A CITY ON A HILL | Remembering Rolon Bert Garner

We all knew he was going.

He’d had chronic COPD and an ongoing heart condition for many years. 

At his last Seattle public appearance, in early 2013, he’d looked frail and had trouble talking for long periods of time.

But it was still a total surprise to learn that he’d died on a mid-August Monday morning.

Like many people commonly grouped as “‘60s-generation kids,” Rolon Bert Garner was already past his teens before The Beatles came to our shores. 

Born in 1940, he’d grown up in Eugene, Ore., to parents from Oklahoma. He’d worked in Portland before he came here to work for the Seattle Art Museum, circa 1969.

He was one of the original instigators of the Bumbershoot arts festival in 1971 and one of the creators of its visual-art component (then a much bigger part of the festival than it is now).

He was involved with the multi-disciplinary arts center “and/or” (1974-84). He curated and designed exhibits, installations and temporary “pop-up spaces.” He installed exhibits (choosing which pieces went where, thus determining the pace and flow of the show) at the Frye Art Museum and many local galleries. He helped produce private events, including fashion shows for Nordstrom.

In 1977, he and other local artists co-founded Artech, a still-dominant regional art framing, installation, storage and shipping company. 

In 1981, Garner and Virginia Inn owner Patrice Demombynes pioneered the idea of art exhibits in local bars. (He and Demombynes also had their own gallery space on Dexter Avenue for a couple of years.)

He continued to curate art on barroom walls as a co-manager of the Two Bells Tavern (with wife Patricia Ryan, who passed in 2001). He’d been a bartender there before Ryan bought the place circa 1982, then married her in 1984. 

Under Ryan and Garner, the then-rundown, little bar on a low-foot-traffic stretch of Fourth Avenue became the virtual living room for the then-burgeoning Denny Regrade arts community. Besides visual-art shows, it also hosted readings, spoken-word performances and folk and alt-country music gigs. 

The Bells’ simple but high-quality menu of gourmet burgers and sandwiches made it a lunch hotspot for the architects and lawyers in Martin Selig’s nearby office buildings. It was also one of the first bars in town to support the first local “microbrews” (Grant’s and Redhook). 

When Ryan’s cancer got too bad for her to continue running the place, she sold it. She and Garner retired to the country.

Garner was also an artist in his own right.

His last show of paintings, a career retrospective at the Virginia Inn two-and-a-half years ago, was full of bright colors, underground-comix-esque lines and curves, and an old hippie’s lifelong interest in semi-abstracted, cartoon-y female nudes.

He also worked in more conceptual themes. With Ken Leback, he created the public-art piece “Equality” (a grid of Monopoly-style houses made of concrete) that still stands on North Beacon Hill.

I’d been going to the Virginia Inn since 1981, and to Two Bells since at least 1985. I knew Garner as a smart, soft-spoken, often-funny presence. He did so many things, in so many places, that it was difficult to imagine a local arts scene without him. And it still is.

A memorial for Garner took take place at the Virginia Inn, at First Avenue and Virginia Street, on Wednesday, Sept. 23. Works by artists Garner inspired or helped promote were be on the walls.


Last of the Regrade

Much of Garner’s career (including the Virginia Inn, the Bells and Artech’s offices) was centered in the Belltown neighborhood. 

That’s a place that’s been through a lot of destruction and transformation in recent decades.

But one special block, Second Avenue between Blanchard and Bell streets (particularly along the east side of Second Avenue), has remained a center of “hip” nightlife for two decades. 

At its southern end, The Crocodile still hosts hot live-music acts of many types.

Heading north, after passing a senior housing tower, Tula’s hosts live jazz and retro big-band gigs.

The next building houses indie-theater spaces upstairs and three bars at street level. One of those is Shorty’s, a definitive hip joint with loud clown imagery, vintage pinball games, hot dogs and a “Trophy Room” back bar.

Up from that, the vintage Wayne Apartment Building. The upstairs apartments are now called Belltown Funky Studios. Downstairs are a medical pot store, Rocco’s pizza bar and the Lava Lounge, a homey tiki-esque bar that’s welcomed low-key, intimate fun for 20 years.

At the end of the block, the venerable Mama’s Mexican Kitchen is already set to be razed for luxury apartments.

Now, the three mid-block buildings are also slated to come down for a separate development.

But there’s a catch: The Wayne is the last remaining pre-Denny Regrade building on Second Avenue. The upstairs units were built in 1890; the downstairs storefronts were added after the regrade.

Even before the redevelopment was announced, the Wayne had been considered for official preservation.

On Sept. 2, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board tentatively approved that proposal. 

Even though Shorty’s isn’t in the Wayne building but in the building next door, many Shorty’s customers (past and present) are supporting the plan.  They figure if the Wayne is saved, the whole development project could fall through, and thus, Shorty’s might also get saved.

The next hearing about the Wayne’s landmark nomination is on Oct. 7 in the Seattle Municipal Tower (700 Fifth Ave.)

CLARK HUMPHREY is the author of “Walking Seattle” and “Vanishing Seattle.” He also writes a blog at miscmedia.com. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.