A Visit to MOHAI

Hello, and welcome back to Steam Plant Graphic Novel HQ! This week’s snack of choice is dill pickle almonds and black coffee. That stuff really keeps you awake.

One of the places we visited for research is the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), founded in 1952 and now located in Lake Union Park next to the Center for Wooden Boats. I remember visiting the museum when I was a kid and it was located in McCurdy Park. My friends and I liked watching the footage of the Ivars Dancing Clams because they were weird and irreverent, and we didn’t know those words yet. Today the museum displays treasures like replicas of the Post-Intelligencer globe (they own the original too, but right now it’s too heavy to be housed in the building), Lincoln Towing’s hot pink toe truck, and a musical history lesson about the Seattle Fire, staring a glue pot and plastic fire.

What I remember most about MOHAI, in the 1990s and now, is how directly it addresses both the racism, sexism, and classism in America’s roots and the incredible industrial advances we’ve made. Instead of abstracting or minimizing either topic, MOHAI uses each to illuminate the other. What kinds of jobs did Seattle’s Chinese population have at the end of the 20th century? Were there Black Riveters? What stories did the Duwamish tell their children? Even when an exhibit wasn’t directly chronologically related to the story David and I are telling, it’s all connected because it’s all Seattle.

Here are some images from our latest visit:

In 1907, Jim Casey and Claude Ryan (not pictured) got a $100 loan and started UPS in a Pioneer Square basement.


Here, a team of independently-owned steamrollers pave a neighborhood street in 1906.


When people started harassing Chinese-owned businesses after the Seattle Fire, this is what Mayor Henry Yesler had to say. We at Steam Plant HQ do not condone dynamite as a problem-solver, but we definitely support Mayor Yesler’s fierce refusal of racism.


The very first Nordstrom, founded by Carl Wallin, a shoemaker, and John Nordstrom, a Swedish man who came to Ellis Island as a sixteen-year-old with five dollars and no English. A few years after that, John and Carl met in Alaska, where they took gold to open the store at Fourth and Pike.

MOHAI is open seven days a week from 10a-5p.

A Visit to the Steam Plant!

In November, David and Mairead spent a day at the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, meeting everyone and going over plans and contracts. We even ate lunch in an underground cafeteria!

After that, we toured the plant with wizards Michael Aronowitz, Rebecca Osso, Maija McKnight, and Laurie Geissinger. Here are some pictures from the day.


These pictures are outside of the Plant – it’s a historic concrete building, so when they were checking the structure for safety a person tapped a hammer, very carefully, all along the outside. If the noise changed it meant the concrete was weak there. That’s why there are mysterious black circles on the outside of the Plant!

This is one of the places where workers hung tools. The shapes were traced into the wall so folks knew once everything was put away. This reminded us of both art school classrooms and prison kitchens.

Do you remember the part in Ramona Quimby where her class is reading Mike Mulligan and she asks her teacher how Mike went to the bathroom when he was digging holes all day? Good news: the plant has a staff bathroom complete with sinks and lockers.

This is the second floor supervisor’s office. We resisted the urge to pick up the phone and ask the ghosts if their refrigerator was running.

This is the sign that now greets folks at the door! Shout-out left-handers. David Bowie was a left-hander.

(The Plant features free, open-to-the-public tours on the second Saturday of every month. You should go! The hours and information are here.)

There is still a stretcher, all ready, in case someone gets hurt. There was not a hospital very close by, when the plant was starting, but there was a brewery.

A green NO. What does it mean?!!

Hi! From L-R: Maija, David, Mairead, and Laurie. (Congratulations on your retirement from City Light, Laurie!)

The Georgetown Steam Plant shimmers – it really does! – with gorgeous handmade details, and pearly gray light on green paint, and concrete metal echo. Special thanks to Michael and Rebecca, and Laurie, for teaching us.

The Origins of This Project

How did the city of Seattle decide to commission a graphic novel?

Many people have congratulated me (and Mairead Case) on receiving the commission to create a fictional graphic novel focused on the Georgetown Steam Plant. They often follow it up with the question: “How did the city decide to do this?” This project is unique enough that it’s a fair question. Very few US cities have commissioned graphic novels (Everett, WA comes to mind, but beyond that…?). So how did this come about?

I talked about it with Maija McKnight, who is a Public Art Project Manager for Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture (and is our project manager as we create the graphic novel). “This is a new type of project for the Office of Arts and Culture, the creation of a book and graphic novel,” said McKnight, “and to the best of my knowledge a new way of implementing Percent for Art funding amongst national government agencies.”

Seattle was one of the first cities (beginning in 1973) to implement a 1 Percent for Art ordinance, which mandates 1/100th of all city capital improvement project funds go toward the commission, purchase, and installation of artworks in a variety of settings. This can be a work of art about the site (for example, a work about wastewater drainage) or a work on the site (for example, the “Hammering Man” sculpture in front of SAM).

I was assigned as the project manager September of last year,” continued McKnight, “and met with Laurie [Geissinger, of Seattle City Light] to start my learning process about the Steam Plant. I was able to visit the plant for the public tour and do some pretty basic research to learn more.”

McKnight met with a group of City Light’s employees who are involved with preserving and promoting the Steam Plant. They began to brainstorm potential projects. Among the possibilities suggested: sculptural art along the new access drive, artwork as part of new signage, a mosaic on the plant’s large concrete cistern… They also discussed the potential of outreach to schools as part of an artist-in-residence program.

The Georgetown Steam Plant is undergoing exterior renovation and is only open to the public one day of every month, so the group wondered how the arts project could be used to leverage more access to the plant than even the building itself could accommodate. They were also interested in being able to tell the story of the steam plant in a non-didactic way, and in doing so, build awareness, and appreciation of the historic landmark.

Another consideration: “The capital project associated with the funding is a new access drive that increases visibility into the site. How can this art project reinforce the idea/goal of access and visibility?”

McKnight says it was City Light’s Strategic Advisor for Environmental Affairs, Laurie Geissinger, who brought up the suggestion of a graphic novel. They immediately felt that this would address a lot of the lingering questions they’d been discussing. Adds McKnight: “From there, we then went back to our teams, talked about this idea, checked out many graphic novels from the library… In somewhat unfamiliar territory for this media, I relied heavily on many meetings/conversations with professionals in the industry to help to put together a scope of work and a call-to-artists to best reflect our goals of the project.”

I checked in with Laurie Geissinger to ask what lead her to the idea of a graphic novel. Via email, she wrote: “I began to think more deeply about increasing GTSP [Georgetown Steam Plant] visibility and access, getting the word out to diverse populations, about the GTSP, and the stories that could capture the imagination of visitors and potential visitors. Wanted to improve not just physical access – but access to minds, imagination and create a self-perpetuating and layered conversation steeped in an exciting historical adventure. I hoped we could somehow create work that would perpetuate a long lasting love affair with the steam plant, history and human ingenuity.”

Geissinger says it was the brainstorming session that led to the “finch and dandelion moment” where she and McKnight both realized a graphic novel was the solution they had been seeking.

I wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘finch and dandelion’. I did a web search and found that finches are birds who pull apart dandelions to eat the seeds. Geissinger added: “The thought graphic novel did light up as small bird on my shoulder (weird enough) followed by a cloud of dandelion seeds floating in all directions (weirder yet)… Dandelions have this exquisitely designed system for seed dispersal. As an artistic medium, a graphic novel seems dandelion-like; a vessel with built in ability to transport seed-stories beyond the immediate physical realm and locale, for birds everywhere to enjoy! I was in.”

-David Lasky

Goldfinch eating a dandelion seed