner Sarah Kavage and landscape architect Nicole Kistler, the river cleanup depends on getting these groups to work together. They see an art series as a way to promote these conversations.

“We feel like if you really want to create lasting change then you need to have dialogues that include everybody,” said Kistler.

Despite the diversity of approaches, everyone in the project — from artists who hardly knew anything about the river to companies that have worked on it for generations — seems to have some kind of stake in the river.

Artist Frances Nelson stands surrounded by her installation called “Meanders,” made from layers of suspended fabric. Her piece is just part of a summerlong project called “Duwamish Revealed,” a creative celebration of Seattle’s only river. (Sy Bean/The Seattle Times)
Artist Frances Nelson stands surrounded by her installation called “Meanders,” made from layers of suspended fabric. Her piece is just part of a summerlong project called “Duwamish Revealed,” a creative celebration of Seattle’s only river. (Sy Bean/The Seattle Times)

“Meanders”

It catches the corner of your eye as you drive down Corson Avenue past South Seattle College in Georgetown: streamers of long white cloth dipping and swelling in the breeze. It may compel you to look over your shoulder as you head toward the stoplight, and even to take two right turns to go back and inspect it.

Should you do so, you can walk through an original meander of the Duwamish River.

Or rather, artist Frances Nelson’s representation of it: a piece called “Meanders.”

“If someone doesn’t tell you or if you don’t sort of experience a piece or work, how do you know that something is there?” said Nelson of the work, whose streamers run from lengths of 4 to 16 feet and represent the exact contour of a part of the river that, in 1907, ran through what is now Georgetown.

You can walk in between the streamers, catching ever-shifting shade, or watch them ripple in the breeze. With help from civil engineer Zac Corum and environmental anthropologist and ecology researcher Amir Sheikh, Nelson hoped to create an experience that would replicate the feeling of walking near the river — and make people aware of the unknown story behind why the streets are so angular in Georgetown.

A quick drive across the South Park Bridge and down meandering streets to 12th Avenue and Elmgrove brings you to the artwork of Ben Zamora, titled: “Alone. Standing. In the Middle of Darkness. Invisible.”

Despite the dark title, Zamora described the piece as “playful.” Designed around a two-way mirror, the work is a fragmented combination of several external mirrors in tall, rectangular blocks that contain a lighted hexagonal mirror.

The external world fades away from view as the sun goes down and gives way to the internal mirror’s light. If you stare at it at this time of day, you’ll fade out of sight along with the external mirrors.

“I love the fact that it is a beautiful lighthearted piece about dissolving into nothing,” said Zamora. “That there’s nothing wrong with that … it’s an acknowledgment that death is part of life and that’s OK.”

For Zamora, it certainly draws attention to the river by reflecting the interaction between people and their landscape. But he also hopes that this idea gets people to think about universal themes, like that of ephemeral existence.

One purpose, many groups

Designed by Christian French and Equinox Special Projects Division, “Estuary” is an art installation made out of shipping containers that also acts as a gathering place and a stage. (Sy Bean/The Seattle Times)
Designed by Christian French and Equinox Special Projects Division, “Estuary” is an art installation made out of shipping containers that also acts as a gathering place and a stage. (Sy Bean/The Seattle Times)

Almost everyone involved in the project expressed concern about people not knowing that there is, in fact, a river in Seattle.

Many, like Stephen Reilly, fund development manager for ECOSS, hope that the project can spread the word about the quality of the water for fishing — many local fishermen are recent immigrants who don’t know which fish are safe to eat. Currently, there’s an advisory against eating crab, shellfish or resident fish from the river.

 

Related video: Aboriginal Masks in B.C.

Carver Beau Dick discusses preserving and restoring the identity of First Nations people as his masks are featured at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. Read more. (Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)    

For the Duwamish Tribe, it’s a matter of heritage. James Rasmussen, the coordinator for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and a Duwamish tribal member, considers the river a home.

“My family came from the Black River Village, and I know, I can feel the spirits of my ancestors are still here,” he said, referring to a village that stood for 1,400 years on the bank of the Black River, a former tributary to the Duwamish that was drained in 1916.

“That’s the type of thing that I look at, the way I was taught: the salmon, he’s your relative, the cedar tree, he’s your relative … they’re all part of my family,” he added.

Businesses like Pacific Pile & Marine are concerned about the public’s perception of companies that work along the river.

“You get a bad name being on the river as an industrial purpose,” said Slimp. “You get frowned upon by certain people, so we just want everybody to know we’re here to help.”

Rasmussen hopes that the art series will bring people to the river who haven’t been there before, and may not realize that their tax dollars are being spent on the $342 million cleanup.

“We are one of the biggest contributors to that pollution,” he said. “And the only way to really deal with it is to make sure that your government does the best job they can do here … And if we do that means that those communities down there can thrive, an answer for fish and wildlife, an industrial area that actually could expand.”