Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A "Spiral of Hope" for an End to Homelessness

June 08, 2012

Building an awareness campaign using community art for something as serious as family homelessness is a challenge. You have to consider how to tell a story without trivializing anyone’s experience or tokenizing victims. You can expect people may ask what real good, if any, this project is doing. Above all else, you want people to talk about the project and the issue.

We kept all those things in mind while creating the Spiral Project, a 350-foot long sculpture made of branches and twigs at Seattle’s South Lake Union Park.  The project, created in partnership with Seattle University, starts just a few feet off the ground and slowly rises to reach a central height of 22-feet at its center, where it frames a living Maple tree.  

Art is uniquely suited to getting people talking. So much of it relies on individual interpretation, but as humans, we desire connection and understanding, so we talk about what we see. 

As we were building the Spiral, people came up to us and asked “what is it supposed to do?”

On the issue of family homelessness, we decided it would be presumptuous to create an art piece that tried to tell the stories of those who experienced it. Instead, we focused on creating a hopeful symbol: an ascending spiral, defying the usual associations of downward spirals, created by a community of volunteers.

It’s approachable, and it’s literal enough for people to wonder about it. We wanted to use art as an opportunity to inspire people to ask questions. And they did.

From a distance, the Spiral Project looks like a bird nest. On the inside, it’s more like a meditative labyrinth. It’s unusual, unlike anything people come across in their daily lives. As we were building the Spiral, people came up to us and asked “what is it supposed to do?” We explained that it’s supposed to get you thinking about our community and how we can create hope for people who are often rendered invisible.

We weren’t just creating art; we were creating personal connections, one conversation at a time.  And these conversations are continuing through word of mouth and through other channels.  KING5-TV wrote about it, as did many others including award winning writer Rosette Royale in Real Change, and CityArts.

Art is powerful because it draws people in with beauty and invites them to look deeper once they are invested. That multi-layered response is effective in an awareness campaign where the stakes are too high to risk turning off a potential audience by offering them harsh reality before anything else. We hope to get them interested, and then show them the reality. 

We want people to see the power of art and then take action.  Our partnerships with homelessness advocacy organizations like the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Firesteel, and Building Changes are helping those drawn to the Spiral Project turn their aesthetic experience into something more tangible—the sense that they can become part of a larger movement to end family homelessness. 

The Spiral Project will be open at South Lake Union Park until June 17. 

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