Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn presents arts awards to Barbara Earl Thomas, Preston Singletary, 826 Seattle, Frye Art Museum, Pongo Teen Writing Project, and Seattle Rep on August 30, 2013.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 8/07/2017
  • Essay 20423
See Additional Media

On August 30, 2013, Mayor Mike McGinn (b. 1959) presents the 11th annual Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards in a ceremony on the Seattle Center's North Fountain Lawn. The ceremony, part of the opening of the city's annual Bumbershoot festival, recognizes local artists and arts and cultural organizations that have made significant contributions to Seattle's creative reputation. Painter, writer, and arts administrator Barbara Earl Thomas (b. 1948) receives the Cultural Ambassador Award; glass artist Preston Singletary (b. 1963) receives the Raising the Bar Award; 826 Seattle, a writing center for youth, receives the Future Focus Award; the Frye Art Museum receives the Venture Culturalist Award; the Pongo Teen Writing Project receives the Arts as the How Award; and the nationally known Seattle Repertory Theatre receives the Artistic City Award.

Recognizing Artistic Accomplishment

Since 2003 the Seattle Arts Commission has recognized the accomplishments of local arts, artists, and cultural organizations in an annual ceremony known as the Mayor's Arts Awards. The ceremony coincides with the opening of the Bumbershoot festival, a large arts festival held every Labor Day weekend at the Seattle Center. Each year hundreds of contenders are nominated for the awards, but only a small fraction win. In 2013, there were more than 600 nominations for the six awards given.

The Seattle Arts Commission voted on the choices, and at 4 p.m. on August 30, the winners were recognized in a ceremony held "under a glorious blue sky" (Brodeur) on the North Fountain Lawn at the Seattle Center. Each recipient was featured in a video presentation prior to being presented with the award by Randy Engstrom, director of the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture.

Barbara Earl Thomas

Barbara Earl Thomas was honored with the Cultural Ambassador award, one of an impressive record of awards that she has received in dating back to the early 1980s. Her essays have been published in a wide array of publications that include Arcade Magazine, CALYX, and Raven Chronicles. She has lectured widely on both arts and contemporary American culture and has either presented or been a keynote speaker for a broad range of organizations.

But Thomas is best known as a painter. She has exhibited her artwork since the 1970s, when she was a student at the University of Washington, where she studied with acclaimed artists on the faculty including Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) and earned an MFA in 1977. Her art is held in many private as well as public collections, including those of the City of Seattle, the Seattle Art Museum, and Microsoft. Thomas's work has been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the United States, with a showcase of her work planned for September 2017 in the Claire Oliver Gallery at Expo Chicago (an international contemporary art exhibition held each year in Chicago).

Somehow in addition to producing substantial bodies of both art and writing, Thomas also found the time to play a major role in the founding and development of one of Seattle's important new cultural institutions, the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), which opened in 2008. She had worked on the effort to open the museum since 2005, and served as curator, developing the inaugural exhibit, which featured the work of sculptor James W. Washington Jr. (1908-2000) and Thomas's former teacher Jacob Lawrence. But she soon took on the role of deputy director as well and then, before NAAM was a year old, she had become executive director, a position in which she continued to guide the museum until 2013.

Preston Singletary

Glass artist Preston Singletary received the Raising the Bar Award. Growing up in Seattle, the descendant of the Alaskan Native Tlingit tribe originally dreamed of being a punk rocker. Moving on, he began working at a glassblowing studio. Before long, he was studying at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood and working for glassmaster Dale Chihuly (b. 1941).

Though his work initially began with simple designs, his later work has leaned toward abstract modernism, although incorporating what one writer described as "animal-inspired shapes" (Machkovech, "... Preston Singletary"). Singletary has also become known for creating giant glass sculptures. He has contributed to dozens of art galleries and has served on the boards of the Seattle Art Museum and the Pilchuck Glass School. When interviewed prior to receiving the award, Singletary said he hoped his biggest legacy would be to inspire other Native artists to follow their artistic dreams.

826 Seattle

826 Seattle received the Future Focus award. The nonprofit organization had since 2005 worked with thousands of students aged 6 to 18 to help them express themselves and strengthen their writing skills by providing them with opportunities to publish their work. Hundreds of volunteers at 826 Seattle offered writing workshops, an afterschool tutoring program, and theatrical-writing field trips, paid by funding from grants and donations. The organization's writing center was located in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood behind a "whimsical storefront: The Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company," which actually offered space maps, food, and (toy) ray guns for sale to would-be astronauts, with an "atomic teleporter" serving as the entrance to the writing center itself ("Mayor's Arts Awards: 2013 Recipients").

Accepting the 2013 Future Focus Award for 826 Seattle was founder and Executive Director Teri Hein, who had received an analogous award from First Lady Michelle Obama (b. 1964) in 2011.

In 2014, 826 Seattle changed its name to the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas. Until that time the organization had operated as a chapter of 826 National, a national organization with similar goals to 826 Seattle founded by author Dave Eggers in San Francisco. However, 826 Seattle had begun as an independent organization, and the new name symbolized a desire for the organization to go its own way and personalize its services for Seattle-area residents. Under its new name the organization continued to operate the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company and the writing center located behind the storefront.

Frye Art Museum

The Frye Art Museum received the Venture Culturalist award. The museum opened in 1952 to display the impressive art collection acquired by Charles (1858-1940) and Emma (1860-1934) Frye. Most of the 232 works that the Fryes acquired were painted in the "Munich school" style, a romantic, naturalist style which perhaps was indicative of the couple's German background. The couple stipulated that their estate be used to build the museum, and Charles's will additionally specified that admission be free, which it remains as of 2017.

The museum's collection expanded quickly, growing to include both American and European representational art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Frye holds works from Seattle artists including William Cumming, Albert Fisher, and Mark Tobey. By 1994 the museum's collection had increased five-fold to more than 1,200 paintings, prompting a two-year expansion and remodeling of the building between 1995 and 1997. Following its remodel, the Frye featured more exhibitions of contemporary local artists, along with major traveling shows, in addition to historical exhibits drawing on its original founding collection.

Pongo Teen Writing Project

The Pongo Teen Writing Project received the Arts as the How Award. Founded in 1992 by writer and publisher Richard Gold, Pongo is a volunteer nonprofit that helps troubled teenagers, many of them traumatized by abuse or neglect in childhood, who are in jail, psychiatric hospitals, or otherwise struggling, write their way to hope. Most of the work focuses on poetry, though other forms of writing aren't discouraged. By 2013 Pongo had worked with more than 6,000 teens since its founding, and had published 13 anthologies of poetry written by its writers.

In recent years the Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project (as the organization is known as of 2017) has broadened its horizons beyond Seattle. It now offers support to writing projects nationwide by offering presentations and training in the Pongo method. An important part of that method is the use of "teaching techniques such as structured activities and dictation to support and encourage creativity by people who aren't used to expressing themselves, even people who have very limited skill" ("Who We Are").

Seattle Repertory Theatre

The Seattle Repertory Theatre (often referred to as Seattle Rep or the Rep), then celebrating its 50th anniversary, received the 2013 Artistic City Award. The Rep has been described as a "national treasure" (Blecha), staging a mix of new works and classics since its 1963 opening. According to the Rep's website, actor Hal Holbrook (b. 1925) suggested the creation of a repertory theater in Seattle after a local run of his 1962 one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight, inspiring the Rep's birth a year later.

After a somewhat challenging start common among arts institutions, the Rep has grown into one of Seattle's gems. In 1990, the theater was honored with a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.

By 2013 it had featured more than 400 productions, with some of the more memorable ones being Hamlet, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, and The Importance of Being Earnest. The Rep had also hosted a wide range of well-known actors over its history, among them Richard Chamberlin, Samuel Jackson, Meryl Streep, and Lily Tomlin, and staged the work of many Seattle-based writers, including internationally acclaimed playwrights August Wilson (1945-2005) and Robert Schenkkan.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Thomas, Barbara Earl" (by Peter Blecha), "Seattle Repertory Theatre" (by Peter Blecha), and "Frye Art Museum (Seattle)" (by Cassandra Tate), (accessed July 8, 2017); Melissa Davis, "Winners of the 2013 Mayor's Arts Awards," The Seattle Times, July 1, 2013 (; Nicole Brodeur, "Mayor's Awards Honor Local Luminaries in Arts," Ibid., September 3, 2013; Paul Constant, "826 Seattle Changes its Name to the Bureau of Fearless Ideas," The Stranger, November 5, 2014, (; Barbara Earl Thomas website accessed July 5, 2017 (; Sam Machkovech, "Mayor's Arts Award: 826 Seattle," August 21, 2013, City Arts website accessed July 5, 2017 (; Sam Machkovech, "Mayor's Arts Award: Preston Singletary," August 27, 2013, City Arts website accessed July 5, (; Rachel Shimp, "Mayor's Arts Award: Pongo Teen Writing Project," August 28, 2013, City Arts website accessed July 5, 2017 (; "Mayor's Arts Awards: 2013 Recipients," Office of Arts & Culture website accessed July 5, 2017 (; "Who We Are," Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project website accessed July 10, 2017 (; "About Us," Seattle Repertory Theatre website accessed July 10, 2017 (

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You