Some prefer funerals, some prefer having their ashes scattered, but local artist Briar Bates chose a different way to commemorate her death — instructing her friends to perform a water ballet in the wading pool at Volunteer Park.
Fact: You are going to die. Take a moment to digest that idea, if you haven’t already.
Now, how would you like your loved ones to commemorate your inevitable demise? A solemn Christian funeral? Someone throwing your ashes off a Washington state ferry? Nothing at all?
As she lay dying, 42-year-old artist Briar Bates had a lot of final wishes. “At any given time, she was probably cooking up 20 to 30 different things,” her friend Katrina Morgan said.
From her bed and couch on Vashon Island, Bates proposed that her friends build a secret, speakeasy-like “juke joint” in the woods. She wanted her corpse to be the first in a prototype at Washington State University of the Urban Death Project — a local attempt to compost bodies as an alternative to the usual, environmentally wasteful funeral-home pageants.
And she wanted her friends — mostly artists, but mostly nondancers — to perform a joyful and awkward water ballet titled “Ankle Deep” in the kiddie wading pool at Volunteer Park. The idea hit her while lying in bed, fighting through the pain of a ravenous cancer (which doctors had diagnosed only a few months earlier), looking up at a chandelier she’d made with Barbie dolls in swimming caps and a symmetrical, Busby Berkeley-style formation.
A few weeks after Bates died, her friends charged into the wading pool in matching, homemade, seafoam-green swimsuits with ruffly caps. They created a spectacle that attracted hundreds of people to a wildly joyful soundtrack you could hear across the park.
“We did it because Briar told us to,” Morgan said. (Morgan helped take care of the bureaucratic heavy lifting so Bates could focus on things beyond medical bills and estate settlements — like water ballets.)
Bates was diagnosed in November 2016 and died June 28. Doctors had cut out of her lungs a grapefruit-size tumor she merrily named “Norman,” after the sadistic killer Norman Bates in “Psycho.”
The dying artist’s request for a water-ballet memorial was playful and absurd, but everyone else took her request for silliness with dead seriousness. Bates was very picky about the fabric for the swimsuits — one friend dropped by a fabric warehouse in New York and sent back photos. “Briar would reply, saying, ‘No, that one is old-lady fabric, and that one’s too pink,’ ” her friend Carey Christie said.
When Bates was too ill to attend rehearsal, she’d watch video of the proceedings and give detailed director’s notes.
“Ankle Deep” was unusual by current death-ritual standards but, Christie said: “It was Briar’s gift to us. It was like her saying, ‘I want to spend time with you, but I don’t want I’m-sad-you’re-dying to be at the top of the list.’ When Briar woke up this time last year, she didn’t look in the mirror and think: ‘I only have a year left to live.’ Most of us don’t think that. Well, stop postponing joy. Cut that out. Have a great time. Be involved. Be engaged — appreciate your beautiful, awesome body that isn’t failing you.”
And, Christie added, “Let’s face it — she still has creative control as a dead lady.”
Arriving in disguise
Bates seemed to be playing creative director from beyond the grave on that hot day a few weeks ago, when the dancers gathered at a Capitol Hill house to drink whiskey and wine, rushing through quick-fix sewing jobs on the seams of their swimsuits while co-choreographer Meishan Bettendorf (one of the few professional performers in the group) helped a little girl with her sparkly makeup.
They were mourning by Bedazzling their faces.
“I hope I have an ounce of the grace she showed toward the end,” her friend Jerry Knight said while walking from the house to Volunteer Park in a caftan hiding his swimsuit. (Other dancers wore dresses, trench coats and other disguises to hide their spontaneous-seeming dance plan.) Knight had been on Vashon Island for Bates’ wake. “Even coming from an Irish-Catholic family, to be in a house full of men and women weeping together — I’d never seen anything like it before.”
Once the gang arrived at Volunteer Park, a young Seattle Parks and Recreation employee who declined to give his name (“I’m not authorized to be quoted”) stood by the wading pool where a few oblivious kids frolicked. He looked a little wary and a little baffled, even though he had seen small, piecemeal rehearsals in the pool before. But this time, nearly 50 dancers had suddenly arrived.
Was the Parks employee going to evict the dancers?
“No, no.” he said quietly. “Because their friend died.”
Surprises — and bubbles
Bates’ work is all about the intersections of life, ephemera and decay: a piano covered in live moss placed in a public park, a birdhouse covered with a page from Charles Dickens, an outdoor bed with mosquito netting whose mattress is a bed of plants.
Bates, her friends said, had a seriously difficult childhood in rural Washington that may have influenced those artistic impulses. Nobody wanted to get into the gory details, but Morgan said Bates chose to live in a chicken coop — which she decorated elaborately — for a while. “It was a very nice chicken coop, she always qualified,” Morgan said. “Nicer than the main house.”
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While the Parks employee watched, DJ Alex Wilson pressed ‘play’ on a loud sound system cuing the artists-cum-dancers to strip down to their swimsuits (a couple in fedoras and trench coats had been reading newspapers behind a tree) and run into the water. They formed several wheeling, Busby Berkeley-style spokes, splashing and dancing in formation — more or less.
The soundtrack: some instrumental from an old movie whose title people couldn’t remember, plus “Beyond the Sea,” by Bobby Darin, “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams, and “Let’s Go Crazy,” by Prince.
Around 75 people who knew what was up had already gathered and were sitting on blankets. But as the Darin song played, curious parkgoers started drifting toward the scene. “Oh my God, oh my God, what’s happening?” one woman exclaimed. A man next to her said: “Somebody died. These are her friends.” The woman looked perplexed — people don’t normally memorialize death by doing cartwheels in a wading pool.
When the bouncy groove of “Happy” rolled around, approximately 300 people were hovering around the wading pool, clapping to the beat while the dancers splashed and the Parks employee was grinning and eagerly taking photos with his cellphone.
By the time Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” played, someone with an industrial-strength bubble machine was spraying thousands of iridescent globes across the water — then bystanders started jumping in the water to dance along.
When the spectacle was over, the soaked people smiled, hugged, laughed and cried. The Parks employee slowly and tactfully made his way toward the drain in the center of the pool so he could empty it.
Art and decay
Meanwhile, 7.7 miles to the south, at Terminal 107 Park along the Duwamish River, one of Bates’ final sculptures was quietly decaying.
For the 2015 group public-art show “Duwamish Revealed,” she’d contributed “Growing to Sea” — a replica of a container ship made of bamboo, its deck and superstructure laced together with twine and zip ties. Bates planted willow cuttings below that were supposed to grow up and around the original design, lifting the ship and giving it a lush, green hull.
One day before her gleeful, posthumous “Ankle Deep,” the sculpture was dry, brown and severely listing to port, with dead willow sticks scattered beneath. Behind it, an old barge sat rusting in the water while seagulls stood on mud flats that smelled like a cocktail of saline and petroleum.
“Winter was hard on that sculpture,” a regular parkgoer said as he passed. “Not enough water this year, I guess.”
But 24 hours later, the artist’s friends were ecstatically sloshing through a pool in her memory — both delighting and confusing a pack of strangers.