SEATTLE—Seattle’s coffee shops are legend. From the grungy haunts depicted in the 90s slacker classic Singles to the world domination of Starbucks, roasted beans have long dominated the scene in the Emerald City. Steph Kese and Erin Pollock of Seattle-based artist duo KeseyPollock noticed that coffee shop culture had accelerated in recent years, owing partly to the fact that the tech industry had priced many younger artists out of real estate normally used for studios and creative offices.
In fact, KeseyPollock—who earned renown for sculpting lifelike wax-and-Crisco people that they would scorch in their studio to create fantastical videos and photographs of dripping, melting humans—recently had to give up their own workshop in the rapidly developing International District. “That building is becoming high-end condos, so we don’t have a studio right now,” Kese says, “which is crazy because we’ve been working on these gigantic sculptural pieces for many years now. To find ourselves in this position was heartbreaking for half a second, and then it was completely liberating. We started meeting in coffee shops, and reevaluating our work, and what are the things in our work that aren’t necessarily medium-based.”
Since they were working with people to cast their sculptures anyway, the duo decided to hone in on a human-specific aspect of their art. As their brewhouse meetings progressed, they began to look around and grow curious as to what was happening behind the laptop screens and within the notebooks of their latte-sipping brethren. “We started realizing, as we were working from different coffee shops, that there were so many people doing the same because of what’s happening to the city right now,” Kese explains. “You never get to ask them what they are working on. But there’s some really cool stuff happening, so that’s why we were like, ‘Well, let’s try and do something to make this an excuse to have those conversations.’”
For the two young artists, it wasn’t always the caffeinated existence of the Pacific Northwest. The two women met at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington on the eastern side of the state, but they went their separate ways for a year—Kese to an Argentinian film school and Pollock to study painting in Florence, Italy—before reuniting to work on a show in Anchorage together, where Pollock grew up. After a few years as “Alaskan artists,” the wintry isolation of Anchorage coupled with a desire to expand their audience inspired them to pick up stakes and head to Seattle, Kese’s hometown.
After a particularly successful Kickstarter in 2012 where the pair raised $45,000 for a sculpture project in Seattle, they’ve called the city home ever since. “When you’re in Alaska, Seattle’s a portal to the rest of the universe. Seattle is surrounded by water on all sides and mountains, and so it’s really alive,” Kese says, pondering what it’s like to travel around their city. “It rained earlier today, but it’s sunny now and there’s a barge going by. Have you seen the most cheesy, generic point of reference, Sleepless in Seattle? I’m sitting next to a bunch of houseboats right now.”
But it’s the people of Seattle that inspire the duo most. They do admit that there is a bit of awkwardness when they approach their new coffee shop comrades and ask them to share their latest endeavors. Mostly, they’ve been received with open arms, though. If their fellow artists are amenable, they become subjects, allowing the women to interview them about their projects, take their portraits, and collect scrawled on napkins for a bit of visual inspiration behind their individual efforts. “So far we’ve talked to really fascinating people, like this guy who is working on illustrations for some astrophysics calculation,” says Kese. “We’re like, ‘Oh wow, when we just saw you drinking your iced coffee, we wouldn’t have known about that.’ Compiling the images has been a really interesting process as well that we’re still engaged in.”
The piece KeseyPollock will be creating for the GOOD Cities Project will utilize these collected images in a photo collage to highlight the creativity that is happening in the little nooks of their city. To have a chance to emphasize the adaptability of Seattleites is central to KeseyPollock’s visual love letter to their city. “What we’re working on right now isn’t malicious or vindictive in spirit at all, it’s actually a little bit more hopeful,” says Kese. “Taking the opportunity to get to know and talk to people instead of being vengeful that we don’t have studio space. We’re just interested in how this moment is going to shape us as artists.”
Stay tuned to the GOOD Cities Project homepage in November, where KeseyPollock's visual love letter to Seattle will be exhibited. And, if you're in the Seattle area in November, keep an eye out to see their work exhibited on local billboards.
The GOOD Cities Project is a five-month collaboration with Ford, exploring how we make our cities and how our cities make us. As part of the project, GOOD and Ford have commissioned cultural creatives across the country to help illuminate and celebrate the rich and vastly diverse points of view that make up each city's individual character. Each week, we will be exploring attributes that we believe are fundamental to living meaningful urban lives.