A Walking Tour of Public Art in South Lake Union
Turn SLU into your own museum for the day 🏛️
August 18, 2022
📸: Chase Burns | Hoa Hong
It’s hard to talk about the art and architecture of Seattle’s downtown without bringing up Jeff Bezos’ balls, also known as the Amazon Spheres. Since their unveiling in 2018, these moist and spherical conservatories have attracted hoards of tourists on their way to the Space Needle. However! Downtown and its adjacent Denny Triangle and South Lake Union neighborhoods have way more public art than you might realize. Just a few blocks from the glimmering balls are dozens of publicly-accessible murals, sculptures, and light installations waiting for you to give them a lil’ attention.
Today we’ll feature a few of them in a quick and easy planner for an afternoon looking at public art in South Lake Union.
This walk starts at a pedestrian corner near the Spheres, walks up Westlake, takes a detour around Flatstick Pub, and lands at Lake Union Park. Tie your laces and let’s get moving!
First things first 🔮
While not technically “public art,” you should just start at the Spheres. These three glass domes are controversial in Seattle, but it’s hard to argue that they aren’t a marvel to look at. Walk around the area, dodge the tourists, then settle into the first stop on this public art tour.
The one that gets mistaken for trash 🚯
Start this tour on a funny pedestrian triangle located on outskirts of South Lake Union, right where Westlake, 7th Ave, and Virginia St collide. (It’s across from Cinque Terre Ristorante, about two blocks from the Spheres.) There you’ll find a public art piece that’s about as controversial as the Amazon Spheres. Often mistaken for trash, Squeak Meisel’s “cloud haiku” is actually public art. The sculptures take the shape of several pillows stacked on each other, seemingly dropped at random across the pedestrian triangle. Some are on the sidewalk. A few are in the bushes. It’s all a little haphazard, and a little bit of an actual hazard. Although the white pillows appear to be on the cusp of blowing away in the wind, if you take a closer look—let’s say, by accidentally running into them—you’ll discover they are made of bronze. Not exactly cozy. I wonder how many people have totally biffed it running into these. Visit these pillows as a humorous warm-up for today’s public art tour. It only gets better from here.
“cloud haiku” (2011) by Squeak Meisel, made of cast bronze and white polyurethane enamel finish
📍Westlake Ave, 7th Ave, & Virginia St
The one outside Whole Foods 👩🌾
A couple blocks north up Westlake Ave, toward Lake Union, three women stand in a circle outside Whole Foods. They aren’t shoppers but giant, pensive sculptures made by beloved late Seattle artist Akio Takamori. A noted ceramicist and longtime University of Washington professor, Takamori’s “Three Women” is maybe his most well-known installation in the city. He often drew from memories of his childhood in Japan while sculpting, incorporating neighbors and villagers into his work. And the three rosy-cheeked figures in SLU—a young girl, a woman, and a mother with her baby on her back—are preserved just outside one of the neighborhood grocery stores. They face one another, but all seem to avoid eye contact. What are they thinking about? As you admire and wonder, see it from different vantage points to get a good look. And after all that marveling, pop into the grocery store for an energy bar.
“Three Women” (2006) by Akio Takamori, made of painted cast aluminum
📍Westlake Ave outside of Whole Foods
Pit stop ✋
Need to escape the elements? MadArt Seattle is a home for wayward art lovers. Open since 2014 in South Lake Union, the gallery regularly commissions local artists to create site-specific, immersive installations for viewers to get lost in. They also host studio hours, so if you’re lucky, you can catch an exhibiting artist in the process of putting together a show.
📍325 Westlake Ave N: Check their website for studio hours and gallery times. Sometimes they’re closed in between exhibitions.
The one with lots of seating 🪑
Say goodbye to the three giant women outside of Whole Foods, you’ve got more giants to meet today. Keep walking up Westlake Ave and you’ll run into a “Dreamer.” Painted a checkered black and white with red accents, this giant woman lays on her stomach in the middle of a grassy sanctuary. “Dreamer” is the most recent installation on this tour; longtime Seattle artist and 2020 Smithsonian Visionary Award winner Patti Warashina just debuted it in March 2022. The figure’s eyes focus on the distance as she balances a fish on her feet, her head in the clouds. Even though it sits right next to a loud intersection, its placement in this wide-open plaza is serene. The sculpture is surrounded by tons of open seating, which is a rarity in downtown Seattle. Chill out here for a second, use a soft focus, and let your head float toward the clouds.
“Dreamer” (2021) by Patti Warashina, made of painted cast aluminum
📍Westlake Ave and Republican St
The one you can climb inside 🧗
After you’ve dashed across Mercer St, navigate to the Allen Institute for Brain Science, right next to Flatstick Pub. There, you’ll find two more giants in Jaume Plensa’s “Mirall.” You might recognize one of the Spanish artist’s pieces from the Olympic Sculpture Park; his trippy “Echo” sculpture welcomes visitors at the park’s east entrance. In “Mirall,” which means “mirror“ in Plensa’s native Catalan, two figures sit more than 12 feet tall and face-to-face. But instead of hard bodies, these guys are composed of different scripts—Latin, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Roman, Cyrillic. You don’t need to read these letters, just experience them. “You can actually walk inside the shells and see the other figure through the language and skin of both forms,” Vulcan chief curator Greg Bell told Discover SLU about the installation. “It creates these wonderful, complicated relationships.” We recommend getting up close and personal with these sculptures. Spin around inside them and let the different scripts blur your vision. Be careful not to bonk your head. It hurts.
“Mirall” (2015) by Jaume Plensa, made of stainless steel
📍Mercer St and 9th Ave N
The final one (for today) 💭
The final stop on this South Lake Union public art tour plonks you right near Lake Union. But rather than having you look up at a sculpture, Ellen Sollod’s “Lost in Thought” asks you to look down at the ground. Along Valley Street between Westlake and Fairview, Sollod has embedded three 7-foot-wide circular mosaics on the sidewalk. Inspired by the internal monologue we have with ourselves when waiting for the light to change, Sollod placed these interventions near crosswalks. Each brightly colored inlay features a shadowy figure—or in one instance, a shadowy cat and dog—with a fluffy thought bubble of a punctuation mark. Finish this walk by finishing their thoughts.
“Lost in Thought” (2014) by Ellen Sollod, made of porcelain tile
📍Westlake Ave and Valley St, Fairview Ave N and Valley St
Once you’ve completed this quick tour, there are two ways to cap off your public art sightseeing. You could lay down in a soft patch of grass in Lake Union Park or walk a few blocks to watch the sunset from mbar’s gorgeous rooftop with a martini in hand. You deserve it.
Lake Union Park
📍869 Terry Ave N: Closes at 11:30 pm!
📍400 Fairview Ave N, 14th Floor: Reservations are encouraged if you want to get a good seat!