Seattle art world meets on Gallery Walk

by Joel Dames

SEATTLE — Eric Painter is a potter. Actually, he was a biologist before he quit his research job with National Marine Fisheries and bought a pottery school and gallery in downtown Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square.

Now, supervising a staff of six teachers and a growing number of students, Painter devotes all his time to his pottery school, with little time for his own creations. Now and then he finds time to chat with his neighbor Taiko Suzuki about his year as a high school exchange student in Daiwacho, Hiroshima, about the influence on his pottery of the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, and about their plans for next month’s displays for the Gallery Walk.

Suzuki came to Seattle in 1982 and set up a large downtown gallery with Ben Muchnick, her partner since 1972. Suzuki creates her own paper with a blend of Japanese and Western techniques, applying konnyaku to make it strong. She combines collage, print and paper-making, blending garden plant or flax fiber, then applying them to her homemade fiber paper and painting with bright pigments in a “wet on wet” technique.

Also a fiber artist, Muchnick weaves blends of leather, paper, copper and even mineral stones with synthetic yarn into thematic, textured tapestries.

On the first Thursday of each month, from about 5 to 8 p.m., Painter and Suzuki and many other gallery operators open their doors in the Grand Central Arcade to snacking, Champagne-sipping Gallery Walk Seattlites and tourists.

Like one of Suzuki’s textured works, the Gallery Walk forms the core of the cultural, racial, ethnic, gender-blurring tapestry of Seattle. The stories of these gallery owners and artists reflect that of this 150-year-old pioneer city.

The Gallery Walk started back in 1982, when a few enterprising Pioneer Square gallery owners, not unlike Painter and Suzuki, decided on a Gallery Walk as a way to entice a wider range of potential customers to their galleries. Over the years the number of galleries and the area expanded. In 1997, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) bolstered the Gallery Walk turnout when it extended its hours to 8 p.m. and waived the $7.50 admission on the first Thursdays of each month.

SAM boasts an impressive collection of more than 21,000 objects, from Old Master paintings to African masks and contemporary Northwest art and photography.

A few shops south from Painter and Suzuki, Chuck Smart’s digitally painted photographs of jazz musicians performing at Seattle’s 1999 Earshot Jazz Festival hang above racks of CDs in Budd’s Jazz Records corner basement shop during November’s Gallery Walk. Formerly an associate dean of students at Antioch College in Ohio, Smart left to pursue his passion for art.

A block east of Budd’s stands The Glasshouse, two shops in from the corner on Occidental Mall, a pedestrian street lined with trees and galleries. The Glasshouse has the distinction of being the oldest glassblowing studio in the Northwest, now a major world center of the art.

Mark Monson and a team of artists bought The Glasshouse in 1978. Monson, a biomedical engineer, worked at Children’s Hospital in Seattle where he helped develop a “neonatal transport module,” a life-support system for low-birth-weight babies.

“I kind of started doing glassblowing as kind of a thing to relax with,” he says. “It’s kind of an addictive team sport.” The young glassblowers move like dancers as a radio plays hip-hop music; gathering molten glass with a blow pipe (“punte rod”) from a crucible inside a 1,175 C furnace, they remove the gelling liquid and apply shards or powdered color. Blowing, shaping, “mavering” the pieces (on a steel table called a maver), they dart goblets, vases, scent bottles, shells, and paperweights in and out of the heat-retaining “glory hole” next to the furnace to keep the pieces soft and workable.

Its restaurants, craftspeople and live music bars give Pioneer Square the life force of New York’s Soho, Chelsea and Village. Pick up art gallery guides and maps free at any of the galleries on the Gallery Walk. Virtually any gallery open after 5 or 6 p.m. is a part of the Gallery Walk.

Board any Metro Transit bus free from anywhere in the central downtown area to Pioneer Square until 9 p.m. Monthly Gallery Walk schedules and maps of galleries: www.artaccess.com or www.artguidenw.com

First Friday: Bremerton Gallery Walk; first Saturday: Freemont District Art Walk, Seattle; first Sunday: Art’s Orbit, Capital Hill, Seattle