The SeaTac Pdx Art Axis is not actually “a thing” at the moment, other than a figment of my imagination. But it should be and Interstate 5 makes it so. This art community is an integrated whole defined by geography, demography, history and cultural identity.
Most large American cities have the critical mass to comprise their own art communities. And there are noticeable art zones outside this seemingly arbitrary bulls eye. So I need to make myself clear.
The Puget Sound metropolitan area, predominated by Seattle and Tacoma, is geographically removed from Portland by roughly 110 miles of forests, Cascade foothills, intermittent farming communities and small-ish population centers. These two distinct centers are rigidly connected by I-5, as are hundreds of communities, large and small, from Vancouver, BC to Tijuana.
Pacific Northwest I-5 is the boundary between two ancient and significant art and cultural regions. The north coast art traditions of decorated lodge houses, “totem poles”, masks, bentwood boxes and formline design are familiar in the popular imagination. The peoples of the Columbia Plateau have artistic and craft traditions equally ancient and widespread which are literally woven or etched into their objects of everyday life, and their trade goods. These separate regions traded with each other and developed their own relationships with their special bodies of water and their special climate zones.
By the mid-1700’s European influence was considerable. The effects weren’t limited to the Pacific Northwest. Nonetheless those effects – drastic depopulation from disease and the encroachment upon, and appropriation of, land and other crucial economic resources – were cataclysmic for the indigenous populations.
For the Europeans, fortunes were made and new lands were settled. “Old money” around the SeaTacPdx Art Axis is from trade and transport, logging, fishing, and agriculture. Old immigrant stock and newer transplants alike celebrate these rugged pioneer origins. The WPA murals or other commissioned artworks (or monuments like Timberline Lodge) have left us heroic depictions of these efforts. Columbia Plateau beadwork and basketry also adopt much of this iconography by the late 19th century.
Anecdotally, Seattle, Tacoma and Portland are literally a “visit to grandma” away from each other. The job market and a close network of personal ties bind the area. Colleges and universities from one end of the axis to the other are considered local and pose no emotional barrier in that regard for prospective undergraduates.
There are remarkable museums and galleries in all three cities and this is not unexpected. The important point is, for example, that the Hot Shop glass-making facility and its parent Museum of Glass comprise an important venue for exhibition and workshops for all glass artists in the Axis. These local and overlapping hot-spots across the genres create the critical mass for this art region.
So what? I don’t presume to have the inspiration for a PhD thesis here. It’s just a convenient structure for me. I don’t think it’s a disparagement to say something like “Well, it ain’t New York” because what it is is considerable, cohesive and unique.