Test pages

Mairead and I recently created ten sample pages. It was exciting to be drawing these. It feels like the book is beginning to be a real thing at last. Here’s a look at some of the penciled panels on the wall of my studio…


Looking for a Strong Female Lead

Mairead and I have agreed that our main character will be a girl living in the earliest years of the 20th century. In my role as artist, I’ve been trying to determine what our lead character will look like.  I’ve been studying photos of children in Seattle in the early 1900’s, and making sketches.

I love this photo of the Franklin High Girls Basketball Team, 1915. It comes from the Seattle Public Schools Archive, and can be seen on their Flickr pages

How did they ever play basketball dressed like that?

The Relocation of a River

The Georgetown Steam Plant was originally built right on the Duwamish River. It was designed to take in river water for cooling, and to expel used water back into the river. But if you visit the steam plant today, there is no river anywhere in sight; it’s almost a mile away. What happened?

Georgetown Steam Plant 1909
A photo of the steam plant beside the Duwamish River in 1909.

The Duwamish was originally a winding river with large curves called “oxbows.” The Duwamish people, who lived on the river for thousands of years (the river was named “Duwamish” in the 19th century as an English language approximation of the name of the indigenous people living there), made use of this winding landscape for (among other things) catching ducks in the air and salmon in the water. For ships in the early 20th century, the curves made traveling up the river slow and sometimes dangerous, with submerged logs becoming jammed in the river’s twists. Ocean-going vessels could not travel on the river.

The river was also prone to flooding. After a series of destructive floods in 1906, an investigative board headed by Hiram Chittenden convened to study the problem and concluded that the river should be straightened and controlled. The Army Corps of Engineers began a project to straighten the river in 1913. By 1920, the oxbows were filled with dirt, and the river, now reshaped into the ‘Duwamish Waterway,’ flowed in a straight path past Georgetown and South Park, and had a depth of 50 feet for four and a half miles.

This 1922 survey map shows how the oxbows have been filled in, with the waterway to the left. The steam plant location is roughly in the center.

The steam plant, originally built on an oxbow, now found itself landlocked, quite a distance from the river it was designed to make use of. In 1917 a pumping station was built along the waterway to provide water to the steam plant across the new distance. A massive new flume was also constructed to expel wastewater.

The next time you visit the plant, take a look south, toward Boeing Field, and imagine a winding river rolling past.

The straightening of the river affected the land animals, marine life, and people who had lived in harmony with the it for generations. It also cleared the way for industry that would pollute the river’s waters with chemical waste. For more extensive information on the history of the Duwamish River, and what is being done to clean up and reclaim the river, see the website duwamishrevelaed.com.

And for an extensive history of changes to the land and water of the Seattle area, do not miss the Burke Museum’s excellent Waterlines project.



Library Research

We are deep in research mode, and for me that means a lot of visits to the Seattle Public Library. I have been working toward learning more about the Georgetown Steam Plant and it’s environs in the early 20th century, as well as the Seattle-Tacoma interurban trains and neighborhood streetcars that the plant powered. Just look at all these sepia-photo-covered books that I have stacking up!

A selection of books on Seattle’s history from the Seattle Public Library

I wanted to share this lively photo of the Renton local electric train No.125, circa 1910-15, at its Seattle starting point at Occidental and Yesler in Pioneer Square (making all stops between here an Renton Junction).  The Interurban Building can’t be seen in this photo, but it’s just to the right. The light colored building in the background is the Seattle Hotel, a site which is today occupied by a structure we commonly know as the “sinking ship parking lot.”
(From the collection of the Washington State Historical Society, published in the lavishly illustrated book “To Tacoma by Trolley” by Warren W. Wing, 1995.)

photo from the Washington State Historical Society
The Renton Local waits in front of Seattle’s Interurban Building, circa 1910-15

For further reading on the Interurban and this Pioneer Square intersection, you can’t go wrong with Seattle Now and Then.

The Origins of This Project

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.”

-David Lasky

Goldfinch eating a dandelion seed

Hi, Welcome to our Blog!

Welcome to the Steam Plant Graphic Novel: The Blog!

We will post details of our research, samples of our work, historic and contemporary photos, events, and surprises.

Thanks for joining us on the adventure!

Mairead & David