Scenes in Motion: SODO Track murals bring public art to transit travelers

by Lisa Edge

(This article originally appeared in Real Change and has been republished with permission.)

Has your commute become more colorful? Those traveling via bus or light rail along Fifth Avenue South between Royal Brougham Way and South Spokane Street have recently been treated to a new sight: A continuous line of murals, known as SODO Track, turning an otherwise uninteresting route into a charming one.

The three-year project, led by 4Culture, is in the final stages. Recently, 22 artists descended onto the track for 10 days to brighten a total of 15 properties. Gallons and gallons of house paint, an artistic vision and a grand plan helped transform the SODO corridor in Seattle into a free, open-air urban art gallery. The backs of commercial buildings were the perfect canvas for vibrant works of art created by artists both local and international.

The SODO Track is a three-year project bringing public art to a two-mile corridor in SODO. (Photo: Susan Fried)

The murals are connected by themes of motion, movement and progress.

“It’s inspired by the fact that people are in motion on the bus and on the trains seeing the work,” said Senior Project Manager Tamar Benzikry. “It’s also open and poetic enough that the artists can really interpret it in a whole variety of ways.”

Among the large-scale works is newly finished “Above the Clouds” by San Diego-based artist Celeste Byers. In it, Mount Rainer has the face of a smiling Asian woman. Byers, who’s half Chinese, says she wants the people in her work to reflect her own ethnicity. “Above the Clouds” also presents a metaphor; the sun shimmers overhead and pink-washed clouds surround her joyful expression.

“I really love sunny weather and I tend to get down when there’s clouds around,” said Byers, who opts to paint uplifting images. “It’s a reminder that even when there’s clouds, there’s always sun above the clouds.”

“Above the Clouds” is inspired by Iztaccíhuatl, a dormant volcano in Mexico known as “The Sleeping Lady.” The mountain also has an accompanying Indigenous legend which involves a love story. Byers learned about it while working on a mural of a Talavera tea cup in Puebla, Mexico, before traveling to Seattle. Coincidentally, we have our own mountain overlooking the city, she said, so she brought the concept here.

Artist Celeste Byers talks to a group that toured the SODO Track murals in the summer. (Photo: Susan Fried)

The process of painting the mural began with projecting the sketch on the wall, then tracing the design. Byers opted for a long-sleeved silk shirt and pants to protect her skin while spending extended hours in the sun. Multicolored splatters of paint on her clothing and shades are remnants of the dozens of murals she’s painted. It took her about a week to finish the jubilant summit.

“I could sit at home and paint a little painting in my room and spend like a month on it,” said Byers. “This is cool because it doesn’t take that long and it’s more impactful and more people get to see it.”

According to Benzikry, more than 50,000 people travel through the SODO Track each weekday, so it’s not a stretch to say there will be a plethora of eyes taking in the work of artists who have participated in the project.

A couple blocks away from Byers’ work, Franco Fasoli’s mural takes the viewer into a foliage-filled room that he said he based on his grandmother’s house. In Fasoli’s mural, a man peers out a window – but his reflection isn’t a mirror image. Instead, it’s a tiger. The Argentina-based artist often explores the human/animal duality in the murals he’s created around the world.

In another section, Georgia Hill’s black-and-white text, which reads “I’ll be here soon,” greets riders.

Sometimes, the artists were met with additional challenges. Seattle-based artist Brian Sanchez created a polychromatic conversation between shapes and lines in his mural, but painting a straight line was a challenge. Instead of a mostly flat wall, the building he worked on was made of corrugated metal.

“I have to go in 6-inch intervals and I have to make sure I go under the ridge of the corrugated surface. So it’s a little bit different,” said Sanchez. “Every wall has its stuff so this is just part of this one.”

The murals by Byers, Fasoli, Hill and Sanchez join 29 other pieces completed over the summers of 2016 and 2017.

Bringing SODO Track to life wasn’t a simple undertaking, though. It took the cooperation of multiple agencies and business owners to become a reality.  4Culture, a King County cultural funding agency, partnered with SODO BIA, King County Metro Transit, Sound Transit and Urban ArtWorks. Gage Hamilton, a Portland artist and co-organizer of a nonprofit dedicated to public art, joined the project as curator. He surveyed the buildings first, then selected artists he thought would be a good fit. The participating artists received a fee for their work and their other needs, such as travel and lodging, were provided.

Artist Brian Sanchez puts the final touches on his SODO Track mural. (Photo: Susan Fried)

In the beginning stages of the project, one of the concerns business owners expressed was that murals might attract graffiti. Benzikry said they’ve been able to combat it a few ways. Because of the partnerships and pooled resources, the properties are monitored regularly and each mural has an 8-foot monochromatic buffer.

“The quality of the work deters vandalism. Some of the artists also have street cred,” said Benzikry. “We’ve also been really quick about mobilizing. If we do see damage, we just take care of it right away to say we care about this place.”

The partnerships brought other opportunities, as well. As part of the collaboration, Sanchez led a series of workshops for youth with Urban ArtWorks. It was an opportunity to share his skills and knowledge with emerging artists who are a part of the nonprofit.

SODO Track reinforces the important role public art plays in a community. Beautiful works of art need not be siloed within the hallowed halls of galleries and institutions, only to be viewed by privileged eyes. Art is for everyone, can be created by anyone and the benefits of viewing it and interacting with it enriches all of our lives.

Featured Photo: “Above the Clouds” mural by Celeste Byers (Photo: Susan Fried)

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