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Artist ponders sights and sounds of Seattle's Fremont Bridge

In a neighborhood of funky street art, she hopes to create a fitting tribute.

June 14, 2009|Kim Murphy

Taking the old steel bridge to Fremont has always been a bit like crossing into another universe. A gentler, funkier cosmos, full of old Volkswagen vans and Indian textile shops and possibly the only statue of Vladimir Lenin on a public street corner west of the Baltic Sea.

The bridge in fact opened the same year the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, and since then has become the defining feature of this central Seattle neighborhood -- alternately called the "People's Republic of Fremont" by outsiders and "the Center of the Universe" by those who live there.

Now the blue-and-orange drawbridge suspended low over the Lake Washington Ship Canal has its own artist in residence, hired by the city to spend the summer in one of the span's cloistered towers to document what it means, exactly, to cross from the merely Seattle into Fremont.

The neighborhood is known for its playful public art -- from the 18-foot concrete troll under the nearby Aurora Bridge to the whimsical, participatory sculpture of streetcar passengers known as "Waiting for the Interurban." And being the official artist for a bridge both loved and loathed is a daunting task, Kristen Ramirez admits.

A pretty watercolor of the Fremont Bridge at sunset would get laughed back across the canal.

A metal sculpture of the bridge? Why repeat perfection? A fairy tale -- that's been done, with the neon Rapunzel whose hair cascades down from the bridge tower opposite Ramirez's domain.

So the 38-year-old college art professor who grew up in Northern California is spending her first weeks on the bridge sitting in her tower, watching and listening.

She photographs the barges laden with logs and gravel, the long-masted sailboats (the bridge, one of the world's busiest, opens an average of 35 times a day to accommodate the canal traffic), the motorists who fume and ruminate through the delays, the skateboarders and bicyclists who whiz by.

She records the whistle of the boats demanding passage, the low hum of the gears as the metal grates of the drawbridge arc upward, the whoosh of gull wings past her lonely tower.

Ramirez has put up posters all over Fremont, inviting people to share stories, sounds, myths and memories of the bridge. She blogs about her project, and is handing out a Fremont Bridge quiz that invites people to help in the building of a community metaphor.

If you think of 1+1=2, what plus what equals the Fremont Bridge? "Steel+Love," "Iron+ Hydraulics," "Funky+Bourgeois." What four things when added together make up 100% of the Fremont Bridge? "Noise. Silence. Opening. Closing," "Puget Sound. Art. Gateway. Practical beauty."

People call and leave their memories on her answering machine.

One man talked about his friend "Divin' Ivan," who used to jump off the bridge whenever he had a hangover, and the man would go pick him up in neighboring Westlake.

A few callers have said that while they always thought they hated the bridge because it holds up traffic so often, "they realize that the moment it goes up is a rare reflective moment, a meditative moment in their lives," Ramirez says.

"Some have been really poignant and beautiful," she says of the comments. "Some have made me cry.

"The best one I've gotten so far is a guy who told the story of a woman he knew who had lived all her life near the bridge, and her dream was to ride the bridge as it was rising up. For her birthday, and it was either her 70th or her 75th, she figured out a way to get out on one of these girders where the operator couldn't see her. And when the bridge opened, she rode."

The local paper has been flooded with comments from people who wonder why the city is paying somebody $20,000 to think about a bridge when teachers are getting laid off and the potholes on the surrounding streets are big enough to bruise your backside.

But others say Ramirez's salary could be an important investment in a counterculture community that is disappearing under a siege of condos.

The artist hasn't quite decided on her project, which will be produced this summer, but says she is leaning toward a compilation of sounds -- the opening of the bridge, idling cars, the screech of a bus -- filtered with the voices of people sharing their reminiscences.

"I have so much material; how do I curate it?" Ramirez says. "Where does it all go?"

--

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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