How did the city of Seattle decide to commission a graphic novel?
Many people have congratulated me (and Mairead Case) on receiving the commission to create a fictional graphic novel focused on the Georgetown Steam Plant. They often follow it up with the question: “How did the city decide to do this?” This project is unique enough that it’s a fair question. Very few US cities have commissioned graphic novels (Everett, WA comes to mind, but beyond that…?). So how did this come about?
I talked about it with Maija McKnight, who is a Public Art Project Manager for Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture (and is our project manager as we create the graphic novel). “This is a new type of project for the Office of Arts and Culture, the creation of a book and graphic novel,” said McKnight, “and to the best of my knowledge a new way of implementing Percent for Art funding amongst national government agencies.”
Seattle was one of the first cities (beginning in 1973) to implement a 1 Percent for Art ordinance, which mandates 1/100th of all city capital improvement project funds go toward the commission, purchase, and installation of artworks in a variety of settings. This can be a work of art about the site (for example, a work about wastewater drainage) or a work on the site (for example, the “Hammering Man” sculpture in front of SAM).
“I was assigned as the project manager September of last year,” continued McKnight, “and met with Laurie [Geissinger, of Seattle City Light] to start my learning process about the Steam Plant. I was able to visit the plant for the public tour and do some pretty basic research to learn more.”
McKnight met with a group of City Light’s employees who are involved with preserving and promoting the Steam Plant. They began to brainstorm potential projects. Among the possibilities suggested: sculptural art along the new access drive, artwork as part of new signage, a mosaic on the plant’s large concrete cistern… They also discussed the potential of outreach to schools as part of an artist-in-residence program.
The Georgetown Steam Plant is undergoing exterior renovation and is only open to the public one day of every month, so the group wondered how the arts project could be used to leverage more access to the plant than even the building itself could accommodate. They were also interested in being able to tell the story of the steam plant in a non-didactic way, and in doing so, build awareness, and appreciation of the historic landmark.
Another consideration: “The capital project associated with the funding is a new access drive that increases visibility into the site. How can this art project reinforce the idea/goal of access and visibility?”
McKnight says it was City Light’s Strategic Advisor for Environmental Affairs, Laurie Geissinger, who brought up the suggestion of a graphic novel. They immediately felt that this would address a lot of the lingering questions they’d been discussing. Adds McKnight: “From there, we then went back to our teams, talked about this idea, checked out many graphic novels from the library… In somewhat unfamiliar territory for this media, I relied heavily on many meetings/conversations with professionals in the industry to help to put together a scope of work and a call-to-artists to best reflect our goals of the project.”
I checked in with Laurie Geissinger to ask what lead her to the idea of a graphic novel. Via email, she wrote: “I began to think more deeply about increasing GTSP [Georgetown Steam Plant] visibility and access, getting the word out to diverse populations, about the GTSP, and the stories that could capture the imagination of visitors and potential visitors. Wanted to improve not just physical access – but access to minds, imagination and create a self-perpetuating and layered conversation steeped in an exciting historical adventure. I hoped we could somehow create work that would perpetuate a long lasting love affair with the steam plant, history and human ingenuity.”
Geissinger says it was the brainstorming session that led to the “finch and dandelion moment” where she and McKnight both realized a graphic novel was the solution they had been seeking.
I wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘finch and dandelion’. I did a web search and found that finches are birds who pull apart dandelions to eat the seeds. Geissinger added: “The thought graphic novel did light up as small bird on my shoulder (weird enough) followed by a cloud of dandelion seeds floating in all directions (weirder yet)… Dandelions have this exquisitely designed system for seed dispersal. As an artistic medium, a graphic novel seems dandelion-like; a vessel with built in ability to transport seed-stories beyond the immediate physical realm and locale, for birds everywhere to enjoy! I was in.”