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

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

Wade Kavanaugh of Bethel and Stephen B. Nguyen of Portland will create a site-specific piece of permanent art 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 landscape of the Pacific Northwest. It will be their first permanent piece, and likely will be installed in 2021.

Kavanaugh, 40, and Nguyen, 43, are among 18 artists commissioned to create 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 set aside for changes to the architectural envelope that may be required depending on how the project plays out, said Cath Brunner, a Seattle public art consultant working on the project.

The Washington State Convention Center addition in Seattle. Maine artists Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen have won a $1 million public art commission for the building. They will fill the area in red with an installation piece that they are designing now. Image courtesy of LMN Architects

The $2 billion glass-and-steel building is under construction across several downtown blocks, and Kavanaugh and Nguyen will make a piece to fill a long, rectangular space below a cantilevered ballroom on the sixth floor. The artwork will be suspended from the ceiling below the ballroom and visible from escalators and stairs leading to the ballroom and from outside the convention center. The space they will work with is 119 feet long and 25 feet across, with a total of 2,975 square feet. The Maine team was among 127 artists or artist teams 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 $1 million budget, “we know we will have the resources to make it happen. There will be a lot more complex things happening in that building than hanging our art.”

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

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

The artist team won the inaugural $25,000 Ellis-Beauregard Foundation Fellowship award in 2017, given by the Rockland foundation to support artists and encourage them to expand and explore their artistic vision and practice. That fellowship included the promise of an installation at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, also in Rockland. For that exhibition this past spring, Kavanaugh and Nguyen created a massive wooden wave from individual slats of wood, “Hubris Atë Nemesis.” Until CMCA, Kavanaugh and Nguyen worked mostly with impermanent materials, such as paper.

In a phone interview, Kavanaugh said that part of the motivation for transitioning from paper to wood at CMCA was the rejection of a previous public art proposal at the Seattle airport that Kavanaugh and Nguyen had applied for and thought they might win. But jurors were skeptical about the artists’ vision of transitioning from an impermanent material to wood, and Kavanaugh and Nguyen lost out. “That was a real kick in the (butt) for me and Stephen. So when we got the award from the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation and knew we would have the show at 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, just a few months later, we are able to get this big public art project.”

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

The move from paper to wood that Kavanaugh and Nguyen demonstrated in the Rockland exhibition impressed the public art committee in Seattle, Brunner said. “The success of the exhibition in Maine was a huge factor. The panel was impressed that they were thinking about permanent material, and this showed they were experimenting with materials and ideas and that they were ready for this challenge. It gave the panel a lot of confidence,” she said.

Brunner called the site of the artwork “grand, with sight lines from all throughout the facility and from the street looking in.” From the outside looking in, people will be able to watch activity in the ballroom happening directly above the artwork. “They will see the activity above the art, as if they were standing on the sculpture. The party activities will take place above the art. I’ve never seen a site like this before,” she said.

With the contract signed, the challenge now is designing the piece. At this time, the artists are imagining the possibilities. They have until late January to submit a design for feedback. After they won the commission, Kavanaugh and Nguyen spent several days in North Cascades National Park in Washington state to become more familiar with the environment and the kinds of trees that grow there. “We’re just trying to get a sense of the landscape and materiality, all the things that could inform the project,” Kavanaugh said.

Nguyen called the design phase difficult and exciting. “It’s a playful time. Once it’s designed and the design is approved, then we go onto engineering, which I find equally fun. But the playful time is very free. Right now, we are just rolling through ideas and exploring everything. The way we begin a project, anything goes,” he said.

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

Donna McNeil, executive director of the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation, said the success of Kavanaugh and Nguyen demonstrates the importance of Maine artists looking beyond state boundaries for opportunities. The foundation gave the artists money so they could experiment with their work, but the artists took the initiative to take their work beyond Maine, she said. “It’s another example of Maine artists getting out in the world. You need to compete globally, and you need 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 out of 25 twisted wooden ladders for the airport in San Diego with a $275,000 commission.

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

McAvoy said she was proud that 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 gratified that CMCA could provide a platform to showcase their talents on a grand scale. Our partnership is a great example of how collaboration can magnify outcomes,” she wrote.


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