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Speak to any artist in Seattle about SOIL, and you’ll likely receive an immediate “Oh, that place!” spoken in a tone of complete recognition. Since 1995, the independent gallery and collective has formed an indelible mark on the Seattle arts scene. One of the longest-running initiatives of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, SOIL is powered by an ever-mutating membership body of local artists who cooperate to manage and guide all aspects of its work.
SOIL first sprouted from the circle of a few Seattle bohèmes, who decided that their community would benefit from an alternative art space. Artists who came to SOIL could detach themselves from the pressure to produce commercially successful pieces. The platform is intended for pure experimentation, providing a space for creative freedom rarely afforded to artists.
Since the beginning, SOIL has largely distanced itself from a profit-driven model, setting itself apart from traditional galleries. Dedicated donors and an annual art auction bring together much of SOIL’s necessary funds. With this community support, SOIL can present monthly exhibitions that often challenge sociopolitical conversations with more immediacy than bureaucracy-guided museums or institutions. (Case in point: SOIL’s current exhibitions, which reflect on the anxieties associated with the pandemic, as well as with issues of environmental collapse and political turmoil that have been roiling in recent years.)
More than 200 artists have joined the ranks of SOIL in its overall history, coming and going at will. Currently, there are 24 members, who pay monthly dues and contribute to the work as volunteers. Without a defined hierarchy of ownership, members collaborate to take on responsibilities from curation to production to even quotidian tasks such as gallery-sitting or visitor services. SOIL’s cooperative model also extends to a shared voting system; exhibitions are accepted by a two-thirds approval and produced by members who step up to usher in projects from beginning to end.
Colleen RJC Bratton, coordinator of the January programs, describes SOIL as “an amoeba, constantly splitting and changing and morphing,” rarely staying the same from one period of time to another. “It is incredible the fluidity of membership, because people are always bringing in new energy and new ideas. There have been a lot of people and a lot of voices building up this organization.”
As the gallery transitions into the uncertain territory of 2022, SOIL presents two shows to complete its January programming.
SOIL’s inner room is lined with an arrangement of 40 illustrated portraits by Seattle- and Port Townsend-based artist Alexis Kane. Kane began her series, called “Thoughts in These Times,” in June 2020, four months into the pandemic and two weeks after the murder of George Floyd. At the time, Kane was dealing with high levels of “anxiety and political angst,” explains the artist in her simple manifesto. The portraits allowed her to maintain community ties in a time of isolation. Together, Kane and her subjects express the whirlwind of thoughts and feelings zooming around in their unsettled psyches.
The first work in the series is a self-portrait of Kane, drawn in wobbly lines of sumi ink. Thoughts blob above her head like mushrooms. “The ! Revolution ! … Dismantle Systemic Racism,” reads one, and “No Worries! Right? We got this! Right?” yells another. Many of the mind maps written by Kane’s subjects return to issues of Black Lives Matter and police brutality. “ANTIFA !!” scrawls Kane’s neighbor, Camilla. “When will police funding ever slow down?” writes pensive 11-year old Asher. Each of Kane’s compositions is illustrated on a torn-out page of The New Yorker, which acts as a narrative backdrop to her entire collection.
“While doing these works, I couldn’t stop thinking about how racism is the key thing about everything,” Kane says in a recent video interview. She sits in her woodworking studio, bespectacled and thoughtful, as her small dog trots by her feet. “It rules the economy, art, and I knew right then that I really wanted to keep referring back to that.”
Kane is donating proceeds from her series to Wa Na Wari, a Black cultural space and community art project in the Central District.
In tandem with Kane’s solo show, SOIL’s outer room is occupied by “Momentous Gesture.” The project is curated by Seattle-based Rafael Soldi of the Strange Fire Collective, a dispersed group created in 2015 by “trans, female, queer, Latino and Black” creatives who “weren’t seeing ourselves represented in the art world around us,” describes Soldi.
“Momentous Gesture” negotiates colonialized violence against land, as well as in relation to queer, Black, Indigenous and refugee bodies. Artists involved in the show include Meghann Riepenhoff, who addresses issues of environmental collapse through collaboration with natural elements, inviting the drips and eddies of water to transcribe their own meaning onto photosensitive paper. Gestural “mark-making,” as Soldi phrases, also appears in painter Mary Ann Peters’ precise slashes of ashen color upon her oil canvases. In one composition, the spindly bones of a ruptured house lie collapsed, like a ghastly specter.
The poignant subject of choreographer dani tirrell is positioned center stage in the video work, “The Bluest Feeling” (2021). As tirrell embodies movement as a Black, queer artist, tirrell considers how mannerisms associated with these identities are controlled and harmed.
In an opposite single-channel video, Sebastián Calfuqueo poses in baby-blue bondage, like a strange fish in the rivers of his heartland. Calfuqueo is Mapuche, indigenous to the place that is now known as Chile. The intertitles and captions of his work reference the 1981 water code passed under dictator Augusto Pinochet, which defined water as a marketable good.
Past exhibitions at SOIL have challenged the orthodoxies held by the organization itself. A few years ago, curators Satpreet Kahlon, Mel Carter and Anisa Jackson brought a show called “Quota” to the space. The project invited Black, Indigenous and people of color artists to exhibit works unconstrained by the pressures of their identity. “A lot of the times galleries will invite BIPOC artists but it will still be about their identities, and they wanted artists to be free of those social pressures,” says Bratton.
“There was an added performance element to the show,” Bratton describes, “where they restricted access to the show and a white-identifying person could only be in the space if there was an equal number of BIPOC in the space as well.” Curator Kahlon shared in a 2017 Seattle Weekly interview that “I wanted it to recreate the feeling of uncertainty, where people of color wonder if we were denied something because of our skin, or something else.”
Bratton reflects that “Quota” “challenged us on our membership and the identity of our membership,” which demonstrated a paucity of Black, brown and Indigenous presence. Moments such as “Quota” hint toward SOIL’s potential to adopt a more critical approach to its programming and internal structure.
“It was one thing to have conversations amongst ourselves, and another for the community to say, ‘we noticed this too,’” Bratton says. As a staunchly independent initiative, SOIL has the privilege of being nimble, challenging itself to evolve along with changing times and attitudes.
“Do something little and all the little things add up to something,” says Kane at one point during her interview, referencing a quote by activist Desmond Tutu. Although Kane spoke of this idea in connection to her portraits, the quote could easily apply to SOIL — the little cooperative that, through a patchwork of dedication and shared contribution, is still leaving its mark on the art scene of Seattle.
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct names of the coordinator of SOIL Gallery’s January programs, and of one of the curators of the “Quota” exhibit.