A Different Kind of Art Walk

JONATHAN ZWICKEL —  June 22, 2011

Adventure is where you find it. Like in, say, Bothell.

“Remember when you were a kid, and you could disappear into the woods behind your backyard and find adventure?” says Seattle artist Susan Robb. “The Long Walk is like that. It reminds you there’s adventure anywhere you are.”

Anywhere: an old hangar in Sand Point, a stretch of strip-malled roadside in Bothell, a grassy suburban park in Duvall and every step between. The Long Walk is Robb’s “time-based, ‘open-source,’ socially engaged art event,” as she describes it—a four-day, three-night, 45-mile hike from Seattle to Snoqualmie falls on the Regional Trail System.

“It’s not even a hike,” Robb says. “There’s a support van that carries everything.”

There is pretense in portraying walking as an artistic act, but it’s a necessary pretense in a culture that consistently overlooks the beauty of mundanity in favor of spectacle and superlative. And to hear Robb describe the intention behind the Long Walk, which makes its second annual pilgrimage this month, is to fall under the spell of an extremely observant, articulate human.

“There’s a couple of different ways to access the arts in this piece,” she says. “There’s the socially engaged aspect, a lot of conversation and what you call navigating, what happens with each other. And there’s also the paying attention to the surroundings and looking at the found art that exists all around us. The pace of walking allows you to see all the art that exists by default.”

(The parallel curvature of overhead overpasses, the brushing of shaggy green treetops against rare blue sky, early morning mist layering a dew-damp lawn, a bald eagle’s substantial nest, well-deployed graffiti.)

Then there’s the art-art. Unlike last year’s Walk, this year features work in a variety of mediums by eight of Robb’s peers from around America, which will be encountered at way-stops and overnight locales: Seattle Phonographers Union, a found-sound improv collective; the Bicycle Choir, a women’s a cappella group; Sarah Kavage, who’s weaving a large-scale grass braid; Todd Shalom, a New York-based poet interested in place and persona; the Seattle Experimental Animation Team, who will project animated film onto kites; several more.

A pair of geographers and an art critic/horticulturalist will join the walk, encouraging conversation.

“Historically, humans have spent a lot of time walking and talking,” Robb says. “These things will take place and people will encounter them or not encounter them. I assume the participants will bring some kind of creative energy to the project, so things will just sort of happen.”

The participants of last year’s Walk encountered more than default art. During one 18-mile day, extreme blistering ran so rampant that a full-time amateur medic was enlisted to treat defeated feet.

“A big part of the project is about endurance,” Robb says. “It’s difficult to just continue to do it. Why are you doing it? You can just hop on a bus and go home, but you tell yourself you’re gonna continue. In that way it’s just like any other art practice—as an artist you’re telling yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? How long will I keep doing it?’ But you keep doing it. There’s an endurance quality just to being an artist. This is a way I can share that with people.”

Participant Lisa Herbold’s feet—battered during last year’s sojourn—are featured prominently on the Long Walk website. “That picture give you a pretty good idea of the physical details of the journey,” she says. “Mentally, I had to get into a groove every day, whether it was in conversation with a person I’d never met before but found a lot in common with, or listening to music and taking in the natural environment in a solitary way. Each day, finding that groove meant taking a different path, but once I found it, I knew I’d be able to finish the day out.” Herbold, who calls herself a “sucker for new traditions,” is doing the Walk again this year.

“Everybody is helping to make this piece of work,” Robb says. “It’s very populist. All you need is to be able to walk.”  •

Photography by Nathan Fowler

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