Greg Lundgren and the Art of Living

Posted on September 11, 2013, 9:00 am
46 mins

Seattle Artist Greg Lundgren

Seattle Artist Greg Lundgren

Greg Lundgren’s artistic practice is so expansive that it is difficult to know where to begin. The core of Lundgren’s artistic practice is not a material or a technique, but rather the belief that all people are artists and they can do amazing things when given the chance. Hence, he works to above all empower people to live a creative, more fulfilling life. Lundgren is consistently successful in this, particularly because he also understands the brass tacks of running a business, which makes his projects sustainable. Despite this, Lundgren is humble and straightforward when asked about how he perceives his role.

“I am a maker,” he says simply. “I am an advocate for people to try to express themselves and live the life they want.”

Lundgren’s Vital 5 Productions has served as an umbrella to various forms of advocacy over the years, from his former gallery space on Westlake, to shows curated in other spaces, to Arbitrary Art Grants, which were awarded at random to participants in calls for creative work. He serves not only artists, but also makes gallery going and art collecting more accessible. One early show at Vital 5 Productions allowed attendees to take home a piece of art if they could prove that their bank account was overdrawn. The work had all been donated by artists and no one could purchase anything. Those who were marginalized in most gallery settings by lack of means could become collectors.

Vital 5 Productions also publishes the Vital 5 Review, a collection of submissions from patrons of The Hideout, one of Lundgren’s brick-and-mortar projects on First Hill. Surrounded by art in the bar area—and perhaps slightly buzzed—patrons can leave behind ramblings, illustrations, poems and doodles, whatever they can make in the moment on sheets provided by the bar. The sheets have suggested popular subjects in the header, such as Love, Sex, and Death. Lundgren is not one to dictate taste or serve as critic or even compile based on his preferences. Like the Arbitrary Grants, the entries in the Review are chosen in a random, Dadaist-inspired way—by the path of Lundgren’s cat over the submissions he has laid on his floor, for example.

Lundgren does not see money-driven pop culture or the art world celebrating new ideas and the courage it takes to manifest them. His desire is to facilitate spaces and situations where artists (that is, everyone) can attempt new methods and media. For example, a one-night show curated at Vermillion in 2009 tasked around fifty artists of varied disciplines to create work that could be accessed by calling phone numbers that were printed boldly on the gallery’s walls. For artists and attendees alike the show was a constant play of chance and discovery.

“I want more boat-airplanes,” he says, referring to a childhood attempt at invention.

Lundgren was born and raised in Bellevue and his desire to make things started young with a fascination in aerospace engineering. Howard Hughes was his childhood hero and he was determined to design and build aircraft.

“When I was five I built a boat-airplane in my parents’ basement. When I was done, my parents put it in the back of our station wagon and drove it to the beach, where my construction neither floated nor flew. Through the eyes of an engineer, my invention was a total failure. For some reason, I wasn’t so concerned about it, and I’ve been making and inventing things every since. To me, success as an artist is to maintain a curiosity and excitement about the world and explore it without a fear of failure. The boat airplane doesn’t have to work.”

That said, Lundgren obviously holds himself to a high standard, as there is nothing sloppy or unfinished in his own works, his projects and his presence. His glass creations show an engineer’s precision, to be sure. One might not expect such a workmanlike artist and hard-working entrepreneur to also be the founder of an organization called Artists For a Work Free America (AFWFA), but Lundgren is quite good at resolving perceived opposites and showing the harmony that lies beneath.

Regarding why he started AFWFA, Lundgren explains, “I do think that all people are artists and I think that defining ourselves by the things we do for money is a corrupt idea. There is no such thing as a doctor or a plumber or an accountant. We are humans first and humans are animals that have a very special capacity to communicate and express themselves. What we do have a choice in is what kind of artist we want to be. And that can be subtle or brash, that can be lazy or aggressive. But if there is one thing I want to do, it is to abolish the concept of an art world. Art is all around us; artists are a dime a dozen. The construction of the ‘art world’ was built by people who want to commodify human expression, which I think is a terrible thing. We should be more focused on celebrating human expression, daily, in all aspects of our lives.”

That urgency in celebrating life and human expression comes largely (perhaps entirely) from its finitude, which is something that Lundgren’s practice also addresses in a most intimate way.

A Monumental Undertaking

Two doors down from The Hideout is Lundgren Monuments, a boutique selling unique grave markers, urns and other vessels for human remains, including a large Air Mail body envelope by artist Arne Pihl. These designs come from Lundgren, other artists and architects. For some, working on a monument led to a much larger vision. When Mark Mitchell creator his “Soft Urn” for Lundgren Monuments, the designer began to develop an idea for an entire line of burial clothing, which will be premiered at The Frye Museum on September 20.

Lundgren says that there is a common misconception that creating such work for grieving families is a depressing affair. He feels he participates in a healing process that brings closure and helps people “articulate their love and respect.”

“Designing furniture for millionaires is often much more depressing and under-appreciated. My [Monument] clients are almost across-the-board kind and appreciative and patient. Sure, I will sometimes cry talking with a client. It’s tragic, heartbreaking stuff. But there is a great reward to designing something so important to a family. There is an incredible sense of satisfaction that I don’t think I would feel if I were designing perfume bottles or patio furniture.”

Most of Lundgren’s works are made of glass, which seems an awfully ephemeral material, but in fact it is less subject to erosion than some stone and is as difficult to crack or shatter. Lundgren’s beautiful works become a quiet advocacy for the material itself, and as one who expects to find art (or at least its potential) everywhere, it is all the more fitting the he use such a ubiquitous substance.

“If you pause and look around, the chances are you are surrounded by glass—from your bedroom windows to your wine glass to your smart phone. Glass is an amazing, and versatile medium. But in the world of craft, design often takes back seat to technique, and I think that has allowed for the perception of glass art as kitschy, vulgar and gaudy. There are no bragging rights to saying you are a glass artist. It conjures images of decorative goblets with fairies adorning the edges. The Google images in your brain pull up amateur stained glass windows and pizza parlor lamp shades. But there are a lot of artists and designers who recognize the beauty and structural qualities of glass and have fought quite well to redeem that image, and I’d like to think I’m on the right side of that rebranding.”

Lundgren has an upbeat mix of insouciance and determination. Unperturbed as he was by his failed boat-airplane as a child, one can suppose he is wired this way. This and his practical nature both seem to stem from a knack at getting to the pith of things. From this also follows an ability to see how opposites harmonize and what is truly important, which no doubt helps his clients through the creation process as they choose what the monument will highlight. This makes Lundgren’s practice perhaps one of the most vital, healing applications of art conceivable, and also uniquely challenging.

“Very rarely do I design memorials for the living, so if I ‘get it right,’ it is through the eyes of the people who loved them. There is no way to fully capture the spirit of a person through an inanimate object. It’s just an impossible task, and I think to approach the task that way is a set up for disappointment. So many families want to cram every symbol and saying, every possible interest of the deceased that a memorial can start to look like a NASCAR.”

Or a Facebook page, I might offer. These symbols and interests may bear great significance, but the idea that clustering them represents a human personality is a mistake people often make while living (especially if they try online dating), and in dealing with the shock of loss and the vacuum left, it may be the easiest thing to cling to these things. Lundgren helps simplify the memorial and remind clients that it is a tribute, not a substitute.

“My job is to recognize [the deceased] as unique individuals, and create some physical sculpture that reflects them in a sincere way. But I do have a process and it is much like playing 20 Questions. I do ask about the personality and interests of the person, but form most often emerges out of very basic questions: Symmetrical or asymmetrical? Classical or modern? Large or small? Abstract or representational? Grand or modest? Decorative or minimal? Feminine or masculine? What color? What materials? What text or symbols do we include? What is your budget? Based upon their answers, a fairly accurate portrait emerges, and that portrait bounces back and forth between myself and my client in a collaborative way—tweaking, adjusting until we arrive at a finished drawing. The same process is employed for people commissioning their own memorials, but most often they arrive with much more defined ideas of what they want.”

“Monuments provide a sense of closure. Maybe it is the permanence and weight of them. Maybe it is seeing a loved one’s name carved with their birth and death dates. Maybe it represents the last gesture or task in the deceased affairs. But you can feel people exhale, and relax and smile. In many cases a monument can remove some of the weight of grieving and allow people to move forward, into the next chapter of their lives. In that sense, they serve the living as much or more than the person they mark.”

Lundgren’s vision does not stop with single monuments. These monuments are part of a larger movement in his mind that marries his love of finding new homes and venues for art, new forms, new ways of including it in the public and social sphere, all of which reinvigorates a love of life and creativity in others.

“I think there is something really exciting and rich about transforming cemeteries into sculpture parks—commissioning contemporary artists to create something that will be protected and last centuries. That is not frivolous; that is creating a cultural heritage. And it is an added bonus that people have to contemplate their mortality. It is one of the healthiest conversations we can have.”

Lundgren is not alone with this sentiment. Another local multi-disciplinary artist, Michael Hebb, recently organized “Death over Dinner,” a night of simultaneous gatherings—150+ nationwide—where death was discussed frankly by groups over a repast. Lundgren hosted one himself.

“There are many cultures with rich traditions regarding death: Central and South America, Asia, Africa. I think that societies with the healthiest rituals also have the closest proximity to death—families caring for their elderly in-home, lack of institutional medicine, pitfalls of poverty and civil unrest. We compartmentalize old age and death. We send elderly people to retirement centers and we send the sick to hospitals. I think part of our recovery needs to place a higher priority on hospice care—not fight tooth and nail to extend the length of life—and have a closer relationship to the sick and the old. We fear what we do not know, and presently we push the elderly and the sick away like it is an unnatural part of the human condition, when indeed death is very much a part of our lives, whether we like it or not.”

“Understanding our mortality is instrumental to living a better, fuller, healthier life,” he says, and cites the work of Ernest Becker, whose theories in the Pulitzer-winning book The Denial of Death have influenced many artists, including sculptor Casey Curran while creating his “Piaculum” series. The conversation at all turns seems to be more hopeful than many may expect, and Lundgren is particularly optimistic about what could be accomplished if people discussed and planned for the end of life in a constructive way.

“The underlying message that I want to communicate is that a monument does not have to be a block of granite or a slab of glass or a bronze sculpture. A monument can be an endowment, a grant, a charity, a piece of music or a novel. We can leave behind a legacy in so many shapes and forms that leave the world a better place, that inspire and protect the values and practices we hold dear. You love ice cream? Set up a program that hands out free ice cream cones in your neighborhood. You love ballet? Set up a grant program that helps foster a young ballerina. That is very much a monument, and as much as I work in the cemetery landscape, there is so much opportunity in leveraging our mortality for the common good.”

Those options are in some ways more feasible, as the cemetery business will have to change before those landscapes can become more like sculpture gardens.

“Almost all cemeteries have bylaws and review panels that accept or reject proposed memorials, and I think this is a healthy thing. Just as we don’t want our cities populated with ugly, dangerous or inappropriate buildings, care does need to be given to what is accepted into the cemetery landscape. But too much restriction can lead to a homogenous, mundane and uninspired landscape that is in effect making our cemeteries less relevant. Foremost, I believe that cemeteries need to require that the mediums introduced are rugged and built to last centuries or by design are meant to biodegrade or fall apart. As legacy, our cemeteries should stand as cultural testaments to our time. And really, cemeteries are much like cities in that they are run with different rules and regulations, with different attitudes about design and style. Some cities host brilliant architecture and others construct miles of tract homes. Cemeteries will behave in the same ways.”

Of course there are some for whom a personal, physical monument holds no attraction or seems out of reach. Lundgren has a way to include those people, too.

“I am working on a conceptual project right now that is all about community and death as it relates to art. Imagine a Kickstarter campaign for large public sculpture—sculptural works that the average income could never afford alone, but collectively they could commission. The kickback for donating is that you get to have your ashes housed inside of it when you die. Basically you are selling the real estate inside sculpture. It brings together people with similar passions in the arts and could become a very proactive way to bring more sculpture into the world.”

“I think The Olympic Sculpture Park is a cemetery for the rich. Almost every piece was commissioned or purchased by a wealthy art collector and donated to the museum. And that isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a rich person’s game. I want to see local cemeteries start to rival sculpture parks, and for the middle class to participate in long term cultural legacy through the commissioning of sculpture. And I think art becomes more relevant and important in people lives in direct relation to the number of people who are engaged with it. By reactivating the cemetery landscape as a depot for sculpture, we are diffusing the macabre associations. It’s not morbid or weird or vain to commission a sculpture. It creates a whole new demographic of arts patrons. I hope it becomes an everyday, commonplace thing to do.”

“There is a cemetery in Bellevue, Sunset Hills Memorial Park, that has a putting green and a sand trap. Both areas have communal, underground ossuary chambers for the ash of golfers. It sounds farfetched, but it opens up so much possibility for communal investment—in the arts, in philanthropy, in community.”

“Three For Society”

The importance of fellowship and community is central to so much of Lundgren’s work through Vital 5 and The Hideout and Vito’s. The Hideout began as an art project with a business attached. Vito’s was an extension of that successful model, and will celebrate the third anniversary of its opening later this month. (As a Seattle institution, it celebrated 60 years in August.)

“My business partner, Jeff Scott, and I had never opened a bar, had never worked in the service industry, and I think we recognized from the very beginning that we had no experience in the undertaking of The Hideout. And I really did look at it as an art project, as an experiment, as a way to help subsidize my interest in exhibiting art and creating social spaces. So we viewed it as a theater production, with the bar as a stage, the staff as actors, and the patrons as audience members.”

Initially, Lundgren was so sold on the idea of it being a project and a performance that he gave it a lifespan of five years. When five years were up, Lundgren and Scott realized it would be a shame to close something that was working so well, was so much fun and relatively stress-free, thanks largely to an incredible staff.

“We promise it won’t run longer than Cats,” he jests, “but I do think it is normal to extend the show if everyone is having fun.”

With The Hideout proving successful, it seemed possible to repeat the model, further expanding an audience for the arts and bringing together an ever larger, more diverse community across generations.

“Vito’s is a club that we hung out at when we were young. My dad drank there in the 70s and 80s, and we knew how much interesting history it housed, political and otherwise. It was a Seattle institution, and we felt very strongly that someone needed to respect and honor that…we just didn’t think it would be us. But after it sat vacant for two years, our curiosity and interest grew until we started making phone calls and eventually got hooked on the idea of restoring it.”

And so they did, and for Lundgren the true success of Vito’s is revealed by the diversity it attracts.

“We love how diverse our patrons are. Our bar has 22-year olds and 90-year olds sitting shoulder to shoulder and it isn’t weird at all. And everyone has a story about Vito’s. It is sex and drugs and priests and politicians and criminals and card games and murder and family and really good cannelloni and ghosts. It has a history that very few businesses in Seattle can rival.”

In restoring Vito’s interior design to something much more akin to its early days, Lundgren and company still chose to incorporate contemporary work by commissioning artist Warren Dykeman to cover the western wall with a mural. The venue is primarily geared toward music, though, just as The Hideout features a panoply of paintings, making the venues fine complements to each other.

“The Hideout was designed to showcase the visual art of regional, emerging and mid-career artists. We wanted a place that an out-of-town visitor could walk into and, with a 360-degree turn of their head, get a fairly good sense of what is happening in Seattle. It’s like a treasure chest, and it constantly reminds me how much talent we have in this city.”

“It doesn’t work if people don’t buy drinks. The alcohol, not the art sales, keeps the Hideout healthy. The same goes for Vito’s. We have free performances six to eight times a week, always for free. And people can come in and have access to really great jazz, blues, R&B, soul and some hard to classify sounds. It doesn’t work if people don’t buy food and drinks. I am really interested in these kinds of hybrids where there are two agendas: to create culture and a showcase for the arts that is accessible and free to the public and to have some underlying business that supports it. I think it is a good model. I think it is good for the city. And I see both clubs as prototypes, as experiments, as trial runs, for something bigger. I’d like to think that I’m just getting started.”

That bigger project could be many things, but certainly the biggest project for Lundgren is Walden 3, an arts center in the Seven Seas building across from the Seattle Art Museum. Walden 3 is envisioned as a six-story, for-profit, multi-use blend of gallery, boutique, school and entertainment venue that would cross-pollinate within itself, sustain itself, and also bolster the surrounding community and cultural districts, making the arts community writ large more sustainable. Like Vito’s, the building would retain nods to its history (including its most famous and infamous tenant, the Lusty Lady), and like Vital 5 Productions formerly located on Westlake, it would allow Lundgren the opportunity to showcase work in a brass tacks, get-artists-supported way and also create a space for the experimentation and invention that artists must attempt—more boat airplanes.

It’s a tall task, even with collaborators like Olson Kundig Architects, who are regular and ardent supporters of the arts locally. It is a tall task not even so much because of the cost or the physical labor required, but because what is really being developed is a more informed worldview—one that will necessarily clash with art establishment elsewhere.

Like the larger economic system, the art world has become more plutocracy than meritocracy, ruled by a few tastemakers who have resources and sway enough to essentially set prices of “blue chip” artists, whose work is then typically treated as a real estate investment, without care or interest in the art itself. This pay-to-play exclusivity did not come about in just the last few decades, but it reached a new peak during and after the bubble economy. By then, the damage was already done in making art itself seem inaccessible, perhaps even hostile to most people, when in fact it is the machine around it that is at fault—the way of doing business.

This machine is still working quite well for those at the controls, and to attempt to dismantle it from the outside would be a negative and probably futile thing. It is better to instead attempt a different approach altogether, and this is perhaps more possible in cities like Seattle where the machine is not so strongly in place.

For the December 2012 issue of ARCADE magazine, Lundgren wrote an essay, “Cultural Forest,” which calls for a cultural renaissance and proposes that Seattle is better suited for such a transformation than many cities, thanks to the robust and devoted community of artists, curators, patrons and other creatives that live and create in Seattle and recognize the potential that exists here. The trouble is that it rarely leaves the state of potential, as constant and short-sighted development makes most artistic spaces transient or quickly unaffordable.

Lundgren is not one to lay blame at the feet of others—even the developers who aren’t doing their investments any favors by “deforesting” the culture and ultimately making the neighborhoods less attractive, the property less desirable. It is impossible to modify such behavior even when the statistics and data proves Lundgren’s point. Hence, he believes it is up to the community to work toward a solution with people who have the resources to underwrite this young renaissance. He writes:

Seattle has a long-standing history of clear-cutting our culture forests. Our politicians undervalue them, and our developers fail to protect them. Instead of accepting that our artists and culture hubs will exist temporarily in the shadow of development, we must identify spaces that could serve as long-term guardians of arts and culture and petition people with the means and vision to cultivate them.

Walden 3 could potentially be the jewel among such spaces. Lundgren also admits that it could be a colossal failure, but as ever he is undeterred, and he and others are hedging that possibility by turning the creation process into a documentary film. The Walden 3 site candidly lists potential outcomes:

  • A profitable art center and a profitable archive of film content.
  • A profitable art center and film content of little commercial value.
  • A non-profit generating art center but an exceptional documentary.
  • A non-profit generating art center and failed film project, which is the least likely scenario, as the film becomes dynamic as a success story or a massive collapsing dream.

In all events, the process will take years, but Lundgren and company have the will to do it and as word spreads others will no doubt join. For one, collaboration seems to come naturally to Lundgren, and his experience proves time and again that people are hungry for art. This goes for all people, not just self-identified artists, especially when the art comes as an interruption to the isolated auto-pilot in which many often find themselves.

Taking such risks, breaking barriers and bucking norms in a playful, helpful and kind way has consistently brought new opportunities for Lundgren, so no matter how quixotic his visions may seem, one can’t accuse him of being deluded and naïve. It’s worked before, and it can work again on a grander scale.

Memento Vivere

This returns attention to Lundgren’s visual practice, which is more contained but no less fraught with new challenges as he is pushed by himself and by clients to try new things.

“I have been pushed and I have pushed, and it can be dangerous and expensive territory, especially working in large scale cast glass if it doesn’t go as planned,” he admits. “It is a very expensive and unforgiving medium. I started casting glass with a project that was way over my head, and I can be too optimistic about fabrication.”

“The major problems are projects that you have to do one or more times before they are correct, and I think I’ve made about every mistake possible—though you say that until you make the next one. But large-scale cast glass is relatively new territory for everyone. It required the advent of the computer to even open up the territory, and a sense of adventure to explore what is possible, and what should be avoided. It is all trial and error.”

“I look back on older projects and might think there was a better way of creating it, or it was a risk I wouldn’t take again, but I can’t think of a monument that I’m embarrassed by. I’ve made a whole bunch of mistakes and ugly things, but they never left the studio.”

That’s one advantage of working in a studio setting versus the public. Of course, the work ends up displayed in public settings, which poses its own hazards and opportunities, and Lundgren thinks ahead quite a bit.

Seattle Artist Greg Lundgren

Seattle Artist Greg Lundgren. Photo by Tuffer Harris.

“There are many shapes I would never make out of glass or any material due to vulnerabilities and risks of vandalism or damage over time. You have to be responsible and think in centuries, not years. But that said, there is so much room to explore and expand in the funerary arts. Part of that is form and scale, but I think the really exciting things are in re-imagining the cemetery landscape, inventing new rituals and interfaces, and using classical materials such as granite and bronze in new ways. I want a bronze seesaw with a full-scale figure on one side that talks to the person on the other side as they go up and down. It’s low technology, but interactive and kinetic and personal.”

There is room to grow and explore as an artist while still being faithful to the needs of the client. In all things, Lundgren seems to recognize a necessary give and take, whether it’s in the operation of an arts center or the creation of a single commissioned work. He admits that there must also be some self-interest or practicality to one’s work, in art and business and any mix of the two, but one must remain honorable about it.

“I think a lot of artwork is made for selfish reasons, and I think if I am honest with myself, I find a selfish satisfaction in making a beautiful or innovative memorial. And I thank the family for their allowing me to do so. It is more rewarding to me to make memorials, than say furniture or a stained glass window, because it does represent the last physical incarnation of some real person, but in part, it is my way of subsidizing my interest in making sculpture.”

“Families often harbor a lot of guilt and stress because of the pressure to pay respects and do something that shows how much they loved or cared about someone. This is an unfortunate social attitude that we need to change. Spending the most money doesn’t mean you loved them the most. It sounds counter to my work in funerary arts. I should be telling people to spend a fortune, if they really loved someone, right? I might be in the business of making expensive monuments, but I still value the importance of grieving in your own way, at your own pace, in a manner that is within your means and sincere to the departed. That might be writing a poem, or hosting a dinner or wearing a piece of their clothing. That reconciliation can happen in so many different ways, and I want people to realize that they should find that on their terms, not necessarily the conventional ways that we have come to expect.”

This is, as stated, Lundgren’s calling—to educe new modes of thinking, behaving and creating for oneself, whether it is in art or how one relates to others personally. Just as terrible loss causes ripples that are long to dissipate, so does right action. When one recognizes this, it is plain to see why one men living honestly by those values would be creating monuments, running venues, curating shows and still finding time to surprise people in elevators with a little bit of wonder.

“I believe that the afterlife is the wake of our existence. Everything we say and do in our lives leaves a ripple that influences the world after we are gone. I am inspired by that notion, and there are so many dead people who continue to influence the way that I think and live. The dead play a leading role in shaping our future. And more people could participate in this future shaping if they recognized their death as an opportunity to do good.”

So I had to ask: What does he have planned for his remains?

“I have no interest in having a memorial of any kind. I’ll be cremated and my ashes will be scattered.”

This seemed fair. A single monument would be more than a little redundant when his mark will already be on so many objects and institutions, throwing so many ripples into the future—boat-airplanes floating and flying on a rising tide.

Update (September 11, 11:34 AM):
He got me! Lundgren in his mischievous way published a fictional—or is it just hypothetical?—installation concept via Vital 5 as though it had happened and I fell for it. It is part of his ongoing blog about Walden 3 and how it might be used. I referenced it in one paragraph, and when I found out that it was fabricated, I actually considered leaving it as is to add to the mystery. However, that’s probably irresponsible on my part. He can get away with it, but I can’t. I have removed the inaccurate paragraph—or shall I call it hypothetical here, too?—from the article, but here it is for the sake of full disclosure and documentation:

Lundgren’s collaboration with artists Jason Puccinelli and Jed Dunkerley—known by the initialism PDL—has often yielded surprisingly joyful results through planned disruptions. In the last year, the trio staged installations and performances in the elevators of the Columbia Center. They began as unsanctioned performances, but when the Columbia Center caught wind and brought the artists in to account for their shenanigans, the building manager surprised them by offering a small budget to make the installations ongoing for a year, which PDL documented and then showcased in one of the unfinished gallery spaces in the Seven Seas building this summer.

I’ll get you for this yet, Lundgren.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

4 Responses to: Greg Lundgren and the Art of Living