Arts Opening

Capitol Hill's New Julian Peña Gallery Is Tiny and Audacious

The arts space packs a for-profit gallery, and a nonprofit focused on underrepresented artists, into a compact footprint.

By Stefan Milne July 17, 2020

That door and window look in on the 120-square-foot space. 

Though it was not planned that way, exactly, the new Julian Peña Gallery on Capitol Hill’s Bellevue Avenue is an arts space particularly suited to this moment. First—and ideally for an ongoing pandemic—it is about the size of a particularly tight micro studio apartment (120 square feet). Only a few people can enter at a time (the gallery is still working out exact numbers to jibe with public health restrictions—check the website for updates). Don’t trust indoors right now? You can see nearly the whole space from the sidewalk, through some windows. Second, Julian Peña, an artist and the founder, created the space to empower underrepresented and marginalized artists—whether they're LGBTQ, minorities, women, immigrants, or people with disabilities. These are “very revolutionary times,” he says. “I think it’s crucial to utilize this space—this tiny space—in the best way I can.”  

Peña grew up in Tacoma and first worked as a voluntary art curator at the Mix, an LGBTQ bar. “I call it a residency in a way, because I created art there. I mean it’s a bar, but it was known as a community bar.” Since then he’s moved to Seattle, gone to the University of Washington’s School of Art, helped set up community arts events, and shown his own work. But he’s long wanted to run a gallery. Last year, Peña’s work was the inaugural solo show at a short-lived gallery. After it closed, the lease-holder posted that he wanted to transfer the space to someone with more time to run it. “I hopped right on it,” Peña says. 

He’d been planning to open in May. Then the pandemic rolled in. The pause gave him time to reimagine it. He set up aRRRt, a nonprofit. (The Rs stand for Represent, Resonate, and Resource. “I know it’s kind of cheesy, but I love it.”)

The Very Last Supper by Julian Peña. 

Connection by The Chaotic Aquatic. 

While the Julian Peña Gallery will conduct for profit art sales, aRRRt will carry out Peña’s representation mission in the same space. There’ll be artists-in-residence, who can use the room as a studio, “almost like an artist incubator.” The first is Iva Trifonova, a young painter who recently moved here from Bulgaria. People can check what’s coming on the public calendar and “if anybody was curious about what Iva is up to, as far as her artwork goes, they can swing by the window.” There’ll be art workshops and supplies. Peña hopes to put in a 3D printer and when I was there, he showed me a pile of canvas that he’ll be giving out to artists for free. 

And because it’s a gallery as well as a nonprofit, Peña can foster talent and represent it. Currently, he has a call for art out for Free Land, A Hill Alive; Capitol Hill Confluence of Community, Culture, and Change, an exhibition of under-represented, especially Indigenous, artists, ages 14–24 (you can read more about it here). First, though, a group show, Connections, opens the gallery the evening of Friday, July 17. 

Paintings by five artists will fill the small, high walls, hung above one another vertically. Peña will show one of his own paintings, The Very Last Supper, which looks like a psilocybin-stoked Vermeer still-life was painted by a cartoonist with a firm grasp of Japanese technique. Trifonova will show some of her darkly dreamy figural works. The Chaotic Aquatic’s (Ariel Parrow’s) Connection—an immense triptych painted on three doors—shows an astronaut floating in space. Wakuda, who’s done murals all over the city, will bring Becoming Andy, a series of screen prints riffing on Andy Warhol’s iterative works (via Warhol’s own face).

Wakuda's Becoming Andy

AfroSPK will show paintings, too. He and Peña have been known each other for years via community oriented arts projects like GreenwoodBlastsOff and the Crowd Control Collective, a network of artists AfroSPK started. He’s since founded the nonprofit Art Vault Seattle to give free art supplies to artists who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. “We’re all about art and mental health.” Since starting in early June it’s sent out over 30 boxes—brushes, paints, paper. A couple of those went to the art station in CHOP, which helped artist Future Crystals complete the final E in the Black Lives Matter street mural. AfroSPK painted the R, filling it with a character he calls Tasty Cloud.

His six works in Connections also feature Tasty Cloud and combine layered abstract painting with gleeful cartoon verve. AfroSPK says his graffiti and his works on canvas come from the same place. “The work that I do on the street is all about reallocation of space and reclaiming space.” The same, he says, is true in galleries. “In a way, there is no difference. The energy is still the same. It’s just on canvas.” 

But the art world frequently doesn't foster easy movement between graffiti and gallery. That's partly why he's excited by Peña’s space. “To me it is really about him pushing underrepresented artists, especially in the time where we don’t have this space to do anything.” He says that the diversity of work on display and the presence of Peña—who’s half Japanese, half Dominican—make the gallery feel welcoming to artists of color. “I feel invited into the space. I feel invited by him.”

Space is what Peña has in mind for his gallery too, a certain expansiveness, no matter the square footage. “Regardless of how small it is, I have big dreams for it.”

July 17–Aug 16, Julian Peña Gallery, Free

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