Skip to content

Master art plans for downtown Seattle…

From the Office of Arts and Culture blog ….

An artistic vision for downtown Seattle, brought to you by Susan Robb

Artist Susan Robb has been commissioned by the Office of Arts & Culture (ARTS), in partnership with Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to research, develop, and create a Public Art Plan for downtown Seattle. Robb will guide and influence the development of a public art plan that creates a robust, cohesive, and long-range vision for SDOT’s 1% for Art programming and art enhancements in Seattle’s downtown core. The residency will last approximately six months, beginning in May and running through October 2016.


Robb will work with SDOT staff, project design team consultants, and project stakeholders to examine downtown Seattle’s capital projects and engage community members and organizations such as Lake2Bay and Downtown Seattle Association/Municipal Improvement District. Her work will inform a public art master plan that brings cohesion to the various capital projects slated for downtown Seattle.

Robb’s proposed approach to working with Seattle’s downtown core reflects her ongoing, process-driven, investigation of people and place. Her work varies from sculpture, photography, and video, to temporary, site responsive, and socially engaged projects. She has been awarded commissions from 4Culture, King County Parks, Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and grants from Creative Capital, Artist Trust, 4Culture and the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture. Other awards include a Pollack Krasner Fellowship, a Stranger Genius Award, and support by the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Robb has exhibited nationally and internationally at venues like Berkeley Art Museum; Palm Springs Art Museum; Grand Central Art Center, Santa Ana, CA; Weisman Art Museum, MN; Family Business, NYC; Discovery Greens, Houston TX; Hui No‘eau Visual Arts Center, Maui HI; Tacoma Art Museum; Lawrimore Project; The Henry Gallery; Swing Space, NYC; and Blindside Gallery, Melbourne Australia. Robb’s work has been included in public, private, and civic collections worldwide.

Photo credit: Andrew Pogue.

An artistic vision for downtown Seattle, brought to you by Susan Robb

5 Months Ago Today

Susan Robb Is Going from Mexico to Canada Like No Artist Has Gone Before

On her five-month walk along the Pacific Crest Trail, the artist is Instagramming nature, replicating rocks, and Facebooking the sublime. Why on earth would someone go out into the wild to blog?

Moves from biome to biome as she walks.

It wasn’t funny, it was unthinkable.

Two days earlier, Robb and her crew had been walking in 102-degree heat. Now it was 25 degrees. They all looked up to the sky. No joke. It was coming down. They pulled out their maps and tried to figure out what to do. Robb was somewhere in the middle of the San Bernardino Mountains, in the wilds of Southern California—she’s an artist who lives in Seattle, so she was in unfamiliar territory. She was about 40 days into a five-and-a-half-month trek from Mexico to Canada on foot, following the Pacific Crest Trail. The trek isn’t just for health or adventure, it’s a highly coordinated art project called Wild Times.

On a map, Robb and her crew found a dot indicating the nearest stopping place—something called Coon Creek Cabin. To get there would require walking 10 steep miles uphill. They had no choice. They piled on rain clothes and pulled socks onto their hands for mittens and started the trudge.

After a few hours, it started to get dark. The path was covered in parts by snow; at times, they had no idea whether they were headed in the right direction. By the time they saw the cabin, one hiker started hallucinating. He thought he smelled fire. But the cabin contained only mouse droppings, about 10 other shivering hikers on a bare floor, and cruel signs saying fires were forbidden.

Their home for the night wasn’t so much a cabin as a shelter. “The doors and windows are all open holes,” Robb noted. There were snowdrifts inside.

When the sky turns as white as a frozen-solid lake and you’re nowhere near warmth, when you spend a night entombed by the darkness of a desert, when you’re detoured because another hiker’s dead dehydrated body is being helicoptered away from the main route, when a mountain suddenly rises into view larger than any god or monster—this is the category of experience known as the “sublime.” It’s so intense that people want to experience it over and over, except usually without the danger. This is where artists of all kinds come in, with huge, vertiginous, stark paintings and photographs and films.

That’s not what Robb does. Robb has been responding to the sublime by Facebooking, Instagramming, tweeting, blogging, and transmitting instructions to 3-D printers elsewhere. She set out on the Pacific Crest Trail equipped with an iPhone and a digital camera, and she has been sending back dispatches since (find them at

COON CREEK CABIN There were snowdrifts inside.

We know the Coon Creek Cabin had the words “DEAD” and “Anne Frank was here” carved into it because Robb included photos in a blog post she wrote about it after a very cold night’s sleep. She slept wearing “every inch of clothing” she had with her. She titled the blog post “Hotel Hantavirus,” referring to the virus you can get from rodent feces. (If you get it, you have a one-in-three chance of death.) The photos appear on Robb’s blog chronologically: the sunny morning, scroll down, the whiteout, scroll down, the rising dark, scroll down, the letters slashed into the door. These pictures and writings are all promoted via social media over the next wi-fi connection she can find.

She sends digital photo files by e-mail to a printer at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California. The printer itself sits out in the galleries, like a sculpture of its own. Docents at the museum pick up the prints, slot them into plain black frames, and hang them on the wall. These new photos replace the batch from the week before, creating a perpetually changing art show.

That’s not all. There’s also a 3-D printer at the Grand Central Art Center, along with a 3-D printer at Tacoma Art Museum, set up to receive weekly 3-D scans of rocks Robb has found on the trail, and then to manufacture replicas. The MakerBots click into action once a week. They hum as they extrude hollow, plastic, neon-colored copies of real rocks in the wilderness, printed in colors coded to indicate the elevation where the rocks were found. Every bump and curve of the original rock is precisely replicated, but these replicas could never pass as the real thing. They look like sci-fi candies, beamed into the galleries Star Trek–style and displayed on bright light boxes that set them aglow with a most aggressive artificiality. Yet in material ways, they’re truer translations than photographs or writings could produce.

ROBB IS REPLICATING ROCKS These rocks made by a 3-D printer are replicas of rocks she’s found, their colors corresponding to where she found them. They’re printed and displayed at museums while she walks.

If artists are the class that materializes what others only imagine, then Susan Robb is following in a long American tradition. Her forebears are the artists of the first American art movement, the Hudson River School, who created the nation, in images, that they wanted to believe in—and brag about. Unlike Europe, this land was not renowned for ruins and recorded histories. It had only “wildness” to distinguish itself, supplied especially by the West. In an 1836 issue of American Monthly magazine, the Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole—who conjured stunning, gleaming paradises where Natives pop up for symbolic cameos—listed “Wildness” as the first among “Elements of American Scenery”: “For those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched.” Cole and his cohorts regularly deleted inconvenient scenery—like buildings or clumps of tourists. Their scenery is retouched, not untouched.

The Pacific Crest Trail is a place defined by what it is not. It is not rolling farms, neon lights, or shrubbed suburbs, and it is surely not its automotive analogue, Interstate 5. It’s a utopia in the original Greek meaning of the word, which is not “good place”—as was later interpreted due to a hearing error between “ou” (no) and “eu” (good)—but rather “no place.” The Pacific Crest Trail is 2,650 miles of no place. It has been constructed, publicized, and classified as “wilderness” in the realm of the American imagination. By United States law, wilderness is “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” To clear space for this Edenic escape from “mechanically disturbed Nature,” so dubbed by 1940s proponents of the Pacific Crest Trail, people had to be forcibly removed from lands where their tribes had lived for centuries. Their touch had to be erased to make way for the untouchedness that defined the young United States.

Which makes no sense. But the realm of the imagination is full of things that make no sense. It is also highly subject to change, which is, in fact, its best quality.

Oglala Lakota chief Luther Standing Bear famously said in the 1930s, “Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness.'” And in his 1999 book Dispossessing the Wilderness, Mark David Spence delivers the deadpan line, “Scholars have recently begun to recognize a certain degree of narcissism in American conceptions of wilderness.”

Wilderness, this changeable imaginary concept, has been in need of a rethinking for a while. Since the beginning of it, really. In recent years, the extremes seem to have become more extreme, but it’s important to keep in mind that both sides have existed since the founding of this nation. Take a current fight over the Grand Canyon. On one side are two (alarmingly unprecedented) proposed real-estate developments: a 2,200-home community with three million square feet of retail, and a pair of entertainment complexes with a tram that would take 4,000 visitors each day from the rim of the canyon to the base and back again. On the other side are preservationists. They adamantly advocate doing nothing. Hands off. They’re unmoved by the argument that grubby human hands are already making marks. After all, wilderness areas are not magically excluded from climate change.

STRANGERS ON THE TRAIL Robb encounters all sorts of people (and furniture).

In the July 6 edition of the New York Times, Seattle-based environmental journalist Christopher Solomon wrote an essay called “Rethinking the Wild,” in which he argued that given all these forces, people must “accept our role as reluctant gardeners.” Populations of animals need “assisted migration,” giant sequoias need watering, and certain forests do need thinning, he wrote. We must commit “a necessary apostasy”—intervention—”to show how much we truly revere these wild places.” The comments section exploded, mostly on the purist side. A commenter dubbed Andsoitgoes, from Wisconsin, wrote sarcastically: “C’mon kids! Pile in the car. Let’s go see some nature on life support.” Isn’t there a family trip just like that in The Simpsons?

Like Solomon, Robb doesn’t side with either extreme. Her work hikes the terrain in the middle, which has always actually been steeper and less illuminated.

This is the context a contemporary landscape artist enters today. Robb, whose biotechnological art began to attract attention in Seattle about a dozen years ago, has read all this history. She knows well the late-20th-century environmental and social-justice movements, and the various arts that sprung from them, from Works Project Administration social realism to free-form performance and improvisation. Like Solomon and any other number of thinkers, artists, and writers, she’s a member of a disillusioned people still searching for “somewhere better than us,” as Solomon puts it. It makes perfect sense to turn an utterly changeable “no place” into the one place you need and can’t find anywhere else.

“Only 3% of the contiguous United States is still considered protected wild space,” Robb wrote as the first line of her pitch for Wild Times. Between the lines of her rational description, you can hear the longing. “As our culture increasingly pressures us to maintain a personal ‘brand,’ be in constant contact, and Snapchat every moment, maybe it’s not just our geographic wild spaces that are endangered, but our internal wild spaces as well.”

She asks: “What is wild? Where is wild? Are you wild?”

For Robb, there is an important distinction between “wilderness,” the human construction, and “wildness,” which she calls “something more elemental.”

The first glimpse of Wild Times that anybody saw was the Flash video Robb used for her Kickstarter campaign. It’s still on the website. It begins with black-and-white TV static. The static resolves itself into big letters in hot pink. They spell “WILD.” Inside the letters are flashing images. There’s a man in a tree, a clump of biker dudes, a line of (protesting?) women in burkas, a wolf howling. There are island sunsets, patches of outer space, microscopic cells. Rock and roll. Surfing. Tribal makeup. Piercings. These are the results of Google image searches for “wild.” The images are archetypal and contradictory. Does wild mean girls gone wild or women fighting for their rights? People all alone or people connected by something universal?

One thing “wild” apparently does not mean, one picture you never see, is a person on her phone, typing a blog entry, snapping a picture, e-mailing a digital file. It’s the most tremendously lovely understatement—sort of like the “narcissism” line from Mark David Spence’s book—when Robb tells me, “There’s a tension between the thing that I’m pointing to and the thing that I’m using to point with.”

It’s more like this: The thing you’re using to point with is considered the assassin of the thing you’re pointing to.

Except Robb has other ideas. She doesn’t wipe the land empty the way Hudson River School painters did. Her pictures and writings don’t scrub away tourism, technology, and corporate consumerism. They don’t celebrate those things, either. But it’s important to notice what Robb’s conception of “wild” does notleave out, as well as what it does leave out.

One day in a conversation from the trail on a dying phone, Robb said she worries that the constant broadcasting of social media will have the effect of “undoing that wild space within ourselves.” She added, as if reminding herself, “You are allowed to have an autonomous space inside.”

She’s responding to that struggle by broadcasting and cultivating silence simultaneously. At one point, Robb passed a lake, and she described it in the shared terms of pre-processed culture: It’s “postcard perfect.” She even shot a photo of the lake that one could easily print out and sell as a postcard. Labeled “postcard perfect,” the natural wonder of the lake fades into mass-manufactured blandness, enlarging the void of silent distance between something you experience directly and that same thing reflected back. You had to be there. But Robb went on to write that after she photographed the lake, she jumped in it. At this point, one becomes extra-hungry for knowledge, having been so starved by this postcard vision. How deep was the water? How did it smell? Was it cold? Did the fish come close to her? Did they touch her? Did she touch the bottom? Was it slimy? Those answers remain Robb’s private wildnesses.

Yet it’s crucial that she doesn’t leave out the postcard-vision, or any of the impurities of a media-soaked 21st-century mind and its landscape, even its wilds. At one point, she wrote about hiking near the place where Michael Jackson’s wild animals are being confined in their sorry adulthoods. At another point, she saw a stretch of green hills, and saw in them Tolkien’s—or Peter Jackson’s—made-up Shire. Another landscape was like “passing through a Japanese landscape painting.” In other words, her experience of the land was processed through culture and not the other way around.

NUDE BATHERS NEAR BIG BEAR Sometimes Robb comes across nature that looks like art—nudes and bathers are classic subjects in painting. With this photo, she’s channeling artists from Henri Matisse to Thomas Eakins.

She left the city, or did she? Her figures of speech deliberately mongrelize pristine wilderness and dirty cities. “I’m in Yosemite now,” she wrote. “It has a different feeling than the Southern Sierras. It’s like visiting a different neighborhood in the same city. Or, like the difference between Oakland and San Francisco or Williamsburg and Manhattan.” That’s enough to make the transcendentalists turn over in their graves. Robb does not engage in pastoralism. She unabashedly posted a still life of her dinner one night, which was Top Ramen with Goldfish crackers on top. This was not organic, locally sourced, back-to-nature eating. This was full-on fakeness. These Goldfish are not goldfish; they’re barely food. The food thru-hikers eat is not what you might expect if you’re imagining a wilderness vision quest with magically available salmonberries and plants and nuts. Rather, they eat malts, burgers, muffins, pancakes. They have to. They’re walking a marathon every day. And Robb is not the only one online on the trail. At one point, she met three women hikers who were delighted to find out who she was. They read her blog.

In Romantic terms, the wildest thing of all would be for Robb to get some heinous injury, to be incapacitated or poisoned or lost forever, and to make the ultimate sacrifice for her art: the tragic, Romantic death. Robb’s body did break down at one point—to the point where she needed urgent medical attention.

“I wake, turn my foot, and pain shoots up my leg,” she documented on her blog. “WTF??!! I inspect my ankle and it’s bruised and swollen… If I have to rest anywhere, at least I’m at the club med of the PCT. It’s beautiful and lush with wild mint scenting the air. There is plenty of water, up the trail are bathrooms, and I have a phone signal. I spend the day dipping my leg into the cold creek.”

She began googling her symptoms.

Things did not resolve. It was her right leg, and by 4 p.m., it was “not having a miraculous recovery. I consider living at the creek for the next 5 days and then get concerned that I’m also losing my mind a bit.” A touch of madness began to creep around the edges of the story. Then she described that she’d found three guys who will drive her to Big Bear “after they stop for a snack at a nearby malt shop… Perfect!”

If Robb had any internal debate about whether it would be “wild enough” to seek treatment—about whether she’d be violating some Romantic ideal—she didn’t mention it. She matter-of-factly found a clinic in Big Bear, and when she discovered it was closed, crossed the street to an ER, where she was x-rayed and ultrasounded. They told her they didn’t know what the problem was. They told her to rest. They gave her two things she’d never have found out on the trail—crutches and hydrocodone—and she checked into a Motel 6. She posted a picture of the room’s TV with her foot, elevated, in the foreground.

The doctors “tell me they are sorry my hike is over. Huh? My hike isn’t over.”

After six days of rest, most with a relative who lives not far from the trail, she was back out camping alongside skinny-dipping locals on hallucinogenics. The only time she ever found herself afraid on the trail, she wrote in a later dispatch, was when she pitched her tent near an abandoned tent. It wasn’t the wilderness she was afraid of, it was other people.

RECUPERATING IN A MOTEL 6 Feet are also a classic art subject, from Andrea Mantegna to Vincent van Gogh. This was taken after Robb had to leave the Pacific Crest Trail with an injury. Doctors didn’t know what the problem was. Probably overuse. After a week, she was back on the trail.

Isn’t what Robb’s doing the equivalent of Thoreau publishing Walden as “Like” bait on Facebook? What is the point? You don’t go hiking to tweet. You go hiking to leave all that behind. Right? Except that increasingly, geography is defined by social media, boundaries drawn by wi-fi grids. Sometimes the only way to disappear from the place you are actually in is to commit a digital lie, to claim you’re off the grid when you aren’t. You could be standing in the next room from someone, but if you stand entirely still and text them, “I’m going out of range,” you can be gone.

The paradox of the new geography—the new tech on top of old topography—is heightened in Seattle. Someone once described to me that the real difference between Seattle and New York is what people talk about on Monday mornings. In New York, it’s the films and art they saw and the parties they went to. In Seattle, it’s the glacial-lake hike where they casually got lost. The silly trademarked tourism slogan of Seattle embodies the double life: For five long years, the word “Metronatural” was painted in 18-foot-tall letters on the top of the neither-metro-nor-natural outer-space spectacle that is the Space Needle.

Robb has led long walking trips—and documented them—before. In three trips between 2010 and 2012, Robb led a group of 40 people walking 40 miles each in a project called The Long Walk. Its surface similarities to Wild Times are obvious. There are other art-walking projects happening this summer on the Pacific Crest Trail, too, including at least two Seattle artists. Mimi Allin is performing a piece where she solicits people’s dreams and performs rituals for them out in the wilds. Nat Evans is creating a series of sound collaborations with eight musicians who live in various cities along the trail; he was joined for part of his journey by Seattle artist Erin Elyse Burns (who doesn’t know what she’s creating yet), and there’s at least one expressionist-landscape painter, Keegan O’Rourke.

But Wild Times has very little in common with any of those. What no one else is exploring directly is what a technologically enabled and mediated adventure means. When the Seattle artist Eirik Johnson goes far out into the deep Pacific Northwest forests to photograph itinerant mushroom gatherers whose products the very next day appear on Japanese market shelves tagged with astronomical prices, Johnson is traipsing similar idea-territory as Robb. If something can travel so fast between two vastly distant and different locations on the globe that it transforms instantly from worthless to priceless, then where is the real mushroom? The same question might be asked of a person with identities in multiple environments, urban and wild, virtual and live. Which is to say, many, many of us.

A strong current of Seattle artists examines the tenuous links between place and identity. Early in his life, Isaac Layman dreamed of making his living as a photographer the traditional way, going far afield to shoot exotic locations for National Geographic magazine. But instead, he’s building a career out of never leaving the house. To make a picture, he takes hundreds and hundreds of pictures of a single thing—say, a set of glasses in his cupboard—and then layers them digitally so that they are like the highest resolution image possible, something so clear that it feels both mundane and distantly inhuman. He troubles travel by refusing to circumnavigate the globe, and instead penetrates a thousand leagues into what’s in his own kitchen. Robb captures every detail of a rock exactly right, yet totally wrong, and Layman does the same thing differently.

On the flip side, Aaron Huey does go globe-trotting for National Geographicfrom his home base in Seattle, but when the magazine gave him the opportunity to represent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, he insisted that his vision was necessarily incomplete, and that the residents be given dedicated space on the magazine’s website to submit their own close-to-home versions of their lives and environment. Tech has made it possible to include more voices now that boundaries aren’t strictly physical, and with that comes the obligation to go ahead and do that.

How do we distinguish between being connected and being colonized? Is anything still wild if you share it with other people through corporate-owned social media?

Where is there still room for freedom, and what kind, and for whom?

When I told a colleague about Robb’s technologically enabled and mediated adventure, she said, “I find it horrifying!” In some sense, to be “horrified” by what Robb is doing is exactly what Wild Times is about. It’s not that Robb has any particular interest in upsetting people. But it happens naturally. She breaks force fields we’ve erected to magnetize certain things apart: nature and culture, alone and together, private and public, gallery and wilderness, subjects and objects. We must need those separations, otherwise they wouldn’t persevere so tenaciously. Yet what’s on either side of the divides keeps shifting with time, technology, and perspective. Wild Times is an attempt to experience the epic and the deeply personal, and to document those essentially undocumentable experiences using the most invasive—and pervasive—of mediums. Robb doesn’t leave out the old-fashioned mediums of words and pictures, either, even while proving that they can’t capture many dimensions of experience. That never stopped anybody from writing and photographing, anyway, and Robb is a full citizen of her own culture, not an artist apart. This is the human animal. It Instagrams. It walks through multiple biomes on its own two feet. Where’s the conflict?

WHEN SHE INSTAGRAMS HER DINNER It’s not salmonberries and nuts—it’s Top Ramen and Goldfish crackers.

Robb is also performing the act of being the artist and the subject of her experiences simultaneously. It’s a performance not unfamiliar to anybody who writes her own stories and turns them into pictures and movies on social media—while living them. Robb’s version is just more extreme, because it’s coupled with a genuine search for liberating wildness in whatever forms it can take, that characteristic that somebody Robb encountered on the trail called being “feral and free.” Art historian Kolya Rice, who gave a talk about Wild Times at the Frye Art Museum over the summer, sees Robb in relation to 1960s and ’70s artists like John Cage and Joseph Beuys, performers both. Beuys would do things like spend a dangerous amount of time in a gallery alone with a coyote, but he also had a whole formal output of concrete sculptures, relics often limited to two basic materials: felt and fat. Like Beuys, Robb is shamanistic. “These artists engage in a kind of chaos, an unformed set of possibilities, but then move that back into the [material] side, making sense of what one has just experienced using organization and order,” Rice says. “They oscillate between those two poles.” Like Cage, Robb’s purpose, as Rice sees it, is “to distance you from habitual ways of thinking.” One habitual way of thinking is to believe that wilderness and technology must be separated to survive and thrive. “For Susan, technology is here to stay,” Rice says. “But you can use these things in really creative ways that don’t necessarily hold to the standard usages.” Essentially, it’s not choosing between dropping out or selling out. It’s hacking.

About 750 people apply to hike the full length of the PCT each year, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association—but hundreds of thousands more vicariously follow their journeys. Shortly after the trail’s official opening in 1993 was when Cheryl Strayed made the trek. She eventually turned her experiences into Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which became a best-selling book. The movie adaptation of Wild is due out later this year, starring Reese Witherspoon.

It takes certain means and privileges to drop everything and hike for five months straight. Robb raised $20,000 from an army of donors on Kickstarter, supplementing a $50,000 Creative Capital grant. But what about the other hikers? Their trials and tribulations out on the trail are real, but induced hardship is yet another sign that prosperous Americans—and Europeans, of which Robb runs into many—are always looking for something to do. In that vein, it seems worth noting that the PCT is always referred to as the “Mexico-to-Canada trail.” As if it were a conveyor belt that ran in only one direction, more than 95 percent of thru-hikers walk away from Mexico and toward Canada, according to the PCTA. Even if there’s a sensible reason for that, it makes a striking metaphor: The PCT quest is from poor to rich (speaking in per-capita terms). Nothing in Robb’s writing has addressed this directly yet, but the project does touch upon the way outdoorsy life intersects with socioeconomic realities—exactly the kind of subject the Romantics wanted left behind in their search for the wilderness. Robb commissioned other artists to submit writings, recordings, and drawings to the Wild Times website, and one is an audio interview with an LGBTQ group working to make nature a safer environment for sexual and gender “deviants,” i.e., people “against nature,” as fundamentalist mainstream religions would brand them. It also includes conversations with black women similarly describing the exclusivity of REI culture in a way that’s eerily reminiscent of the removal of Native people from lands that were simultaneously named after them—lands where, in the early years of the national park areas, Native people were not even allowed to be tourists but instead banned entirely.

In Robb’s own presentation to her cohort of fellow Creative Capital artists, she spoke of her husband, David, who’s back at home while she’s out on the trail. He was a white-water kayaker, soccer player, and rock climber until an accident paralyzed him from the waist down and left him with the use of only one arm. “David reminds me to be my body, and to take myself untrammeled places for the same reason that I make art, because both art and wild spaces have the ability to free us from the tyranny of fixed meaning,” she says in the video, which is available online. “The tyranny of fixed meaning” may as well be a John Cage coining. Robb opened this lecture with a projection of a photograph of the new REI flagship store in SoHo, standing a world away from the pursuits REI promotes, acting as much a fantasy of escape as a shop. What do city people get from simply walking by an REI? Why do people move to Seattle to go out into nature and then come right back again? What do Robb’s individual Kickstarter supporters get from watching the spectacle of Wild Times?

Beth Sellars, the curator of Suyama Space in Seattle, gave fifty bucks to the Wild Times Kickstarter (if she remembers correctly). She always wanted to hike the PCT herself but says she’s too old now. “I’m getting my money’s worth,” she laughs. “It’s a vicarious hike for me… It’s painful, what that many miles can do to a body. I remember a quiet little photo of what her shoes looked like from a couple of weeks ago. And early on, she had difficulty with the tendons in her legs, and she has just continued and continued… When you really think about doing it yourself, do you think you could do it?” Robb’s feet are sore every day of her walk; the Hudson River painters, by contrast, regularly pictured places they didn’t even bother to set foot in, let alone inhabit for an extended time.

Sellars says she wonders, too, what Robb’s corporate sponsors including Microsoft and Whole Foods get out of participating in a liberation from “the tyranny of fixed meaning.” Whatever it is, somehow they’re working for Robb rather than Robb working for them.

There’s always a here, a there, and a third imaginary place that’s under construction in Wild Times. Since Robb calls her wildness something made of both “a geographic ideal and a state of mind,” it’s also between “form and formless.” All the 3-D rocks from the trip will be piled up at the end, and that pile will be a single sculpture. It will have two identical editions, the pile of rocks printed in Santa Ana and the pile of rocks printed in Tacoma. That will be the form, with its precisely curved and angled exteriors. But the rocks invoke a formless universe, too, because they force you to imagine all the environments where the real twins live.

One of the weirdest parts of Wild Times has to be “Formulary for a New Wildness,” a series of workshops based in group therapy that have been held at the Frye Art Museum. People just drop in; there are six sessions total throughout the course of Robb’s walk, the final one on September 14. The facilitators are an artist and a psychotherapist.

“What does group therapy have to do with wildness?” I asked the psychotherapist, Nicole Wiggins, when I reached her at her office.

“It feels a little paradoxical to explore wildness in just talk, but I do it every day in talk therapy,” she said. “People come to explore their internal landscapes, often what they find intimidatingly or overwhelmingly wild inside them.”

In the first Wild Times psychotherapy session, according to an account written on Robb’s blog by the facilitators, the participants asked themselves what it really means to say “not in your wildest dreams.” In 1967, Richard Brautigan wrote a poem about his wildest dreams called “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” and Robb posted it to the Wild Times blog in June. It ends:

I like to think

(it has to be!)

of a cybernetic ecology

where we are free of our labors

and joined back to nature,

returned to our mammal

brothers and sisters,

and all watched over

by machines of loving grace.

“All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” like Wild Times, is a dream of two realms crisscrossing to create a third, new place, a utopia that just might be “horrifying” in good ways. Along with the link to the poem, Robb posted a picture of what was in front of her at that moment.

TECHNOLOGY ON TOP OF NATURE If a Hudson River School painter made this image, he would Photoshop out the wind turbines.

Her photograph is a wide, vast view, the top half all sky. This sky is idyllic blue, hanging over the formidable Mojave Desert, where Robb is positioned at the base of a little ridge dotted with green puffs of sagebrush and bitterbrush on the brown ground. The puffs are elongated by their shadows—it’s sunset, a picturesque moment—and every shadow points diagonally across the picture to one thing: a naked, twisty juniper tree. Its bleached fingers gesture to your eye’s final destination: a colony of white turbines planted on the flat distance beyond the ridge, generating electricity. They look like tiny tombstones from this far away, each marking a little death of wilderness. Look at those evil machines, you might think. But, you might also remember, they’re sending life-giving heat and light to someone, somewhere. “Another night of wind farm lullabies,” Robb wrote. If looking at this image, you can’t decide how to feel, yet feel more urgently than ever that you should decide, that’s a Robb landscape working on you. recommended

Tagged , , , , , ,

Thru Hiking Will Ruin Your Life


It’s been a long time since I’ve posted new news.

Gizmo, a fellow PCT thru-hiker has been creating Sounds of the Trail, a podcast exploring the world of thru-hiking via interviews with thru-hikers. I met up with Gizmo at the PCT kickoff in late April 2015, almost a year to the day since I embarked on Wild Times and my own thru-hike. We hid from the wind and rain in the cab of her pick-up and had a chat about how our experience is effecting our post-PCT lives. If you want to skip ahead to our conversation, it begins at 27:30, but then you’d be missing some great stuff with Kim Chi/Tic Toc and Saina/The Real Hiking Viking.

Sounds of the Trail #6 podcast

If you need to catch up on what the Wild Times project is all about please click here to read all things Wild Times and here to visit my instagram page.


Tagged , , , ,


I teamed up with Projecteo, the coolest Instagram-image mini-projector around, to offer you a projector PLUS a five-month subscription to Wild Times image wheels stocked with a choice selection of photo work I create while walking from Mexico to Canada. The projector and a new wheel each month will be deliver to you, all nestled in custom Wild Times box to keep everything “just so.” Seriously, this is tight.

Check it out:

Tagged , , ,

Kickstart Wild Times!

Hello Friends,

In less than three months I embark on Wild Times, a work that explores wildness in contemporary life via new media, social engagement, and a 2,650 mile hike. I invite you to join me through satellite events happening at over seven west coast host venues, various calls to collaborate, and a series of “hack your wild” tasks featured on the (upcoming) project website.

To support the website design and development, my project manager, project assistant and a few remaining trail costs please (they say Pacific Crest Trail hikers go through six pairs of shoes!) I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign. It’s not  just any ol’ campaign – the perks are really good! Please take a look and help me get wild!

Profile in the Seattle Times

The Seattle Times

Susan Robb: connecting people and the wilderness

A profile of Seattle multimedia artist Susan Robb, who fosters connectedness among individuals, and between people and the wilderness, with her “long walks.” She’ll embark on a very long walk next summer — nearly 3,000 miles. And we’re all invited to watch.

By Robert Ayers

Special to The Seattle Times

PREV 2 of 2  NEXT

Susan Robb, seen in her Seattle studio, plans to take a 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail hike next year as an art project engaging artists, performers, activists and environmental policy makers.


Susan Robb, seen in her Seattle studio, plans to take a 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail hike next year as an art project engaging artists, performers, activists and environmental policy makers.


In this year-long series, The Seattle Times and KUOW connect you with 13 people poised to shape the future of the arts in the Northwest.

‘Wild Times’

Starting April 14, 2014, Susan Robb will embark on her walk and send photos, sound, text, videos and objects to satellite “base camps”— private homes, art centers, schools and galleries across the country. They’ll in turn share the information via the Wild Times project blog (

Imagine this: You’re standing a few miles east of Tecate on the Mexican border. You start walking north. You walk all day. And all the next day, and the day after that. Your destination is the Canadian border northwest of Mount Winthrop, which means you’re going to walk the entire north-south length of the country. You’ll manage about 20 miles a day, and it’s going to take you nearly six months.

It’s a remarkable undertaking, both in terms of stamina and commitment. But imagine tackling a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail not merely as a physical challenge, not as sport or “thru-hiking,” as it is called, but as a huge work of art.

That is the task that artist Susan Robb has set for herself next year.

Robb isn’t the sort of artist that you could categorize as a painter or a sculptor, or even a conceptualist or a performance artist, although she uses all of those disciplines and many others in her work. Better to think of her as someone who uses whatever techniques are appropriate to the task at hand, and as something of a sorceress as well, for one of her principal gifts is turning one thing into another. She has coordinated light festivals in Seattle’s midwinter gloom, made 50-foot-long garbage bags into balloons and let them dance in the warmth of the sun, blended perfumes from the stuff she picked up along King County’s trails, turned sewage into methane to fuel a camp fire and then toasted marshmallows on it, and taken photographs from a plane to discover what the Earth’s face looks like.

She has also done a lot of walking. During the summers of 2010, 2011 and 2012, she led 50 walkers on a 45-mile, four-day Long Walk from Puget Sound to Snoqualmie Falls. In 2011, one of those walkers was University of Washington art historian Kolya Rice, who draws attention to one of Robb’s other key abilities — encouraging creative contact among the individuals who are involved in her work. This is a central aspect of its profound human significance. “Her work is brilliant,” Rice says. “It’s a catalyst for exactly the sort of human interactions that you would want to have every moment of the day. It facilitates you doing good things in the world.”

A Connecticut native with “very, very little exposure to art,” Robb wasn’t exactly encouraged by her parents to pursue the life of an artist. In fact, to placate them she spent her time at Syracuse University pursuing two degrees side by side — a bachelor of fine arts in photography, and what her parents considered a more useful bachelor of arts in art history. She first came to Seattle to do a master of fine arts at UW, again in photography, though she explains that for her, photography meant primarily “creating experiences — I would have my friends dress up and enact things, and photograph their experiences.”

In fact, if there is a single instinct — or what she calls a “fundamental expression” — at the core of Robb’s art, then perhaps this is it: setting up circumstances in which experience might be savored. Even as a child, she recalls, “I made imaginative situations and brought the neighborhood kids into them. There are kids who draw and kids who make things, but I would organize crazy scavenger hunts, or suggest ‘Let’s be tigers,’ or trick-or-treat in July! Nobody prompted that, it was just what I did.”

It’s still very much what she does, only now the situation she creates is a 2,650-mile walk. It will begin next April and it is called “Wild Times.”

That title is entirely appropriate because wildness, and its relevance to our 21st-century lives, is at the heart of its meaning. Although the relationship between civilization and wilderness is central to any sense of American identity, Robb points out that only 2 percent of the continental U.S. is now considered wild. For many of us, the resulting ‘nature deficit disorder’ gives rise to a fundamental crisis: “Have we ruined the climate so much that we’ve entered into a wilderness of our own making?” Robb asks. “Have we created a world that we don’t know how to live in?”

Though the questions are daunting, her responses to them are positive. Buoyed by a prestigious, $50,000 grant from Creative Capital, the New York-based artist support organization, Robb will punctuate her walk with “base camps.” Some of these will be traditional arts institutions and galleries, others will be people’s homes. At each base camp, at other “points of engagement,” and sometimes on the treks between them, she will be joined by artists, performers, activists and environmental policy makers. It is the wisdom that these people can call upon, or conjure up in their shared search for meaning, that will furnish the “Wild Times” experience. It is an experience open to fellow walkers, to visitors to the base camp, to Susan Robb herself, and to anyone else who interacts with the piece. And that could include you.

This is because, contrary to what you might expect of someone so concerned with wildness, Robb is no technophobe. “Technology is both the cause and solution to this project,” she suggests, and she will be transmitting a constant digital stream of photo, video and text material back to the base camps. She will compose songs. She will use software that will enable the sculptures she makes en route to be reproduced by 3-D printers. These things and others will constitute a cumulative exhibition at the conclusion of the walk, but she knows she cannot predict everything that will occur, and that is part of the walk’s significance.

“In a way, we’re all going out into the wildness,” she admits, “because I don’t know what I’ll be doing.”

Perhaps that is the most radical, most optimistic aspect of the entire undertaking — in a world where civilization is increasingly synonymous with predictability, Susan Robb dares embrace uncertainty. “We can’t anticipate everything,” she stresses.

“Everybody involved has to take a leap of faith.”

Robert Ayers:

Tagged , ,

Want to get wild with me?

I recently returned from a week-long Creative Capital retreat at Williams College in Massachusetts. It was a combination think-tank, pow-wow, and networking event that underscored contemporary art’s ability to make this little world of ours a more just, free, healthy (and of course interesting) place to thrive.

A group of 2013 Creative Capital grantees at the Artist Retreat in Williamstown, Mass. (photo: Carolyn Lambert for Creative Capital)

During the week I gave a presentation to the 350 retreat attendees about my up-coming project Wild Times. Having a chance to share the project has me more than excited to begin my 2,650 mile hike from Mexico to Canada during which I’ll explore what “wildness” means in contemporary america.

And here’s my “ask” to you: Do you want to get “wild?” I’m still looking for a few more “base camps”  – people or places ( private homes, art centers, juvenile jails, writers groups …) in all parts of the US who would like to contribute to this conversation about wildness. Is is a place? A state of mind? Something to cultivate? Something to fear? Over the course of my hike base camps will receive my trail transmission and respond to them on the Wild Times project blog. This interaction could be part of a school curriculum, a means of arm chair travel, or a conversation that is part of your blog. If this sounds like something you might be interested in participating in, contact me –

Upper Kingdom

Vignettes presents my new work Upper Kingdom

Opening/Closing Reception

Friday, May 31st, 2013

7 – 10pm

Upper Kingdom
Archival ink print
30 x 30 inches, 2013

Vignettes is located at 1617 Yale Ave, Seattle, WA

Please buzz ‘stinson’ at the entrance and head up to the 4th floor – number 401

What A Great Way To Begin 2013!

I’m excited to announce that my forthcoming work Wild Times has been chosen for a Creative Capital award.

Tagged ,

Genre Bender

2012 City Arts Fest presents:

Genre Bender

Due to popular demand the fantastic showcase for artist duets, Genre Bender is returning to City Arts at Culture Club!

Thursday October 18th 8 pm – 9:30 pm

Culture Club: 411 Union Street

5 teams of interdisciplinary artists who haven’t collaborated together will expand their horizons and create work that is challenging both to themselves and for the audience to present one night only at Culture Club, the hub and heart of City Arts 2012.

Susan Robb & DK Pan : Messinian Salinity Crisis
Pol Rosenthal & Rosette Royale : JungleBox
Kate Wallich & Meghann Sommer : LEGEND MAKER
Graham Downing & Anthony Sonnenberg : Best Not To Be
Paris Hurley & Jody Kuehner : PLASTIC

After Party!! Genre Bender Karaoke
10 pm – 1 am! **21+

Sponsored by Shunpike