During the last two summers of the Before Time, I made a point of getting out regularly to sketch Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct before, and then during, its planned demise. This hulking hunk of concrete, built in 1950, was basically a wall of noise, darkness, and looming collapse between downtown Seattle and Puget Sound. I had a studio overlooking this monstrosity for ten years, and sometimes I’d draw it out the window. I later made one of the drawings into a series of etchings.
But more often I have experienced this thing from below. Any walk or bike ride from downtown to the water necessitated spending time underneath the viaduct. You would try to get out from under there as quickly as possible, because it was a well-known fact that it would (not “could”) fall down on your head in the event of any reasonably-sized earthquake, which not a rare occurrence in these parts.
The project of drawing it, however, did one of those things art does: it forced me to appreciate this ugly thing and to acknowledge its perverse beauty. I was surprised to discover that it actually had something that could pass for a style: the repeating buttresses, if you looked at them all lined up together, are almost Art Deco. Almost. On the other hand, I also became more aware of how oppressive it was. You don’t realize how much daylight four lanes of concrete can rob you of, until you go to draw it. Most of the interesting views were from underneath, and it was cold and dark under there on the nicest summer days. I learned to bring along a sweater.
For the second of my 2020 screenprint projects, I decided that I would try to tackle this beast. I pulled out all of the watercolor sketches I’d made and picked one to adapt to a cut-stencil DIY 4-color process.
A watercolor sketch is loose, spontaneous, and often benefits from the accretion of detail. Hand-cut stencils printed in four colors is pretty much the opposite of all those things. Translation required a daunting level of editing and simplification. I started out by tracing the watercolor into a simple line drawing, then scaling that drawing up to the size I wanted. I traced over parts of the drawing again and again, dividing them into sections by color and transferring them to pieces of tyvek. Each of these steps made me lose some extraneous flourishes and helped me get closer to the essence, the concrete hulkitude of my subject.
A technical problem I ran into was that a lot of items were free-floating and would fall away if I tried to cut them out. For instance, I couldn’t block out the yellow signs in the big grey stencil I was making for the freeway, so I had to divide it in two parts. This actually proved to be unexpectedly beneficial when I went to go about creating the layered tones for the receding arches. The farther-away buttresses were made with five successive passes of the same transparent gray; at each pass I would cover up more of the stencil, so that the closest buttress was the darkest. I went through a similar process with a darker gray for the larger parts in the foreground
Beyond the freeway itself, I also had to decide which details were essential to the impulse of the original drawing and therefore would make it into the print. Color, of course: There were those bright yellow signs, in two different shades. I also loved the pedestrian and traffic light icons, the latter echoed in the real traffic light in the shadow of the freeway. But really, my favorite detail, and the reason I chose that vantage point in the first place, was the ominous “Left Lane Ends” sign. The left lane was going to end, all right. All the lanes were going to end.
(I returned to the same spot a year after making the sketch, while the demolition was in progress. Atop a pile of rubble, the “Left Lane Ends” sign was still dangling from its pole, as if to say “I told you so!”)
So I really had no choice but to pour a cup of tea, haul out the economy pack of x-acto knife blades, get comfy and start cutting.
In case any fellow CMYK afficianandos are reading, here’s the breakdown, in order: Nine layers of K (black to civilians), in two different transparencies, for the concrete; one Y layer for the signage; a very transparent M (magenta, to those of you with a life) to warm up some of the yellows; C for the sky; a darker K for the letters and symbols; a stronger M for the red lights, and a final dot of bright C for the green light. A lot can go wrong in 15 layers, which is why this is a very limited edition of 12 prints. They are available for purchase on my shoppe page AND along with the Jello print are part of the Artist Support Pledge: Each time I reach another $1000 in sales of these works, I will buy art from another artist.