This is an archived article.

April 2, 2009

Outdoor art exhibit opens door to University District’s activist past

A little piece of University District history will be on display at UW Tower beginning April 4, thanks in part to the efforts of University students, faculty and staff. Open to Question: Activism in Seattle’s University District will be outdoors on the north plaza of UW Tower through May 30.


The exhibit is sponsored by the University District Museum Without Walls, a project of the University District Arts & Heritage Committee. The idea, said Layla Taylor, exhibit and programs manager for the committee, was to showcase the community’s activism as “an appropriate lens through which to view the history of the neighborhood.” The committee also wanted an exhibit that is open to anyone, 24 hours a day, without charge.


The exhibit consists mainly of photographs from the 1960s and 70s, along with some ephemera, such as posters, flyers and covers from an underground newspaper of the time, the Helix. The materials were compiled by Julia Swan, public relations coordinator at the Burke Museum, as part of her thesis project for the Museology Program.


“I wanted to be connected with a real project, rather than to do something as an exercise for my degree,” Swan said. She did the research for the exhibit, wrote the text and selected the photographs, which were culled from the UW Libraries Special Collections, the Museum of History and Industry and the personal collections of individuals. She also helped to write the grant to Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods that funded the project.


When the grant money was secured, Swan went to Kristine Matthews, an assistant professor of visual communication design, to see if she might be interested in getting her students involved in the design of the exhibit.


“Julia had heard about my environmental design class, which is why she chose me,” Matthews said. “I thought it was an interesting idea, so I built it into my fall quarter course.”


Environmental design, Matthews explained, takes visual communication design into three-dimensional space, so it deals with exhibition design and installation design. She presented her students — visual communication design majors — with the requirements for this exhibit and asked them to come up with ideas for how it could be realized. The 28 students, some working in teams, developed concepts and presented them to the class. Matthews ultimately chose four students — Leslie MacNeil, Carina Scrobecki, Erin Williams and Mia Pizzuto — who between them had presented three design concepts, to work together on the exhibit.


MacNeil, a graduate student, took the exhibit’s title, Open to Question, and designed an exhibit in which the materials were mounted on open doors. “I was thinking of how activism opens doors,” she said.


It was this idea the team decided to pursue, although elements of the others’ concepts found their way in, as well. The exhibit will consist of six free-standing steel doors, locked into an open position inside frames. Photos, ephemera and text cover the front and back of the doors, with bold headlines wrapping around the sides of each. The graphics for each door are printed on a 4 millimeter-thick material which will then be attached to a hollow frame (one sheet for the door front, one sheet for the door back).


The six doors represent a distillation of Swan’s original materials, which proved to be too extensive for the site and the budget. “Julia gave us nine specific areas that had very long titles, like Cold war Comes to Campus and the Vietnam Era: Culture and Counterculture,” said Scrobecki, an undergraduate. “We looked at those and the content within them and tried to figure out which we could combine. Then we shortened the titles to a single word.”


“If we could have supported doing the original nine categories — budget-wise and site-wise — we would have loved to, but it wasn’t feasible,” said Williams, a graduate student. “It was my idea to rearrange the content into themes rather than go according to chronology.”


The first door will be an introduction, and the next four are themed: tension, equality, voices and peace. The final door will consist entirely of a chalk board that asks the question, “What doors would you open?” The idea is for visitors to add their own thoughts to those expressed in the exhibit.


When it came time to turn their design concepts into reality, the team turned to an outside company, Turner Exhibits, to build the actual doors


“We came to them saying, ‘This is the structure we’re after,’” Matthews said. “We showed them models, we showed them three-dimensional renderings on the computer to demonstrate how things would work. We told them the doors needed to pack down flat for storage afterward.”


Then the engineers at Turner took over, figuring out how to make the exhibit comply with health and safety rules and be sturdy enough to withstand its outdoor setting. The student team was not allowed to fasten anything to the building, and they wanted the panels to be prominent enough to be visible from the sidewalk on either Brooklyn Avenue or 45th Street.


“So we’ve gone through many permutations on the structure to try to mitigate the fact that each door is basically an 8 x 4-foot sail that wants to blow over,” Matthews said. “It was between designing a project that seemed fine on paper, looked great, but what’s the reality of it being outside for two months, with nobody manning it? So we had to deal with the not-so-fun nuts and bolts of making it work.”


In the end, the engineers decided on a 400-pound base plate for the doors, Matthews said.


The whole process taught the students more than just how to design for three-dimensional space — an arena that was new for most of them. “I learned a lot about collaboration,” Pizzuto, another undergraduate student, said. “Working in a team, knowing when to give, when to take, knowing your idea isn’t always the best, being willing to compromise and work together and time manage.”


All of them praised Swan for her willingness to be flexible about the way they used her materials. But Swan said she believes “the more people you can get involved in your project, the better. One person can never be the authority on the subject. You’re always going to have a richer product if you can bring in as many voices as possible.”


And speaking of voices, one other aspect of the project is a DVD made up of interviews with 12 people who took part in the U District activities depicted in the exhibit (click here for a list of interviewees). Excerpts from the DVD, produced by videographer Dawnee Dodson’s company, called sweetie films, will be shown during the exhibit’s opening reception, set for 5:30 to 8 p.m. Friday, April 3, at UW Tower. Historian Paul Dorpat will narrate a slide show about his time with the Helix and in the U District.


For Swan, Matthews and the student team, the opening of the exhibit will be a thrill.


“It’s overwhelming,” Swan said. “I can hardly believe that it’s actually happening and becoming a real project. It’s exciting to see something you worked on as a student be fully realized.”


Other activities during the exhibit:


April 25: Screening of Open to Question: Activism in Seattle’s University District. Watch interviews with University District activists from the ’60s to the present, and share your own stories during a community roundtable about neighborhood changes over the years. 2 to 4:30 p.m., University Heights Community Center.

May 17: Taking it to the Street Fair! Civic engagement project leader and Social Work Lecturer Nancy Amidei leads U District activists from the past and present in an engaging impromptu conversation at 1 p.m. and again at 3:30 p.m. during the annual Street Fair. They will be in a special history tent at the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and 42nd Street. Jump in and share your own stories.

May 28: Activism for a New Century. Join Amidei in a conversation exploring the new roles and ways of activism today. Noon to 2 p.m., University Heights Community Center.


For more information, go to www.opentoquestion.org.