Clyde Petersen has spent years on the road as a tour manager for a variety of musical acts. He probably never expected his van to be parked at Amazon.
A longtime artist, musician, filmmaker and more, Petersen is the current Artist in Residence at the headquarters of the Seattle tech giant. And he’s spending three months working on an installation which replicates a full-size Ford Econoline van being loaded out for a rock show, complete with instruments, amps and more paraphernalia, all made of cardboard.
Petersen is working out of Amazon’s Expressions Lab, an area on the third floor of the company’s Doppler office building that looks like it could be the art room at your local high school. A longtime Seattleite, his previous work has included everything from a large-scale cellophane and cardboard slice of the Washington Park Arboretum (complete with boat) to a stop-motion animated feature film called “Torrey Pines.”
“I saw that there was a call on the Artist Trust call board for a mysterious residency in South Lake Union at a large company,” Petersen said of the impetus for ending up at Amazon as one of four artists who will cycle through the program this year. “The application was like, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I was like, ‘I want to build this life-size tour van.'”
In a city where a tech boom — fed in large part by Amazon’s extraordinary growth — has in turn created an affordability crisis and put a financial squeeze on working artists such as Petersen, being paid to make punk-rock-inspired art was nothing short of ironic.
But Petersen said that having grown up in Seattle, he’s experienced more than one tech boom.
“I live in Fremont, I watched Adobe ravage Fremont. And Google,” he said, while also referencing Microsoft’s dominant history. “[Amazon] is not the first rodeo we’ve experienced of this technology era. My feelings on it are that if this company is excited about supporting artists and wants to offer this space, then I’m excited to support it and try to get more of my friends in here. That’s the bottom line for me. It’s a complicated conversation, for sure.”
Friends of the arts community are just who Petersen is dealing with during his Amazon residency.
Tim Detweiler is the program manager for Expressions Lab. He is the prior director of Mad Art Studio, Museum of Northwest Art and the James and Janie Washington Foundation.
With colorful stools at work stations, bins of art supplies and inspiring artwork on the walls, the Expressions Lab is a part of a collaborative effort to create a work environment that encourages creativity, innovation, and community, according to Detweiler.
“Amazon employees are diversely talented, and this program provides a stimulating opportunity where they can apply their skills in a fun and different way,” he said.
Petersen said the people who run the program are artists and have been part of the city for a long time.
“When I come here, I hang out with Tim, who ran MadArt, which is a place I really loved. I think it’s one of my favorite spaces in Seattle. And so I know that he has that background and brings that here,” Petersen said. “Joseph Steininger, who also helps run this program, is a working artist with a studio in the TK [Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts] and Derek Luther who also helps is a rock ‘n’ roll dude from Ballard who I see at the all-ages space I run. And every few days I see someone — who I didn’t know works here — walk by.”
Detweiler said the Artist in Residence program supports the arts community by providing additional exposure to local and emerging artists. And that the residency provides artists the resources and space where they can “think big, inspire, and create ambitious projects.”
Petersen is definitely thinking big. The tour van takes up most of a studio where he cuts and glues cardboard components with friends who happen to be his assistants, including artist and graphic designer Dre Gordon and artist and animator Max Otero. Details include parts of the van dashboard such as a cassette-tape player and the knobs for temperature controls. In the land of smiley boxes, there’s lots to work with — but that familiar logo won’t show up anywhere.
“Cardboard is my preferred medium for large-scale objects because it’s often free and lightweight, and you can burn it later,” Petersen said. “[Amazon] provided me with an entire closet full of cardboard and then I purchased some large cardboard as well that was unused. They are cardboard kings — there are a few other cardboard kingpins in the world.”
During his time at Expressions, Petersen will give one workshop and one talk. He said Amazonians walk by all day long and stare through the windows.
“I stare back, which is pretty fun,” Petersen said. “I’ve talked to a few; they’ve popped in and had a few questions, like ‘How am I going to get the van out of this room?’ I told them that there’s a giant Amazon drone and it’s going to come lift it up.”
The van won’t be fully assembled until it gets to the Bellevue Arts Museum where it will be displayed under the title “Merch & Destory.” The installation will also feature a green room, and will incorporate cardboard musical instruments from another Petersen show, with collaborator Darius X, called “Shredders: A Fantasy Guitar Store.”
Ben Heywood, who was leading Paul Allen’s Pivot Art + Culture in South Lake Union before it closed, is now executive director of Bellevue Arts Museum. Petersen originally pitched his show to Heywood, and what he’s building at Amazon will go on display at the museum on the other side of Lake Washington on Nov. 9 and run through March 10, 2019.
Petersen has been putting in pretty solid hours during his temporary stint as an Amazonian. The company did not disclose how much artists are paid during their residency. It’s an interesting twist for someone who has held down jobs at a movie theater, a fancy restaurant, as an editorial assistant at a post-production house, and as a music video production person at the indie record label Kill Rock Stars.
“It’s a complicated scenario — I’m a working artist and I want to live in Seattle and I can’t afford it, so there are choices I make everyday that affect how I survive here,” Petersen said. “It’s like, I go to the food bank and get food every week, but I have an office at Amazon right now. I actually have no idea what I would be doing this summer if it wasn’t for this grant.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Gotta find some money and a job after this.”