When Celeste Cooning entered her workspace in one of Amazon’s buildings last year to start her stint as the company’s first artist in residence, she was immediately encased by four glass walls. She, her materials, and her art were on display for all of Amazon to see. Then she got to work.
She took a large old rope — from Seattle’s boating industry — and suspended it between two columns, and also used her signature cut-paper method, where she hand cuts different shapes and patterns into her material, to create a site-specific installation in Amazon’s Bigfoot building. It took 10 weeks, but the delicate piece of work provides contrast to Bigfoot’s darker architecture.
Cooning is among six artists who have taken part in Amazon’s 2-year-old artist-in-residence program, which is issuing its third call for artists to apply for the 10-week stint; applications are due Aug. 22. The gig comes with a $15,000 stipend and a 450-square-foot glass studio in Amazon’s Doppler building to call their own.
It’s a chance for artists to get paid for their work and have it seen by people who otherwise might not be familiar with their art. But it also means grappling with an unfamiliar work environment while continuing to create and evolve as artists, and wrestling with the idea of working, not just for a corporation but a company that has changed so much of Seattle — for better or worse.
Cooning has been working in Seattle’s arts community for seven years, making her living creating installation pieces with cut paper, soft materials and suspensions. She’s always had an eye out for opportunities to make art and — preferably — get paid. That’s what makes the Amazon residency program so competitive. Since Amazon started the program, it’s received between 150 and 170 applications. Only four artists are selected each year.
“There’s a lot of value in being the first [resident],” said Cooning. “The fact that there’s never been one way this program has ever been done before means there’s an opportunity to figure out the best way to move forward.”
The program began as an effort to support creative spaces, said Lara Hirschfield, senior program manager at Amazon. There was a demand among Amazon employees to dedicate more space and resources to the arts. After piloting a slightly different form of the program in 2016, Hirschfield and her team considered what their next steps should be.
“We thought it would really be an amazing opportunity to have an artist come into our space with a bit more intention and a more formalized program,” said Hirschfield. “We wanted employees to connect directly with our artists over a 10-week program.”
With that, the artist-in-residence program was born. Some of the artists created poured glass work, others experimented with cut paper and kinetic sculptures. Artists are expected to bring their own art supplies. Within the glass studio, the artist’s work and process will be on full display to passersby and curious Amazon employees, who can ask questions while they work.
“Much of what the panelists are looking for when going through submissions are artists whose creative journey is something that people can engage [with] before the artist is finished with the piece,” said Line Sandsmark, executive director of Shunpike, a Seattle-based group that provides fiscal sponsorships and opportunities for artists. Shunpike is working with Amazon to issue the call for local artists to apply to the residency program.
This setup may not be for all artists, said Cooning and Markel Uriu, another former Amazon artist in residence. You have to be comfortable being exposed.
“I don’t think this residency is for everyone — I think there has to be a willingness to be uncomfortable,” said Uriu. “I’m actually a fairly private person and the studio is a very personal space to me. For me, being who I am, it could be intense at times. But I also had some really meaningful interactions.”
Uriu is a late-night worker, so she ended up meeting more Amazon employees than she intended; she became friends with the security and cleaning crew. The glass box led her to meet people who were interested in looking at her work, either late at night or in the middle of the afternoon.
“In that way, there were certain elements that were uncomfortable and others that I thought were really fruitful,” said Uriu. “I like interacting with people, I like talking to people about ideas and about art.”
Another challenge was learning how to work and exist within a corporation — especially one with the power and influence of Amazon.
“I think I have an overarching issue with a lot of corporations. There’s a lot of ways the systems need to be overhauled,” said Uriu. “But if corporations do exist, I believe they should engage morally or with the consciousness and awareness of a community outside their corporation.”
During her time at Amazon, Uriu was researching and experimenting with invasive species and how that translated into Western attitudes about foreignness. The longer she stayed at Amazon, the more curious she got about the space. She got to learn about Amazon from the inside out — but it also pushed her out of her element.
“I almost felt like I was doing more research because I had never been in a corporate environment,” said Uriu. “I was getting pretty obsessed with even a glimpse into how Amazon works. It is an insular space and not many people have access to that.”
She struggled with the idea of working for a corporation, she said. But “within the context of this program, for me, it felt like an opportunity to start finding that kind of support with hopes it can start a positive interaction [between corporations and the arts].”
Cooning saw working for Amazon as a venture into a strange land. She didn’t speak the same language or have the same cycles and rhythms as other Amazon employees.
Since moving to Seattle several years ago, Cooning says she has had an ambitious dedication to her career, leading to her “different perspective on the notion of selling out.”
“I’m an artist that encourages other artists to be business minded and to be entrepreneurial,” said Cooning. “We live in a culture now where creative capacity has such high value. I think that coexisting in a corporate and artistic world doesn’t always come naturally to most artists. But I feel fortunate that the work I put out in the world — as much as I may have a client or some kind of lead into a project — is still coming from a true place, from my artistic lens.”
Working for Amazon has given Cooning the opportunity to look at the global company from the inside out. She views her work as an artist as being a connector.
“We move around in many different circles and many different social stratas. We have a unique position and role,” said Cooning.
Arts organization Shunpike acknowledges the effect on artists that the Seattle area’s booming tech scene has had.
“With the city becoming extremely expensive, artists have been displaced,” said Shunpike’s Sandsmark. “And that has limited the ability for natural intersections between the arts and tech.”
“Where there might have been natural cross sections, and geographically and physically, where there might have been more of an artistic presence in the city, it’s been pushed out,” said Sandsmark. “Part of what Amazon is doing [with this program] is they’re creating space back in the city for artists to work and very consciously making a more organic place for tech and the arts to intersect.”
And Shunpike, Sandsmark added, is “happy to be able to do at least just a tiny little bit to keeping artists visually represented in the city.”
Amazon’s Hirschfield hopes that this program will continue the relationship between the arts and tech sectors.
“This gives the artist community and Amazon an opportunity to continue the dialogue that’s been happening back and forth. Arts and technology are really intertwined,” said Hirschfield.
Uriu, for one, believes that big companies in Seattle have a moral responsibility to support the arts.
“If you’re a corporation in the Seattle community, why wouldn’t you do this?” asked Uriu. “It’s the least they can do.”
Amazon’s artist-in-residence program: shunpike.org/programs-services/artist-in-residence/