Duwamish Revealed: Celebrating the River and the Communities Working to Save It

by Reagan Jackson

Though Seattle is a city surrounded by water it only has one river, the Duwamish, which is sourced from the Green River and stretches 12 miles through some of the more industrial parts of South and West Seattle.

“The first thing is that the Duwamish River is the home of the Duwamish Tribe, the first people of Seattle and we are on their land and so we want to acknowledge that,” said artist Nicole Kistler addressing the 20-30 people gathered for a sneak peak at the first Duwamish Revealed art installation.

Friday June 5,  kicked off of a series of free art, performances, and community activities that will be popping up on the banks of the river from June-September.

Curated by artists and activists Nicole Kistler and Sarah Kavage,  Duwamish Revealed is an artistic celebration of the river.

Sarah Kavage (l) and Nicole Kistler.
Sarah Kavage (l) and Nicole Kistler. Photo Credit: Reagan Jackson

Kistler and Kavage raised over $300,000 in grants and in kind donations. Their first grant came from 4 Culture and the bulk of their funding is from Art Place America, but they also received funding from: The Port of Seattle, King Country, the Department of Neighborhoods, Pacific Pile and Marine, and many more. One example of an unusual in kind donation is the crane Pacific Pile and Marine will be providing so that aerialist Tanya Brno can dance suspended in a paper moon created by Yuri Kinoshita (8/8 at 8pm at The Estuary).

A call for submissions yielded over 120 out of which 40 artists, local, national, and even international with various relationships to the river were chosen to contribute their talents to the project.  It was Christian French’s massive sculpture made from shipping containers arranged on a bed of wood chips that dominated the riverside park facing Kellog Island known as the Estuary.

Artist Christian French points out his installation created from shipping containers.  Photo Credit: Reagan Jackson
Artist Christian French points out his installation created from shipping containers. Photo Credit: Reagan Jackson

Kistler walked me through it pointing out the way its structure mimicked the form of the river itself, swelling and contracting.  “Using containers is in part an abstract sculptural gesture, but it is also in part a way of talking about human activity, global trade, and resource extraction and commerce and what it means to be a port city,” explained French. “Using containers is sort of about pointing to history because  the containers are loaded in their significance as objects.”

“This is a place that has been very wounded, but it is very much alive,” said Kistler. “There is a lot of healing that’s begun. Thank you to all of the people who have spent years dedicating themselves to making this a cleaner and more beautiful place, although we think it’s beautiful just the way it is.”

Kistler and Kavage have spent the last 10 years working in partnership with various groups to help make the Duwamish a cleaner place. They also partnered on the Living Barge Project in 2006 creating an art installation out of native plants placed on a barge moored in the Duwamish River. Afterwards volunteers planted the art in South Park. “It felt like people really cared about the river and it just felt great to feel like we were all doing something. Not just talking about it or having another meeting but actually doing something.”

Duwamish Revealed began from that same spirit of wanting to bring healing through art to the river. “We interviewed a lot of community leaders and said we wanted to build a cultural movement. We asked them what would be meaningful,” explained Kavage.

The answer was time to celebrate what they had accomplished through their devotion to cleaning up the river and time to connect with one another outside of often contentious meetings. Through the process of years of meetings the EPA did finally declare the Duwamish a super fund site  in need of drastic cleaning to the tune of $342 million dollars to be paid out by the river’s main polluters. Since the contamination has been going on for so long it has been difficult to pinpoint who is responsible for this enormous bill, but to their credit the City of Seattle and the Port have already began the process of reparations.

What is unique about the Duwamish Revealed is that it is an opportunity for people and organizations who have been on opposite sides of this table to come together in community. To see a complete schedule of events check out Duwamish Revealed.