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New artwork at City Light’s North Service Center: An interview with artist Kate Sweeney

Kate Sweeney recently created the multi-layered wall installation Current/Potential for Seattle City Light’s (SCL) North Service Center auditorium. The artwork depicts electricity generation, transmission and distribution and honors the potential and energy of the men and women who construct and maintain the SCL electrical grid.

We recently spoke with Sweeney about the artwork, which is funded by SCL 1% for Arts funds and administered by the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs.

At a young age you began reading physics and medical books. How has your love of math and science influenced this artwork?

I am a science groupie, so everything I do seems to have an influence from some branch of science: quantum physics, medicine, natural phenomena. I love to take a scientific premise as a guiding principal to organize my images. It could be cloud chamber images from particle physics, old anatomy texts, mathematical patterns, the concept of dark matter, or electron wave forms – anything that has an underlying pattern wholly made by nature, divined by us through math.

What were your expectations for your installation? How do you feel about the piece now that it’s been installed?

I had no expectations going into the work, just a healthy dose of terror. But I had an excellent experience all around, from the wonderful personnel at Seattle City Light, to the great people at the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, to my fabricators and installers, and even to the wonderful ladies who served us lunch at the restaurant where we ate every weekend during the install process.

I am very pleased with the installation. It does what I set out to do, which was to activate the space for the staff of Seattle City Light who use the auditorium, and in so doing, tell the rather abstracted story of the generation of electricity.

Can you describe the different techniques you used to make this project? Can you talk about repurposing materials from Seattle City Light?

I utilized a printing and fabrication technology widely used in outdoor sign graphics:  UV inks printed onto materials, either aluminum overlaid on a PVC core, which are very sturdy and stable, or thick sheets of clear acrylic. I then had all this cut into shapes through CNC routering by the fabricator.

I also used ceramic and glass insulators from the Seattle City Light Salvage yard, which is a lively place, full of wonders. The staff there let me pick through their discard bins for cool stuff, but were pretty touchy about me using anything that could possibly be reused or recycled. Seattle City Light has a strong commitment to reducing their waste stream.

I wanted to use some items from the field, as many of the SCL staff who would be using the auditorium where my piece is installed work in the field repairing and installing electrical service to the city. I felt it would honor their work and maybe tickle them to see stuff they encounter every day. I also loved the shapes and colors of the insulators; they fit in perfectly with my overall vision.

Then, the hard part started, which was getting it all mounted on the wall. My installer, David Harto, was essential to this process. He and I discussed and devised the best way to attach everything, in consultation with the panel fabricators. I made full size paper test prints to make sure it all fit, measured and re-measured a thousand times, and then committed to the fabrication process. But I made small changes and modifications on the fly right up until the last piece was put on the wall. Artistic license I guess.

David actually made machine parts and even whole machines to create the installation and fabrication methods and parts we needed for the insulators and panels.

Can you tell us about your artistic process? How did this specific piece develop over time?

I began with the image of an electron waveform, which I took in to Photoshop and then I began to play. This led to a beginning composition and structure, which I then revised about a million times to end up where it is today.

When I was first thinking about electricity, I immediately went to the very foundation of it, the physics, as being the most astonishing story to tell, along with our amazing ability to harness and utilize it for energy. For imagery, I started with the basic waveform of the electron, and then I knew the parts of the overall story I wanted to highlight: generation, which is largely done by hydroelectric methods; transmission, which is over high voltage lines to the city; and then distribution, the city grid that gets power to each and every spot in the city. All of this seems miraculous to me.

I understand you are engaging with the employees of City Light. How do you expect them to respond to this piece?

I hope they enjoy the energy and color of the piece, which is the first thing that hits you when you enter the room, and then I hope they get a kick out of the salvaged parts, and finally I hope they see that we appreciate the amazing thing they do every day by bringing electricity to us. From start to finish they keep the power moving to us, and I am very grateful for and humbled by their work.

The title Current/Potential has a double meaning: I saw, and with this installation, honor, the commitment made by Seattle City Light to keep their employees current and maximize their potential.