Gorgeous woodwork fills the interior of the University Heights CenterThough it was long the location of Gage Academy of Art, back when it was the Realist Academy, the rambling wooden building that takes up an entire block at NE 50th and University in the U District is hardly the first place you think of when you think of art in Seattle.

Home to one of the oldest and best Farmer's Markets in Seattle, its not that widely known unless you went to school there sometime before it's closing by the Seattle School Board in 1989. But if Executive Director, Dorothy Lengyel, has her way, U Heights or simply the Heights as it's known will become a destination for innovative art exhibits and events in the north end of Seattle.

And why not? It's a beautiful, warm, expansive building with tons of room, a good amount of traffic (though there could easily be much, much more), and an inclusive, public-minded vision. All that, and it's just a few blocks up from the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery, one of Seattle's most innovative, fearless and beloved art spaces.

"Old Schools Still Teach" reads the motto in cast concrete at the south entrance, and with a number of educational businesses renting space, it's an apt slogan.

Tenants include the Yugakusha Seattle Japanese Language School, the Defensive Driving School, U District Children's Center, Broadway Bound, which mounts full-scale musical productions by young singer-actor-dancers, the Academy for Precision Learning, catering to both gifted and special-needs kids, Seattle Ki Society and Ki Aikido School, Steven Klein Company LSAT prep services, and the extraordinary Northwest Boychoir, whose lovely, disciplined voices can frequently be heard rising from the north end of the building.

But the building appeals to other kinds of renters, too.The Washington State House Democratic Caucus, which earlier this year brought over 4,000 people filing four abreast round the block to register, has its offices here, as do State Representatives Chopp, Pederson and Frockt, State Senator Ed Murray, the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which provides low-income housing advocacy services, OTB Solutions, for business technology consulting services, and Susan Doupé Photography.

It's a busy place. If you step inside into the wide, wood hallways you're likely to encounter rambunctious six-year olds lining up to head out for recess, Susan posing her subjects in the light from the tall windows, or aspiring young Broadway stars rehearsing Annie and trying on costumes.

In addition, dozens of small businesses rent here part-time, including Julia's Studio, my teaching practice for adults who want to paint and draw in a fun but serious, college-level environment. I like to think my art practice carries on the tradition of fine art instruction in the building.

Constructed as a school over a century ago, U Heights is getting ready to celebrate the building's 110th anniversary in Fall of 2012. Somewhat hidden in plain sight, with a pea patch on the southeast side, its graceful wood construction has survived the decades to achieve National Historic Landmark status this year (it's also listed as a National Historic Place, a Washington State Landmark, and a City of Seattle Landmark), an accomplishment due in no small part to Dorothy's vision and drive. Happily, it's a vision actively embraced by the community-based Board of Directors.

Her efforts recently helped secure much needed funding and an overhaul of the building's original window frames, which were professionally restored to be efficient and functional and preserve the building's aesthetics.

Needless to say, I'm quite fond of the building and I believe in Dorothy's vision. So when I was asked to help with plans to include the building in the little-known U District ArtWalk that happens every third Friday of the month, I knew I had to do something more than simply hang art work in the halls. 

Inspired by the building itself, I submitted an elaborate formal proposal, complete with digitally altered photographs, for an installation that incorporates the historic aesthetics of the building and its more recently added, functional features. To my delight, my idea was accepted and approved.

The project is called Heighten. A rambling collage painting that encompasses everything from the handcrafted and patinaed wood and fixtures of the past century to the vending machines and water fountains of today will fill the entire main hallway of the first floor, spreading up the stairwells and onto the second floor.

I love the idea of turning this beautiful building that is open to everyone into an art space. Some of my students may be joining me in parts of the fabrication and installation, which is designed to unfold over several weeks, so that the work will grow in stages.

Two of the installation dates will coincide with the Saturday Famer's Market, one of the oldest and best in town, featuring live music, cooking demos, and other special events year round.

These events will be open to the public, who will be invited to come in, watch (what's more fun than watching other people work?), sip hot apple cider while listening to live guitar music, ask me questions, and add a collage piece to the walls. In addition, the closing celebration in March will feature an additional temporary performance/installation in the hallway upstairs. Excited yet? Me too!

I'll be posting updates on the project's progress leading up to the installation dates in February of 2012 - and of course, the opening celebration on February 17, to which you are of course warmly invited. And now, I think I'd better get in the studio.


University Heights Center