Places to Play

Kids don’t need an invitation to play. I have two nieces and a nephew who take any opportunity to transform their beds into trampolines, couches into jungle gyms, boxes into forts, living rooms into dance floors. 

Adults, on the other hand, need to be told to play. In a world where speed and efficiency are rewarded, play is underrated but oh so necessary. 

Westlake Park, Seattle

This temporary art installation by Downtown Seattle Association invites people to do just that: take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and play. Their website says they “offer a variety of daily games and activations – from ping pong to foosball.” When I was there the other weekend, I noticed a play area for kids, as well as portable library with books for kids and adults to enjoy.

In their other location, Occidental Square, they had a life-sized chess game. This square was really empty on a Monday morning at 9am, but I wonder how much traffic it gets other times. Do people respond to these efforts at interaction and creativity? Do you?

You can see the “PLAY” blocks in the far left corner of Occidental Square, Seattle

Seattle isn’t the only city encouraging its residents to play. I’ve encountered similar efforts in New York City and Amsterdam through public art, life-sized chess games, public pianos, and letters to climb.

Perhaps this sign is more popular with tourists (guilty), but fun nonetheless

Where there are life-sized letters, there are people wanting to climb them. Heck, there are people wanting to climb almost anything. These jellybeans that were in Vancouver’s Charleson Park are a prime example. I think some of the most effective public artworks are ones that can be touched. Humans are so hungry for contact. 

Love Your Bean by Cosimo Cavallaro in Charleston Park, Vancouver. This public artwork was a Vancouver Biennale project and has since been removed, sadly.

When I think of the word play, I think of a piano. Its presence in my various apartments over the years is akin to a good friend’s quiet constancy. For me, a piano is not just an instrument, but a physical space to unravel myself. I much prefer playing to my ears alone, but I appreciate the public pianos cropping up in virtually every city (or in Victoria’s case, along the beach where I played only to wave, wind, and husband). 

My favourite public piano so far, Victoria
Friends in Okotoks, AB

The above images all strike me as examples of placemaking, a word popular in urban planning spheres for the last few decades.

Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, has a concise article summarizing this hands-on approach to making neighbourhoods and cities more enjoyable places to live, work, and play.

With community-based participation at its center, an effective placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.

I’ll share one last example from Seattle that literally appeared like a hole in the wall. I don’t know if it was a community-driven initiative, but it felt like it fulfills the last part of the above quote. I was walking to King’s Street Station from Occidental Square to catch the bus back to Vancouver when a sign on a gate reminiscent of a high-security prison stopped me. 

Say what? How could something beautiful hide behind such ugly doors? But when I stepped inside, I kind of liked this incongruity between outside and inside, catching me unawares. 

Just as adults need places to play, we also need places to rest like this Waterfall Garden Park. An oasis of quiet and calm. I sat on one of these chairs and listened to the music of the waterfall, feeling like I had found a diamond in the rough.

Do you have any stories like this of surprise urban retreats? What’s one of your favourite places to play or rest that you’ve encountered in a city? I’d love to hear!

Father and Son

How many people do you see in this public artwork?


It took me a moment to notice the boy on the right, surrounded by water.

Fascinating, I thought, as I then went on to explore the other public artworks in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park.

It was only when I came back to this spot and had some time to waste while waiting for a train to pass, that I noticed the sculpture had changed.


And I became even more interested in this sculpture.

I saw a lot of public art in Seattle last weekend while I was there for an arts marketing conference. It’s not difficult. As one of the tourism brochures states, “From the moment you set foot in Seattle, you can feel it: art is everywhere.”

Seattle, like Vancouver, gets a lot of rain, so it’s unsurprising that there are many references to raindrops and umbrellas. The raindrop seats in the bike rack shelter at McGraw Square were fun to sit and twirl around in, but the story doesn’t go much deeper than this. Same with the inside-out, wind-blown Angie’s Umbrella that marks the end of Pike Place Market and the beginning of Belltown. It’s visually appealing, but it doesn’t tell much of a story other than it rains a lot (and a quick Google search reveals that it’s named after the artist’s mother, just because).


This Red Popsicle standing 17 feet tall is fun, playful, and intriguing with how it’s leaning on just one of the wooden sticks. Public art can be as simple as this—something to brighten your day as you walk along—but there’s a reason the fountain artwork in Olympic Sculpture Park stayed with me and easily became my favourite piece that I saw in Seattle.

It tells a story. There are layers of meaning. Even the title of the piece, Father and Son, suggests this. It clues the viewer in to the relationship between these two life-sized figures. I found the artwork heartbreaking yet hopeful.


It makes me want to write a poem—how father and son keep missing each other, exposed at different times. Yet they continue to try.

Public art always has its critics, and nude artworks seem to heighten that. Father and Son was no stranger to controversy. I was saddened to read in this article from Seattle Times writer Danny Westneat that critics interpret the figures’ relationship as pedophiliac. Why does nudity get automatically read as sexual or erotic? Do we have that reaction to Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures?

This artwork has an interesting backstory. It was the result of million-dollar gift to the City of Seattle from the late Stu Smailes who stipulated in his will that the money be used for a fountain featuring one or more realistic nude male figures. The City handed it off to Seattle Art Museum who commissioned French-born, New-York based artist Louise Bourgeois.

So Bourgeois had boundaries to work within. She placed two nude male sculptures on separate platforms, with alternating cloaks of water falling first on one, then the other at hourly intervals. The nudity makes complete sense to the story she’s telling about the relationship between father and son. They are both reaching for each other across an 8-foot gap, alternately exposed and revealed. Alienated but attempting connection. Nudity is about vulnerability, she says.

Sure, the artist could have clothed the figures, but it wouldn’t have been as evocative, especially since the masculine script embedded in western culture is to be tough, strong, and not show emotion. Keep your layers on and your walls up. Known for her unsettling sculptures, Bourgeois is pushing back on this narrative. Also, how many artworks do you ever see of a father and son? Mother and child, certainly (I’m thinking of all the Virgin with child paintings I quickly grew tired of in the Louvre or Uffizi), but where are the fathers with their children?

In the same Seattle Times article, I appreciated what other Seattleites wrote in to say about the artwork when it was proposed:

“This sculpture just left me feeling like I wanted to scream — LET THE FATHER SHOW LOVE AND STRENGTH TO HIS SON!”

Another e-mailer said he saw hope in the notion that a father and son would attempt that reach.

“If it was a statue of me and my father, we’d have our backs turned to each other.”

If an artwork can evoke these kinds of responses, wow. That’s a powerful piece.

I’m reading Ruminate‘s Exposure issue right now and the artwork and writing inside echo these two nude figures standing in the fountain. The sheets are pulled back, arms outstretched, a gesture that asks: do you see me?


Highlighters in the Sky

IMG_7745 - Version 2IMG_7752OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHighlighters in the Sky by Charlene Kwiatkowski

driving down old country roads
pushing deeper into farm land
away from the speed of Seattle
its market gossip and grey-brown buildings
road signs every few miles
mark the way to our treasure

who needs signs when you first see
that line of colour against the horizon
highlighters in the sky
better than any road map
just follow that yellow brick—

field of the brightest pinks, mauves, corals,
peaches, and oranges
colours like fruit
so ripe the sweetness
seeps from root to bulb
I feel spoiled to stand in this spot

surrounded by dancers coming down aisles
ball gowns and tailored suit jackets
heads swaying to the rhythm of the wind
tall necks erect, bodies leaning in
one man’s cologne mingling with a lady’s perfume
whispering some great secret
about the mystery of the universe

I bend at the knees
weak with delight, straining to catch
even a scent of what they’re saying
and maybe a word, a look, a glimmer
about the dance, and what
beauty is like


A Seattle Surprise

This past week, I celebrated a birthday—a wonderful birthday with celebrations that spanned over several days with various friends and family, topped off with a surprise day trip to Seattle on Saturday!

Space Needle coming into view from the car window

Space Needle coming into view from the car window

I was thrilled. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but even though I grew up around the Vancouver area, I’ve never been to Seattle before. Never! So in my late 20s, I finally experienced the big city just south of the border, which apparently also gets a lot of rain.

Rain City

Public art installation of an umbrella in a city nicknamed “Rain City”

My boyfriend and I spent the majority of the day wandering around Pike Place Market that is home to hundreds of merchants, from farmers and fishmongers to antique dealers and craftspeople. It reminded me of Vancouver’s Granville Island, but on a much larger scale.


a popular tourist destination

Tulip time. There were whole rows of tulip merchants

Tulip time. There were whole rows of tulip booths

fish of all types

a fish lover’s delight

These boys loved touching the fish and then running away, squealing with fright

These boys loved touching the fish and then running away, squealing with fright

The stalls are set up in long, narrow corridors with a “Down Under” section below street level. Some stalls are inside, some are outside, and some seem a little half and half. The market is over a century old (dating back to 1907) is one of the oldest continuously operated public farmers’ markets in the United States.

Down Under shops

Down Under shops


the iconic sign

a talented busker adding to the beauty with a song and a set of wrinkled, bandaged hands

a talented busker adding to the beauty with a song and a set of bandaged hands

We stopped for lunch at a seafood place called Lowell’s Restaurant & Bar where I ate these delicious fish tacos stuffed with halibut.

fish tacos at Lowell's

fish tacos at Lowell’s

The view was lovely, overlooking the Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound, and the Great Wheel making slow revolutions on the waterfront pier.


Seattle’s ferris wheel

We stumbled upon some cute little places tucked below street level:

IMG_7675as well as some colourful walls:

IMG_7677Speaking of colourful walls, this one below almost had me barfing as I walked by. Of course I still took a picture, but it was all I could do not to gag. The Market Theater Gum Wall was named one of the top 5 germiest attractions, and for good reason! It’s inches thick in some places. *shudder*

IMG_7717The trip wouldn’t be complete without a photo of the original Starbucks, even though I’m not even a coffee drinker. It definitely looks old and the line-up was too long to even think about joining, but here it is in all its historic glory:


where it all started in 1971

And to end my photographic overview of the trip, here are some shots of the city skyline. In this one, you can see CenturyLink Field way in the background where the Seattle Seahawks play.

IMG_7693We saw a vendor selling photographs of the city seen through Seattle’s puddles, and decided to try our hand at taking our own shots, which didn’t turn out too badly:IMG_7735
IMG_7737I’m glad the rain held off for my first visit to a city that I would love to explore more of one day. I keep brainstorming “s” adjectives to play off of Sleepless in Seattle to describe my experience there, and the one that comes to mind, as corny as it sounds, is “Smiling in Seattle.” But I think it works.

Not only am I smiling, but I'm smiling and sitting on a squid!

Not only am I smiling, but I’m smiling and sitting on a squid!


Teardrop Windows Crying in the Sky

How many times do musicians write an entire song devoted to a building? I can think of the occasional reference (e.g. FUN.’s “We Are Young” – my friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State), but not one sustained throughout a whole song.

Then when listening to 102.7 the Peak, their “1 thing about 1 song” feature came on which I’m always eager to hear since I love discovering the stories behind songs. So I learned about “Teardrop Windows” by Benjamin Gibbard that personifies the Smith Tower in Seattle.

Smith Tower: the hero in this story

Completed in 1914, it reached 38 stories and 149 metres – the oldest and tallest skyscraper in the city and on the West Coast until the Space Needle overtook it in 1962. It’s a rather sad song that goes in circles. The Smith Tower starts off lonely because there are no other friends to share the view with when it’s first built. Then the Space Needle comes and steals the view. Teardrop windows of the Smith Tower are left vacant, Seattle rain falling from their shutters. The building goes from lonely to lonely.

Space Needle: the antihero

Gibbard gives the Smith Tower such character, as if it’s a real person – not just named after a real person, Lyman Cornelius Smith. He gives the building architexture. His song demonstrates how similar people and buildings really are – the same relationship the Argentinian movie Sidewalls emphasized.

This story makes me want to drive down to Seattle and give the neoclassical building some love. Who doesn’t love the fallen hero? I also want to ride its elevators that are still operated by people (yes, actual people!), or at least were as of 2008 according to Wikipedia.

Elevator operators in the Smith Tower, Seattle – one of the last buildings on the West Coast to use them.

I even love the slogan on the Tower’s website. Instead of “brand new” which is such overused marketing speak, they call it Grand Old. Grand New. Simply Grand. There’s so much nostalgia captured in that phrase. Grand has that connotation: magnificent, eminent, distinguished, but also old. Like a grandfather. Like a person with many years, like a building with many stories. Forgotten stories to pass down to a younger generation with eyes open wide like windows. To fill.

Teardrop windows cryin’ in the sky
He is all alone and wonderin’ why
Ivory white but feelin’ kind of blue

Cause there’s no one there to share the view

There’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And as the sun sets over the sound
He just goes to sleep

Built and boast as the tallest on the coast
He was once the city’s only toast
On old postcards, was positioned as a star
He was looked up to with fond regard

But in 1962, the needle made its big debut
And everybody forgot what it outgrew

He wonders where the workers are
Who once filled every floor
The elevators operate
But don’t much anymore

Teardrop windows cryin’ in the sky
How the years have quickly past her by
Gleaming white ‘gainst the deepest baby blue
He is lonely just like me and you

Cause there’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And as the sun sets over the sound
He just goes to sleep

There’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And when the maids they turn out the lights
He just goes to sleep

-“Teardrop Windows” by Benjamin Gibbard