With Forest For The Trees, 100-plus artists convert Pioneer

Just as it takes many trees to make a forest, it takes many artists, organizers, sponsors and visionaries to transform a seven-story, 130-year-old warehouse in Pioneer Square into an expansive art event in just a matter of months. Forest For The Trees is the name of this homegrown art festival that will feature immersive art installations, group exhibitions, on-site mural-making and performances, as well as activities in the alleyway behind the building. 

It’s essentially a four-day block party July 21-24 — involving more than 100 artists from Seattle and elsewhere — strategically timed to coincide with the Seattle Art Fair, which brings thousands of local and out-of-town art lovers to Lumen Field Event Center, just a short stroll away from Forest For The Trees. 

“This is huge,” said Amanda Manitach, a Seattle artist who’s co-curating one of the Forest For The Trees exhibitions. “It’s a massive undertaking that shows how Seattle artists will rally to pull off these really large-scale things.”

Forest For The Trees is also the name of one of the event’s key organizers, a nonprofit headed by Seattle artist Gage Hamilton, who facilitates public art projects in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, often finding opportunities in newly developed properties or empty spaces that are in between tenants. 

About a year ago, Hamilton started brainstorming with Henry Watson, the property manager of RailSpur, a new, three-building redevelopment project in Pioneer Square from the Denver-based company Urban Villages, which specializes in the environmentally conscious transformation of historical properties. While Hamilton and Watson have a personal connection (Watson is a cousin of Hamilton’s sister-in-law) that fostered the foundation of this project, Watson states that this kind of “lively and authentic programming” is in keeping with Urban Villages’ “dynamic approach” to cultivating vibrant neighborhoods. 

At first, the idea was to just use the ground floor of one of the buildings: 419 Occidental Ave. S., a revamped old warehouse that will contain office and retail space. The old brick-and-timber building has been beautifully restored but tenants have yet to move in. 

Hamilton quickly looped in longtime collaborator Dominic Nieri, an art documentarian, creative producer and founder of Seattle-based ARTXIV (pronounced archive), which is now producing the entire festival. They initially landed on a plan to use the ground floor as a kind of studio for local and visiting artists to create mural-size paintings. 

Then, only two months ago, Watson gave them permission to take over almost the entire building — 77,000 square feet across seven floors — plus the rooftop and the alleyway. According to Hamilton, although the timing was very tight and there was no initial funding, they didn’t think twice because “opportunities like this don’t happen all the time. And it was important to us, as the world around us grows and changes, to carve out places for creative people and art. That’s what makes a city thrive.”

Hamilton and Nieri reached out to other artists, curators and groups — people who, Hamilton said, “would bring a good mix of experience. We could trust their process and their point of view.” He added, smiling, “We also just asked artists because we love their work and felt like they could fill thousands of square feet pretty easily.”

And so, the entire building will be “activated,” with each floor filled with contemporary art, on-site performances and interactive events like poster giveaways and immersive installations. 

In keeping with Hamilton and Nieri’s original vision, the ground floor will showcase 16 artists who will use the space to create on-site murals and large-scale canvases in the week leading up to the opening.

The two top floors will house a group exhibition of over 60 emerging and established artists — all local, in keeping with the vision of XO Seattle, the team putting together this show. XO Seattle is a self-described “roving curatorial practice,” with a history of taking over spaces in transition. Co-curators Julianne Johnson, Austin Bellamy Hicks, Erik Molano and Moses Sun have gathered a long and impressive list of artists for this exhibition, which they describe as a “love letter to the creative community of the Pacific Northwest.” 

XO Seattle is also throwing the grand opening party on July 22, featuring Hrvst House, a Black-owned, Seattle-based production company. Music and art performances will continue every Friday night until Aug. 19. 

The other floors will be programmed by curators and artists including Axel Void, a Miami-based, Haitian Spanish artist who has named his show “12,143,” the square footage of the space that he states will be transformed with “no agenda other than the beauty and absurdity of this happening itself.” 

Christopher Martin, an Oakland, California-based tattoo and textile artist, will install his touring exhibition “Ancient as Time,” which combines fabric hangings and sculpture and graphic design with his personal experiences of life in the South and the history of the African diaspora. 

Coming up from Portland, the collaborative team of rubén garcía marrufo, a self-described “border artist” and maximiliano, a multimedia conceptual artist, will continue their in-progress work, which, according to their artist statement, “is inspired by Gaspar Yanga, an enslaved African in Mexico who escaped to form a maroon society on Mexico’s Gulf coast, and pulls from the artists’ mixed cultures, which physically and metaphorically straddle borders in the wake of empire.”

The fifth floor will house “HOWL,” a group exhibition of large-scale works by female-identifying and nonbinary artists who use their artistic voices for urgent and timely expression on topics such as collective healing, bodily autonomy and survival. According to co-curators Manitach and Lele Barnett — important members of Seattle’s art scene — “HOWL” was created as a rallying cry. Big works by regional and national artists will include a balloon-give-away tribute to Félix González-Torres (an artist known for his intimate, interactive art) by Amanda James Parker (Seattle), a community-created installation of wrapped thread by Megan Prince (Seattle), and viral images from the national organization Shout Your Abortion. 

In keeping with the expansive, out-of-the-box approach of this festival, the art will not just be limited to a floor-by-floor plan. Even the eight-story stairwell will be transformed into art through Christopher Derek Bruno’s color, light and sound installation.

The alleyway outside the building will also be enlivened with art including an augmented reality experience by the Brooklyn, New York-based, Iranian artist Marjan Moghaddam, an internationally recognized pioneer of digital art. Future Arts, the Seattle-based, new media arts collective that is curating this multisite installation from Moghaddam, says in a statement that visitors to the RailSpur alleyway can scan a QR code to “unleash an animated #GLITCHGODDESS, strutting and shifting forms.” 

Clearly, there will be a lot happening within, around and on top of this old warehouse. But Forest For The Trees organizer Hamilton points out the bigger picture: “It’s all part of a greater ecosystem that we’re trying to create — an ecosystem of support, like a forest. We want artists to be able to have space to grow.”

Forest For The Trees art festival

Noon-9 p.m. daily July 21-24; XO Seattle’s two-floor exhibition continues until Aug. 21; 419 Occidental Ave S., Seattle. Admission is free to the overall festival; the two-floor exhibition from XO Seattle requests a general admission price of $11, which directly supports local artists. Register at fftt.eventbrite.com or xoseattle.com.