River Views

John Feodorov’s new work for the Seattle Convention Center is a story of the Duwamish River
Story by Mary Gallagher
John Feodorov sits in front of a painting and speaks into a microphone to a gallery of seated listeners.
John Feodorov discusses his "Yellow Dirt" exhibition at the Kennedy Museum of the University of Ohio

The Seattle Convention Center is now home to a collection of four massive works of art depicting the transformation of the Duwamish River, created by Western Washington University’s John Feodorov, an artist and associate professor at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Feodorov’s “Four Views on a River” was commissioned as part of the new art collection in Seattle Convention Center’s Summit building. Located in Summit’s sprawling Exhibit Hall Lobby, the four massive pieces are made up of four to six panels 8 feet high and totaling 16 to 24 feet long. And each collection depicts a different point in the history of the Duwamish, from its meandering route before colonization to its current role as a major shipping lane and Superfund site.

“The images are stark and abstract, allowing the viewer to engage with them on their own terms without feeling led by the hand,” Feodorov wrote in his artist statement.

“To me, they are beautiful, yet also uncomfortable and saddening. To the local Native peoples, the river is alive. I want to show that, despite its mutilation and exploitation, it has also survived and retains its power.”

artistic rendering of the meandering curves of the Duwamish River across five panels
"Four Views on a River" by John Feodorov, Panel 1

Art Tours at the SCC

The Seattle Convention Center offers guided tours to the public to view the art in the Summit and Arch buildings. Click here to learn more about the tours or to sign up.

Feodorov was among two artists selected in a limited invitational panel process to create work for significant interior spaces in Summit, the Seattle Convention Center’s $2 billion expansion. After bringing forward and considering 66 artists, a panel of arts professionals invited six finalists and selected two, Feodorov and sculptor Dan Webb.

Feodorov, who describes his own ancestry as Navajo (Diné) and Euro-American, consulted with Duwamish tribal elder Ken Workman to convey the enduring importance of the river to the Duwamish people.

Workman told Feodorov that his ancestors are buried along the river, and that when Workman walks along the banks, he’s visiting them. So Feodorov selected a Duwamish reed mat to represent the lives and histories of the Duwamish in the first collection.

The reed mat is also more subtly visible in the fourth collection “because the ancestors are still there,” Feodorov says.

am early black and white photograph of the Duwamish River, displayed across five panels, shows how the river's curves are being replaced by a straight, dredged channel.
"Four Views on a River," by John Feodorov, Panel 2

The second collection uses early photographs illustrating the river’s early industrial history.

“There was the influx of settlers, primarily white settlers, that found the river to be troublesome because it kept flooding,” Feodorov says. “They decided to straighten the river and then dredge it to make it more workable for shipping.”

The Duwamish River curves among a grid of city streets across four panels on a black background. A straight white channel cuts through the curves.
"Four Views on a River" by John Feodorov, Panel 3

Together, the second and third collections, with their large-scale black-and-white digital photos and maps, depict the early exploitation and industrialization of the river, Feodorov says.

They stand in stark contrast to the final collection, whose shock of bright yellow references the river’s current status as a Superfund site.

the straight channel of the Duwamish River slashes through a yellow landscape
"Four Views on a River" by John Feodorov, Panel 4

“Four Views on a River” is located in the lobby of the Summit building’s exhibition hall, an area not typically open to the public. But it will be viewed by people attending conventions and events–about 220,000 people are forecasted to attend events there in 2024. Feodorov’s artwork is also a stop on the SCC’s semi-monthly public art tour of the Summit building.

Like all public art, the work “has to function on several different levels,” Feodorov says, from a most superficial glance to an opportunity to think more deeply about a river that serves as both the life’s blood of nearby tribes and the economic engine that fueled Seattle’s 19th- and 20th-century growth.

“Convention center guests may not share or appreciate my personal perspectives and sentiments, and could take issue with a more didactic and seemingly political artwork,” Feodorov writes. “They may even celebrate the industrialization of the river, and it’s true that Seattle would not be the economic power that it is without it.

“However, I believe I have a responsibility to provide an opportunity for viewers to deeply consider and engage with the river’s challenging history as they stare up at the four panels, allowing its story to move them to also reflect on the places where they may live.”

John Feodorov

John Feodorov is retiring in spring 2025 after teaching art at Fairhaven since 2004. Some of his more recent work is included in the collections of the Seattle Art Museum, the Fine Arts Museum Boston, and the U.S. Library of Congress.

His work will be featured at Gallery 4Culture in Seattle in June 2024 and at the Western Gallery this fall, Sept. 25 to Dec. 7, 2024.

Mary Gallagher is editor of Window magazine.