Standing in a pretty park on the west bank of the Duwamish River on an unseasonably warm day in June, it’s impossible to ignore a tremendous crashing sound coming from the abutting industrial area. It’s as if iron chains are being tossed into an empty shipping container, or maybe tons of rocks are being poured onto sheet metal. The river glistens patiently, and in the distance, Mount Rainier observes its massive silence. The Duwamish is a study in contrasts—Seattle’s only river, but largely unknown and unexplored by our water-loving populace; once a breadbasket for the Duwamish, Muckleshoot and Suquamish tribes, now a riverbed laced with 41 toxic substances, rendering its fish and shellfish inedible; once an unruly curl of a waterway, flat-ironed into a straight line in the name of progress.
It’s a river with a complex history—and future—which is precisely what drew Seattle artists Sarah Kavage and Nicole Kistler to give the river its due by way of a summer-long “creative celebration,” featuring works by more than 40 artists, called Duwamish Revealed. “We are trying to build a cultural framework for caring about the river,” Kistler says, “to help people know the river in a deeper way, and to show its many different facets.” The women, both long-limbed and easygoing, move through the park with swift familiarity. For a second, a reflection on the water tricks Kistler into thinking she sees an alligator. They both laugh at the impossibility. But stranger things have happened on the Duwamish.
After 1900s industrialists uncoiled the snaky 13-mile stretch down to a barge-accommodating 5 miles, displacing many native settlements in the process, the river suffered the mid-century insult of being used as a toilet for the city’s industrial waste. The Environmental Protection Agency declared the Duwamish a Superfund site in 2001, establishing it as one of the most contaminated places in the country. In late 2014, the EPA designated an additional $342 million (a bill to be partially footed by city polluters, including Boeing) toward renewed cleanup efforts, including dredging nearly 1 million cubic yards of poisonous sludge.
Kavage, 43, and Kistler, 42, first dove into the Duwamish in 2006, with The Living Barge, a joint project they created under the auspices of the nonprofit Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS). With backgrounds in environmental science and urban planning, the two moored a 60-foot barge on the Duwamish and filled it with native ferns, shrubs and tree seedlings (later planted at Cesar Chavez Park in South Park). The result was a striking visual commentary on the state of the river—both its reputation for being as good as dead and its potential for rebirth. But the women have said publicly that it was the strong local response to the project that “really opened our eyes to the potential of art to create positive change in a community.”
When Kavage and Kistler heard about ArtPlace America’s creative placemaking grants, they knew they wanted to apply with a project that expanded on The Living Barge. “A lot of the ideas we were thinking about with the barge are still relevant,” Kavage says. “We wanted to push them further.” In addition, Kistler says, “The timing was right, since the new cleanup had just begun.” Presenting the arts festival as a project of ECOSS, they nabbed a $300,000 grant and began partnering with copious agencies—the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, the Port of Seattle, the Duwamish Tribe, the U.S. Coast Guard—to make Duwamish Revealed a reality.
The temporary art installations (in place through September) span the river from Jack Block Park in Alki to the South Park Bridge, with several positioned in Port of Seattle parks that many locals have likely never visited. At Terminal 107 Park, Seattle artist Briar Bates presents her lovely “Growing to Sea,” for which she sculpted the skeleton of a container ship out of native willow branches that will take root and sprout in place next to the river. Local jeweler Jennifer Bennett worked with students at Pathfinder, an alternative school with a Native American emphasis, to create an oversize sculpture of a Coast Salish fish trap. “Invasion!” a sweetly menacing piece by Brazilian artist Chico Santos, features a crowd of white ceramic growths on a fallen tree, representing urban encroachment on nature.
At Jack Block Park, local sound artists Robb Kunz and Joshua Kohl created “Under Pier Pressure,” an audio installation that changes with tidal shifts. George Lee’s dramatic “Duwamish Lighthouse” resembles Seattle’s iconic shipping cranes and uses light signals to convey real-time water-quality data. Farther south, at Terminal 108 Park, Christian French re-created the flow of a thriving river using artfully placed shipping containers for his colossal sculpture “Estuary.” And longtime environmental artist Buster Simpson prompts dialogue with “Bobbing Discourse,” two surreal chairs mounted on big round buoys in the river.
In addition to the installations is a packed calendar of cultural events and activities, from a celebration of the Duwamish River’s first peoples to bike tours to guided waterborne meditation to an evening performance by aerialist Tanya Brno, during which she’ll be suspended over the river from a crane on a barge.
“Artists want to create something that matters,” Kavage says. “This is helping people understand the river and its history.” Tanned from days spent assisting installations along the water, the women pause from hammering informational plaques into place to consider the possible outcomes of the project. “We are hoping to build community and raise awareness,” Kistler says, “so when people hear ‘Duwamish River’ they think, ‘I know what that means.’”