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A Story of the Beginning and End of a Dynamic Art Gallery

IN SEATTLE’S EVER-EXPANDING CITYSCAPE, IT FEELS LIKE NOTHING IS SAFE FROM THE WRECKING BALL. In December 2016, art catalyst and gallery, Suyama Space, was a casualty to its Belltown neighborhood’s evolution. But, luckily for its fans, co-founders architect George Suyama and curator Beth Sellars took time to reflect upon the gallery’s impact within the Seattle art community by self-publishing a book this past fall. The simple black cloth cover of Suyama Space (1998-2017) depicts an isolated image of the empty room—a fitting homage to a raw space that provided a unique foundation for more than 55 innovative works of art over its 19-year run.

What was once a livery stable, auto shop, architecture firm and gallery venue has now changed face for the last time as it is suspected to be demolished in line with surrounding buildings. Fittingly, Suyama Space (1998-2017) tells a similar story of social and artistic evolution with a culmination of previous exhibitions including artists’ statements, essays, and interjections of backstory from Sellars. The story begins with George Suyama who, attracted to its visual character, decided to purchase the space in 1995 as a home for his architectural practice, with the dual intention to give back to his local community and neighborhood.  After joining forces with prominent curator Beth Sellars in 1998, the pair became parental figureheads to an experimental space that in the span of two decades enabled innovative artistic dialogue. The space began as a contemporary venue showing three artists per year in a traditional gallery setting, but after an initial handful of exhibitions, Sellars and Suyama determined that the room was best suited to host large, site-specific exhibitions. As Suyama Space board of director president and prominent art consultant Richard Andrews notes in the book’s forward, “it was clear that the strong visual character of the room was an integral part of the viewing experience.”

And so, the gallery’s unique architecture became the baseline for the artistic process as artists were asked to respond to it in their work.  In the book, Sellars describes the act of site-specific installation as, “intense, scary, humorous, bonding and ultimately, immensely fulfilling.” Challenges aside, the resulting art produced a unique viewing experience that evoked the connection between art and the spatial singularities that define it. Lead Pencil Studio artists Daniel Mihalyo and Annie Han’s “Linear Plenum” exhibit in 2004 illustrated this process; filling the space with green and white linear filament Mihalyo and Han created a physical representation of “occupying space” as the three-dimensional lines were hung and adjusted to the ceiling and overlying beams. In 2008, John Grade’s “Seeps of Winter” exhibit was another effective use of space, as Grade created a looming, gray paper pulp mass that spanned the room’s 1,500 square feet. The work’s formidable appearance was achieved by the overhead dipping structure, while random holes within the gray cast plaster allowed for natural light to emit from the vaulted ceiling.

A 2016 work that seemed to especially highlight the infrastructure was by New York artist Ian McMahon, who created two extensive plaster curtains that played off the “architectural drama and nuances of Suyama Space,” as Sellars notes. Entitled “Cascade,” it achieved dramatic effect by utilizing the natural light from the ceiling skylights, while evoking a theater within Suyama’s cavernous wooden space.

“What gave us the greatest pleasure, however, was observing how many of the artists, given a new freedom to express, simply never returned to their original focus. So you might say we did not feature big names, but instead, helped to make “unknown” artists into bigger names.”  —Beth Sellars, curator

Observing an evolutionary artistic process was a rewarding experience for both Sellars and Suyama. “What gave us the greatest pleasure was observing how many of the artists, given a new freedom to express, simply never returned to their original focus,” as Sellars recently told GRAY. Suyama Space eventually became its own 501(c)3 non-profit and attracted a cadre of eager volunteers and supporters to carry out exhibitions from start to finish.

As a bittersweet ending transpired for Suyama Space we recall with admiration its vast impact within the Seattle art community. Home to evolutionary artistic journeys, the space will forever be remembered as a unique venue that fostered creative thinking and sparked artistic dialogue. “The space was the canvas upon which so many artists excelled,” Sellars recalls. “Having an opportunity to participate in so many creative bursts was my greatest thrill.” Still an active member of the Seattle art community, Sellars is currently enjoying a break from her 42-year curatorial career, but plans to dedicate her free time to the arts and the environment. The legacy of Suyama Space can be greatly attributed to Sellars’ tenacious and enthusiastic spirit for art, a spirit that provided a platform for artists to challenge their creativity and show groundbreaking work that will be forever catalogued in Seattle’s history.

Suyama Space (1998-2017) is available for purchase at Peter Miller Books and Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.


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