As the coronavirus swept through the Seattle area, the shutdowns were swift: first the schools, then the bars and music venues, the gyms, the hair salons, the dentist offices. The massive change felt abstract to me, one of the lucky citizens working from home. When I biked around town, there were still neighbors walking on the street and cars on the road; it was easy to imagine nothing had changed. But then I rode through one of my favorite areas of town, a vibrant street home to two music halls, a classic all-day diner, an independent outdoor gear store, and a pottery painting shop with an art gallery in the back. Usually I’d peer through the giant glass storefronts at patrons eating or shiny goods in the window displays. But what I saw instead were wooden boards—blocks worth of them. It was the first tangible sign that things are different now. With a heavy heart, I rode home, and have avoided that street ever since.
Recently, a friend posted Instagram photos of that street that made me literally gasp. The boards had been filled in with murals of colorful flowers, snow-capped mountains, lush greenery. The Tractor, one of my favorite small performance venues, featured a fish jumping from abstract waves and a beautiful evergreen. On the door are the words: “Forget me not/ We’ll hug it out … later.” All around Seattle, vibrant art has replaced the jarring once-blank walls hastily erected in March and early April.
Kate Blackstock is one of the many Seattle artists donating their time and talent to brightening the streets; she and fellow artist Frida Clements painted that mural on the Tractor I liked so much. She says she was asked by the owner of the venue if she’d contribute art. He offered to pay her, but she refused. “It was so jarring and heartbreaking to see all these businesses boarded up,” she says. “I was excited to be able to put some love on one of the places where I feel most at home.”
Antonio Varchetta is not only painting but also playing matchmaker by connecting businesses with artists willing to paint. In nonpandemic times, Varchetta works in the restaurant industry, but he’s since been laid off. “I asked a friend of mine who owns a few restaurants, ‘Hey, would you let me paint some big murals?’ ” The friend was enthusiastic; that snowballed into Varchetta and his friends painting nearby businesses in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. All told, Varchetta and about a half-dozen other artists have painted more than a dozen businesses in the city. “People love their community, they love their bartenders, their bars,” says Varchetta. “So this is an opportunity for us to give our talents back to the community.”
And that community has been appreciative of their work. Blackstock says dozens of people stopped by to take photos while she and Clements were working, or just to thank them. “Artists often create in private, and it sometimes feels like a thankless job,” says Blackstock. “I initially thought I was just going to get out of the house and do something, but it’s been a more powerful experience than I thought.”
Varchetta, too, says the reception has been largely positive. One woman walked up and left them $120. Bars have promised artists they’ll drink for free when this is all over. One night, while Varchetta and his friends were working, admirers approached to ask if they had a GoFundMe fundraiser for their project. At the end of the night, Varchetta set one up; so far, it’s raised nearly $1,500 for artists’ paint. Their only complication has been a couple of run-ins with police responding to calls that the artists were doing graffiti, but they left once it became obvious their work was commissioned by business owners.
Beyond making the neighborhood look a bit brighter, public art might have wider-reaching effects. Murals and art have long been used in hospitals under the assumption they might cheer up patients; there’s now evidence that art may improve overall reported satisfaction of patients during their stays in hospitals, and it may even play a role in soothing pain and anxiety during unpleasant procedures. A hospital setting is certainly different from walking around the neighborhood during a pandemic, but the takeaway from these studies is that art can be a lovely distraction. A scene can transport us elsewhere and allow us to forget what ails us, if only for a few moments.
According to a Yale School of Medicine evaluation of a Philadelphia public art program, public art may also promote public health. The researchers found that in the year after murals were painted, people living within a mile of the art reported a relative increase in their neighborhood’s overall aesthetic quality. For up to two years after the murals were painted, locals also reported a relative increase in social cohesion and trust among their neighbors. (The sizes of both those increases, as measured by a statistical test called Cohen’s d, qualify as “medium” effects.) While the researchers didn’t study the mechanisms that might drive those effects, from their interviews with residents they theorize that “murals stimulate narratives of culture and community connection, beauty, resilience, and hope.” This city-planned mural program isn’t quite the same as the constellation of community art pieces that have popped up in Seattle, but I wonder whether the same sense of connection and hope might result from their presence.
That connection and community cohesion might also help keep businesses safe while they’re closed. “For now, the plywood has a very utilitarian purpose of preventing property damage, theft, and vandalism,” says Tori Shao, a local artist who has painted three storefronts through the Ballard Alliance.* “With a little paint, the goal is to further deter vandalism, hopefully making the temporary present a little less bleak, and helping us all look forward to a future where the boards are off and the businesses are open again.”
Glynn Rosenberg, a Seattle artist who has worked with Varchetta, says she hopes her art serves that community-connecting role while also spreading joy. (One of her murals features bright flowers surrounding a door frame with the message “Until Next Time.”) “Bringing artists to the street increases access to art,” she says. “The pandemic has made existing inequity more extreme, so it is really important to serve the community in whatever capacity we are capable.”
New art—especially by artists who may not usually work on large street murals—allows for new perspectives. Graffiti artists, for example, usually don’t have sanctioned outlets for their work, but the city essentially just added hundreds of new blank canvases for artists to fill. “Everyone wants a chance to paint, and finding people who let you paint a big wall is every artist’s dream. Now, there are so many big walls,” says Varchetta.
And for the artists, painting is an important outlet for self-expression. When Blackstock began her mural at the Tractor, she first spray-painted “F this S” on the door. “Every day, I have been waking up and being like, ‘This f-cking sucks,’ and spend the entire day trying to change my attitude,” she says. “I wanted to write something on the blank slate and paint over it with something more positive at the end.”
It is not yet clear when these businesses might reopen, emerging from beneath this newfound art. I asked Varchetta what will happen to those boards. He says he’d like to offer to remove the boards from buildings and then auction them off to raise money for local businesses’ recovery. “All that GoFundMe money has been spent on paint, so I would like to take that time and effort and money from the community and reinvest it right back,” says Varchetta. “It’s a full circle.”
Correction, April 21, 2020: This article originally misidentified the Ballard Alliance as the Ballard Art Alliance.