The Moss Turtle. Photo courtesy of Michiko Tanaka.

Moss grows slowly, but artist Michiko Tanaka has been patient. Tanaka was commissioned to design a piece of public art for the Fremont Troll’s Knoll in autumn, 2020, with five months allotted for the growth of the moss element of her creation before its official dedication on April 22nd, Earth Day.

The Fremont Troll is an 18-foot, 13,000-pound sculptural statue of a troll created in 1990, under the north end of the George Washington Memorial Bridge (also known as the Aurora Bridge) in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, by artists Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter and Ross Whitehead. The image was derived from Scandinavian folklore, which often tells stories of trolls living under bridges.

Beginning in 2010, the area west of the Fremont Troll was developed into a park through the Park and Green Spaces Levy Opportunity Fund in Seattle, and in 2016, the Troll’s Knoll Park opened to the public. In the past two years, the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods granted $25,000 in additional funding to expand the park eastward, and Tanaka’s commission is part of this east addition.

Tanaka’s choice of animal for this public art installation was the turtle, an idea that arose during a prior trip she made to Japan. “I was in Osaka’s Dotonbori, which is the Japanese Las Vegas, when I stumbled upon a little shrine that had a moss Buddha,” Tanaka said. “People could pour water on the Buddha and make a wish. I thought to exchange the Buddha for a turtle and make it an environmental installation.”

Watering the Moss Turtle. Photo courtesy of Michiko Tanaka.

The moss turtle will reflect the beliefs of the native Japanese animist religion Shintoism, which asserts that everything is sacred. “We will have people search for turtle rocks that we will scatter throughout the Fremont Troll Knoll,” Tanaka said, “and will invite people to pour water on the turtle.”

This living installation is just one of Tanaka’s many public art pieces. “Another favorite installation is one I just did for Shunpike,” she said. “I had created a series of digital art pieces featuring alternative hip hop stars done in a glitch art style.”

To display this series in Shunpike’s office windows, Tanaka used posters to combine a sense of the historical and the contemporary. “Hip hop fragments popular culture,” she said. “Glitch art is a visual depiction of that. They both exist in the digital realm and posters are an archaic way of depicting music stars.”

Tanaka especially appreciates the factors of collaboration and surprise. “My goal with public art is to be able to bring contemporary, conceptual art into a world of people who may not seek it out on their own,” she said. “It’s nice to have that built in audience and often that enthusiasm will lead to interesting things.”

Artist Michiko Tanaka.

A career as an artist was not something that Tanaka planned. “I started out at Evergreen State College in environmental science,” she recounted. “I did, however, spend all my free time working on art projects.”

In her junior year at Evergreen, she went to Italy to study art, but most the most useful aspect of her degree was the structure of creating her own learning objectives. “I would write up a proposal of what I wanted to learn and submit it to my advisor,” Tanaka recalled. “I use the same process today when applying for public art projects.”

These skills have helped her build a career as a freelance artist over the past two decades. “I started out as a scenic artist in 2000,” Tanaka said. “The economy was really good then and I didn’t have much trouble finding work.”

But she hit some road-bumps during the Great Recession. “After the economic crisis of 2008, a lot of scenic artists quit the business,” she said. “I was able to support myself by taking a part time job in an art store and freelancing on the side.”

The instability of the art world has not posed insurmountable challenges for Tanaka. “I like the variety of not having a full-time job, so freelancing works for me,” she said. “I don’t have kids to support, so that makes things easier.”

Even the current COVID-19 pandemic has not derailed her progress. “I must admit that the pandemic has been great for me personally,” Tanaka said. “Usually, I travel quite a bit, but this year I have spent just in my studio, and it has been so satisfying.”

The key was to slow down and focus on fundamentals. “I gave myself the permission to paint exactly what I want, to really use my voice and the work that has come out of this year has been fantastic,” she said. “This is only possible because my overhead is super low, and I don’t need to take in a large income to survive.”

Tanaka’s recommendations for others aspiring to create art professionally? “My advice for young artists is to not get yourself into debt,” she said, “and keep your overhead as low as possible.” One way to do that is to pursue free outdoor recreation at Seattle’s local parks – including the Fremont Troll’s Knoll.

Fremont Troll’s Knoll is located at North 36th Street and Troll Avenue North, Seattle.

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