619 Western

Newly separated, living on my own, I was working in a large studio on the sixth floor of a century old building in Pioneer Square. Its flexible wooden structure had survived two earthquakes. There was a crack, two to five inches in places, running through the wall above my studio door, all the way down through every floor.

I glanced at it every time I walked in. 

A friend, concerned about my safety in case of a quake, told me after looking carefully at the building that I'd be alright if another quake hit due to the wood construction. Since there was nothing above me and I had a pillar in my interior space, it would probably rock and roll, and the brick facade might fall off, but I'd have a good chance of weathering it.

619 Western is a rare thing in Seattle, a building that has housed six floors of artists' studios for decades. It's the opposite of the concrete complexes of studios that have sprung up all over town, run by developers who charge exorbitant rates for tiny spaces. It's a bonafide art building, worn-in and atmospheric, with high ceilings and a concertina-gated elevator that reminded me of my apartments in Boston, and all the attendant inconveniences of an aging structure.

Every first Thursday on artwalk night, when the galleries demurely close at eight, droves of hipsters, boomers, musicians, artists, artlovers and wannabes pile in there to mingle in the worn, lofty spaces, scoring cheap wine and sweaty beer and grapes and Cheezits, ogling each other and the eclectic range of art on view till they are booted out, sometimes past midnight.

I mostly avoided those nights. I was there to work, and I soon figured out the artwalk crowd had little to add to my sales.

But I loved my studio, and it was there that I developed my collage paintings. 

Every month, I made my check out to ACE Studios, named for the original ACE Novelty Company, the very one with the ads for X-Ray Specs and Whoopie cushions and Sea Monkeys we all used to pore over in the backs of comics as kids - me, 16,000 miles away on another continent. 

According to my landlady, the late (and greatly missed) Su Job, this was where it all happened, right here at 619 Western Ave.

Standing in the grungy hallway on the sixth floor one day, her red hair and blue eyes lighting up the place, Su told me how ACE imported loads of cheap plastic parts from Japan, and how they were one of the first companies to do so.

They arrived by the boxcar on the tracks out back under the viaduct. Workers loaded the crates of bits and pieces into the freight elevator, unloaded them upstairs and sorted and assembled and mailed the completed products, which arrived at last in the mail boxes of sticky-faced kids who had been checking twice daily for weeks for their zombie eyeballs.

Su also told me how the ACE family, carnies by tradition, owned a second building in the neighborhood that had (tragically) burned down just before they were to be audited by the IRS. 

619, it turned out, after a man came to do a seismic retrofitting/demolition-worthiness inspection, lacks a foundation. It floats on rubble.

I sometimes picture it like the rebel accountants' ship in the opening sequence of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, ready to sail off into Puget Sound when it finally becomes unmoored in the next quake, its crew of artist-pirates firing cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon at the Bainbridge ferry while cranking Radiohead on every floor.

I did not wait around for the next quake. The influx on my floor of tenants more pirate than artist was enough for me.

Su's gone now. And in a few years, when the viaduct is finally torn down, 619 will be, too, and its tenants will disperse and try to find other congenial studio situations in an increasingly competitive studio market. 

When I left, I left behind memories of a brief relationship; of the early transition, sometimes confused and painful, sometimes exhilarating and joyful, from married life; and above all, of hours and late night hours discovering a new vein of working in a space that encouraged bold explorations.

Occasionally I think about the view of the Seattle Steam building from the massive, pivoting windows in my second space on that floor, the sounds of seagulls and rain on the leaky roof and horse carriages clopping by on weekends, the grimy bathroom, the rusting fire escape so tempting to smokers on artwalk nights, the hissing heat you couldn't regulate and that gaping crack in the wall, and I think, damned if I haven't weathered some jolts, too.