Two Maine Artists Win $1 Million Public Art Commission in Seattle


Two Maine artists have landed an ambitious public art commission for a new convention center in Seattle that could be worth up to $1 million.

Wade Kavanaugh poses for a photo with a paper installation in early 2018 on a stage at The Gem, a community art space and theater he and his wife run in Bethel. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer

Bethel’s Wade Kavanaugh and Portland’s Stephen B. Nguyen will create permanent site-specific artwork for the Washington State Convention Center, a sprawling complex under construction in downtown Seattle. They signed the contract in October and are in the process of designing their artwork, which is expected to evoke the natural power of the Pacific Northwest landscape. This will be their first permanent piece and will likely be installed in 2021.

Kavanaugh, 40, and Nguyen, 43, are among 18 artists creating artwork throughout the building, said Kate Westbrook of LMN Architects of Seattle. The budget for their specific project is $800,000, with an additional $200,000 earmarked for changes to the architectural envelope that may be needed depending on how the project unfolds, said Cath Brunner, Seattle public art consultant working on the project.

The addition of the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. Maine artists Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen Nguyen won a million dollar public art commission for the building. They will fill in the area in red with an installation piece that they are designing. Image courtesy of LMN Architects

The $2 billion glass and steel building is under construction several blocks downtown, and Kavanaugh and Nguyen will make a room to fill a long rectangular space under a cantilevered ballroom on the sixth floor. The artwork will hang from the ceiling below the ballroom and be visible from the escalators and stairs leading to the ballroom and from outside the convention center. The space they will be working with is 119 feet long and 25 feet wide, with a total of 2,975 square feet. The Maine team was among 127 artists or teams of artists to apply for the commission, Brunner said.

Nguyen said it was “somewhat daunting” to think about the size, scale and scope of the project, but with a budget of $1 million, “we know we will have the resources to make it happen. There will be much more complex things going on in this building than hanging our art.

Brunner said Kavanaugh and Nguyen were chosen because they convinced the committee members who made the decision that they could create artwork that would dramatically reflect the Pacific Northwest in the material, shape and feel.

“It’s important with these big commissions…that the artists can activate the space formally, and with Wade and Stephen, it felt like they could activate it emotionally as well. Their work has this power associated with the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “There is a swirling energy and primordial power in our landscape, and they bring it to their work. It’s visceral and immersive.

The team of artists won the first prize of $25,000 from the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation Scholarship in 2017, awarded by the Rockland Foundation to support artists and encourage them to expand and explore their artistic vision and practice. . This scholarship included the promise of an installation at the Maine Center for Contemporary Art, also in Rockland. For this exhibition last spring, Kavanaugh and Nguyen created a huge wooden wave from individual wooden slats, “Hubris Atë Nemesis”. Until the CMCA, Kavanaugh and Nguyen mainly worked with impermanent materials, such as paper.

In a phone interview, Kavanaugh said part of the motivation for the transition from paper to wood at the CMCA was the rejection of a previous proposal for public art at Seattle Airport that Kavanaugh and Nguyen had applied for and thought they could win. But jurors were skeptical of the artists’ vision of moving from an impermanent material to wood, and Kavanaugh and Nguyen lost. “It was a real kick in the (ass) for me and Stephen. So when we received the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation award and knew we would have the exhibition at the CMCA, we decided to take the grant money and push our art practice to translate the language of paper into a new material,” he said. “And now, a few months later, we’re able to get this great public art project.”

Wade Kavanaugh, Stephen Nguyen and their families at the Maine Center for Contemporary Art in Rockland. Photo courtesy of Wade Kavanaugh

The shift from paper to wood that Kavanaugh and Nguyen demonstrated in the Rockland exhibit impressed Seattle’s public art committee, Brunner said. “The success of the exhibit in Maine was a determining factor. The panel was impressed to think of permanent materials, which showed that they were experimenting with materials and ideas and were up for this challenge. It gave the panel a lot of confidence,” she said.

Brunner called the site for the artwork “large, with sightlines from all over the installation and the street looking inside”. From the outside, people will be able to see the activity in the ballroom taking place directly above the artwork. “They will see the activity above the art, as if they were standing on the sculpture. Party activities will take place above the art. I have never seen a site like this before,” she said.

The contract signed, the challenge is now to design the piece. Right now, artists are imagining the possibilities. They have until the end of January to submit a design for comment. After winning the commission, Kavanaugh and Nguyen spent several days in Washington’s North Cascades National Park learning about the environment and the types of trees that grow there. “We’re just trying to get a sense of the landscape and the materiality, all the things that might inform the project,” Kavanaugh said.

Nguyen described the design phase as challenging and exciting. “It’s a fun time. Once it’s conceived and the design is approved, we move on to engineering, which I find equally fun. But play time is very free. Right now, we’re just browsing through ideas and exploring everything. The way we start a project, anything goes,” he said.

People will be able to watch the activity in the ballroom unfold directly above the Kavanaugh and Nguyen facility (site displayed in red). “They will see the activity above the art, as if they were standing on the sculpture,” said Cath Brunner, Seattle public art consultant working on the project. Image courtesy of LMN Architects

Donna McNeil, executive director of the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation, said Kavanaugh and Nguyen’s success demonstrates the importance for Maine artists to seek opportunities beyond state lines. The foundation gave money to artists so they could experiment with their work, but the artists took it upon themselves to take their work beyond Maine, she said. “This is another example of Maine artists coming out into the world. You have to be globally competitive and you have to be aware of what’s going on all over the world,” she said.

In 2018, Portland artist Aaron T Stephan built a 65-foot sculpture from 25 twisted wooden ladders for the San Diego airport with a commission of $275,000.

“Contemporary artists today are engaged in a global dialogue reflecting the world we live in,” Suzette McAvoy, executive director and chief curator of the CMCA, wrote in an email. “More than ever, artists are talking about big universal concerns such as the environment, questions of identity and what it means to be human in an increasingly digitized world. These issues cross geographic boundaries and recognize our interdependence, rather than our divisions. »

McAvoy said she was proud that the CMCA and its partnership with the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation played a role in helping Kavanaugh and Nguyen land the commission. “We are extremely proud of what Wade and Stephen have accomplished and happy that the CMCA can provide a platform to showcase their talents on a large scale. Our partnership is a great example of how collaboration can amplify results,” she wrote.

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