Bryan Ohno had never mixed art with a social cause. So when the opportunity arose to address the issue of family homelessness, Ohno, president of Urban Art Concept, considered a question: What symbol would resonate with people on both an artistic and communal level?
The spiral, he decided, held great potential. “When you see it, it makes you want to walk toward it, and then it makes you want to walk into it,” Ohno said.
Because a spiral invites participation, Ohno, 50, envisioned the community could come together to create it.
But listening to stories of homeless families discussing their experiences, Ohno heard two recurring expressions: spiraling downward or spiraling out of control.
“To me, the spiral is a very positive thing,” Ohno said. He wanted to take the broken symbol and make something whole from it, something uplifting.
And so the Spiral Project, a 300-foot long, 12-foot high, public art piece supported by Seattle’s Parks and Recreation and Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness swirled into Lake Union Park.
Originally slated to have an opening day in mid-May, high community interest has made the opening of The Spiral Project more fluid. Volunteers will likely be working on it the last two weekends in May, Ohno said. The spiral will remain in the park until Sunday, June 17.
Ohno knew that winter storms in the Northwest often left tree branches on the ground. He said he realized the spiral could be built out of sticks and branches that would lean against each other.
In early spring, he and groups of volunteers ventured to a handful of city parks to hunt for downed branches. Most parks had been cleared of debris already. So he settled on gathering them from Dr. Jose Rizal Park on Beacon Hill and the nearby East Duwamish greenbelt.
Someone in Beacon Hill told him that area of the greenbelt was known as “The Jungle,” an area where homeless people have long camped.
From these areas, volunteers collected hundreds, if not thousands, of branches, sticks and twigs. Ohno said the branches, on one level, were units of home: They were materials that could be used to construct shelter.
He also saw the broken limbs from trees as representations of the broken nature of family homelessness. An estimated 12,500 families experience homelessness in Washington state every night.
When he visualized the uplifting power of a spiral, Ohno wanted the artwork to literally spiral up from the ground. At its entrance, twigs stand roughly three feet high. As the spiral dances inward, the height of the artwork gently slopes upward to its center height of about 12 feet.
United they stand
Along with its symbolism, a spiral suggests architectural integrity. One branch, standing on its own, falls down, said Ohno. Woven branches do the same. “But the minute you start putting this arc on it, and it continues this arc,” he said, “the stronger it gets.”
As volunteers worked to connect branches with zip ties, a type of fastener, Ohno saw another strength arise: the power of group participation. Ohno said that early on, people were invited to help build the Spiral Project Thursdays through Sundays from late April to mid-May. Then, as passersby saw people doing something they couldn’t immediately identify, they would stop and look.
They would ask how the spiral was made, even why people were making it. Ohno said he often saw young children race up and intuitively grab a twig to place within the construction. Adults would soon follow. The work would take on an improvisational rush of energy.
“It’s a jam session almost,” he said.
In an era when people often view art as the work of one person, Ohno said a new understanding of creativity arises when people work together toward an artistic goal.
“There’s a sense of ownership that people have,” he said, “that they were part of making this piece.”
Whether any of the people who have participated in the Spiral Project’s construction are from homeless families is unknown, Ohno said. He hasn’t asked and doesn’t intend to. What’s important for him is that the artwork invites people in, so they can meet and strengthen human connection. Through that connection, he said he hopes topics like family homelessness can be discussed.
Ohno said he wants people to travel to Lake Union Park to spend time with the sculpture, to get a better sense of all the many layers the spiraling artwork symbolizes: “We want people to see the power of art, and then go to the next level.”