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Layers is the work of a group of young artists from Cornish College of the Arts. We met in the fall of 2011 for a year-long course exploring Seattle as an arts ecosystem. We studied bioregionalism, as described by Robert L. Thayer in his landmark book, Life/Place: Bioregional Thought and Practice, and considered how we might apply scientific theories of community and ecosystem ecology to our local arts community. Lucy R. Lippard’s The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society provided us with a meaningful bridge between science and art, and we set out to make our own investigation of Seattle’s complex arts ecosystem.
Olympic Sculpture Park, Town Hall, Pioneer Square, the Vera Project, the Burke Museum, Frye Art Museum, McCaw Hall, Seattle Public Library, and Experience Music Project were among the places we explored in some depth, with an eye to understand how these places worked as well as how they worked on us. The generosity of Seattle’s artists and arts administrators gave us access to hidden stories, underground history, juicy facts, and hard-won experience to feed our curiosity, enrich our understanding, and illuminate our view of the city’s arts.
Meanwhile, we read stories and poems by Sherman Alexie, Richard Hugo, Murray Morgan, Adrienne Rich, and David Sedaris. We read essays by Julie Burstein on how creativity works. We read Anne Lamott, Peter Elbow, and Natalie Goldberg on writing. And we shared our observations, analyses, and personal experiences in myriad ways.
Over time, this collection of sculptors, musicians, composers, actors, designers, photographers, performance artists, painters, and vocalists became a community with its own ethos. Honesty, kindness, and curiosity guided the intelligent, sometimes mind-bending, and frequently humorous conversations we had on a wide variety of topics. Anything could be questioned. Everyone and no one was the leader. We had each other’s backs.
As we began to brainstorm about the framework for our inquiry project, conventional academic approaches were quickly jettisoned in favor of an approach drawn from artistic practice. Students selected Seattle’s tallest building, the Columbia Center with its multiple vantage points, as the limiting factor of their inquiry. Drawing a connection between the layers of the Pacific Northwest rainforest (forest floor, understory, canopy, and emergent layer) with key levels of the Columbia Center (5th Avenue lobby, 40th-floor Sky Lobby, 73rd-floor Sky View Observatory, and the private floors of Columbia Tower Club, 74 through 76), students chose to study what they could see in or from one of those levels. Within these limits, anything was possible.
Individuals chose research topics as diverse as themselves, some taking panoramic views and others zeroing in on the ultra-specific. Some looked outward, others inward. Approaches to the writing varied from journalistic to poetic, scientific to science-fictional, historical to spiritual, and everything in between. Along the way, students edited, discussed, and helped to shape one another’s work. The result is the book you hold in your hands.
This group of artists sees Seattle in all its richness, complexity, and contradictions, and their vision is reflected in the pages that follow. Layers is a book to read from beginning to end, skip around in, study, or simply enjoy. We hope you do.