Meet the Gardner House and Allen Family Center Mural Artist Kenji Stoll
When public artist Kenji Hamai Stoll began sketching out the design of the mural that would adorn the exterior of the Gardner House and Allen Family Center, he knew it needed to be more than a beautiful piece of art.
Kenji Hamai Stoll's lotus flower mural on the exterior of the Gardner House and Allen Family Center in the Mount Baker neighborhood of Seattle.
When Tacoma public artist Kenji Hamai Stoll began sketching out the design of the mural that would adorn the exterior of the Gardner House and Allen Family Center, he knew it needed to be more than a beautiful piece of art. It needed to connect with the surrounding community.
It’s this belief of community connection that’s driven his work in the public art space, and the Gardner House and Allen Family Center – which helps provide housing and resources for families experiencing homelessness in King County – presented an exciting opportunity to continue making those connections through art.
“When you think about public art, it's a reflection and a conversation that an artist is having with the community,” said Stoll over a Zoom interview. “When a community is not involved or thought of or incorporated in a meaningful way, it's really just a one-way conversation.”
We spoke with Stoll about what inspires his artistic style, how he landed on the lotus flower design for this particular project, and what he hopes the surrounding Mount Baker neighborhood takes away from his latest piece.
How did you get started in public art?
I initially got my start in art and public art through graffiti art as a teenager. What really drew me to that was the idea of being able to reclaim abandoned spaces and explore the city and really build your own kind of connection with it.
My connection through graffiti into public art eventually happened when I saw the power of how graffiti creates an opportunity for people to connect with their community and see themselves reflected in it in a different way. As a young person, when you see art that speaks to you or that speaks to your culture and the things that you're interested in, and you see that around your city and in your neighborhood, it can be really powerful. As I grew as an artist and found ways to develop my art and even incorporate my own cultural background into those pieces, I started to see a lot of opportunities as a muralist and as a public artist blossom from that.
What inspires your style?
I get a lot of inspiration in my murals and in my artwork both from this background in graffiti, and also this background in my Japanese via Hawaiian heritage. I come from a family that doesn't necessarily think of themselves as artists, but I grew up with culture and art all around me, whether it be growing flowers to creating different sculptures and boxes. I think in our culture there's a way of thinking about art where it's not necessarily this thing that always happens in the gallery, but it's something that's interwoven and deeply connected with our culture and our way of living. Becoming a public artist and thinking about murals and thinking about the work that we do in community, those things kind of all blend together seamlessly in terms of what inspires me and what comes together to create work for me.
How did you land on the lotus flower and lotus pond as your design for the mural on Gardner House and Allen Family Center?
The inspiration for that really came from the idea that lotus flowers are seen as symbols of wisdom and purity in cultures throughout the world. It’s an ancient concept that is rooted in everything from East Asia, to Southeast Asia to all the way to Northern Africa and all these other places.
To me what's really special about the lotus flower is that it symbolizes a kind of perseverance and strength because they're not the flowers in your garden. They're actually flowers that take root in mud and grow through murky water. When I thought about creating a mural design that spoke to community that was going to be placed in Seattle, I really wanted to choose a flower that wasn't going to just be pretty or beautiful and be seen as this decorative thing. But that is was also was going to have an underlying symbolism that connected across cultural boundaries and symbolized that certain kind of strength and perseverance for communities going through challenge.
Why is it important for artists to make that connection to community?
For me, it's important for artists to build a connection with their community that they're working in because it's really what brings art, especially in the public realm, full circle. When you think about public art, it's a reflection and a conversation that an artist is having with the community. When a community is not involved or thought of or incorporated in a meaningful way, it's really just a one-way conversation. It’s not just a piece for people to be an audience member of, but it's actually something that takes shape and represents and actually becomes a lived-in thing in people's lives. Being able to make those touch points and those connections and create something that is actually rooted in something that's meaningful to the community that it's in is vital for having a piece really reach its full potential.
What excited you most about this project?
The most exciting thing for me about this project was the fact that it was rooted in the development of affordable housing in Seattle. Something that I'm really aware of and tried to be really conscious of in creating work is that Seattle and the growing region, even Tacoma where I'm from, is experiencing incredible change and development. With that, it's become harder and harder for families and people of color to have affordable housing and sustainable housing in the communities that they've lived in for decades. For me, what was really exciting about this project was that this was an opportunity to create public work that was going to be a part of an investment in maintaining that, and an investment in communities that that need to be supported. As an artist, that's something that's really inspiring to me and meaningful and I think it actually gives the work a deeper sense of meaning to be able to contribute in that way.
What do you hope people take away from the mural now and in the future?
When I think about what I hope this mural symbolizes in five, 10 or 15 years, I don't know because I don't actually know what the city of Seattle or the South Seattle neighborhood is going to look like in five, 10 or 15 years. Given the trajectory it's been on with development, it's really hard to say if it'll be the same recognizable place. But what I do know is that the mural speaks to a sense of impermanence and I think in that creates a sense of timelessness for what it stands by.