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Duwamish River inspires Megan Lingerfelt’s machine-focused works

South Seattle artist finds beauty in the industrial engineering all around her

Courtesy of Megan Lingerfelt

Stirred by a post-undergraduate road trip that crisscrossed the United States, artist and North Carolinian Megan Lingerfelt up-and-moved to the Pacific Northwest nearly seven years ago. Like many Seattle-area transplants, she and her partner fell for Puget Sound’s mountain and water views and a promising new start. When they pulled out of Asheville, North Carolina, Lingerfelt had a fine arts degree in hand and an already established passion for machine-inspired art.

“A movie from my childhood, the Brave Little Toaster, is essentially an animated version of my artist statement,” she says. “I feel for that lamp, toaster, and that pessimistic vacuum. My paintings are meant to glorify the ordinary, or at least spotlight the service they provide.”

Drawing and printmaking influence Lingerfelt’s process, but paints—oil and watercolors—are her primary medium for studio works. Each piece begins with a drafted composition in pencil or charcoal, which is then built on with layers of paint. For her oil works, Lingerfelt works her way from dark to light and cool to warm colors. The glazed layers stack up until she adds opaque, white touches as the final accent.

In Asheville, Lingerfelt was always on a proactive hunt for items that would eventually become the centerpieces of her work. She frequented a pay-by-the-pound junkyard, treating each trip as a scavenger hunt for shiny treasures of unknown origin—the perfect thing to stimulate her imagination. Goodwill was another source that fueled Lingerfelt’s creativity. She’d buy used household appliances—can openers, hand mixers, and power tools; eager to peel back the layers, expose the engineering within, and get to painting. Her process, as she began to think of it, is an “autopsy of the manmade.”

“I don’t consider myself mechanically inclined, but I am drawn to understand how things work,” she says. “I’m regularly surprised by the beauty and intricacy that can be found by removing a few screws and the plastic façade from a machine.”

In Seattle, Lingerfelt focuses on the industrial, often large-scale elements she finds embedded into life here. The maritime industry and its structures, both stationary and free-moving, have greatly impacted her art. When she got to town, these structures were so new to her eyes that they took her breath away. She remembers, for example, taking photos of the cranes at the Port of Tacoma; being in awe of their scale and the vast empty spaces that surrounded them.

“I didn’t feel like I belonged there; that I might be a hazard. But I wanted to be close to the cranes. They seemed alive and powerful. One of my first pieces created in the Pacific Northwest was of these cranes. I gave them goofy legs—the freedom to roam beyond the shore.”

Lingerfelt continues to be inspired by mechanical muses—the massive tools of trade and commerce she sees outside her window now. Lingerfelt lives in a 50-foot wooden vessel docked along the shores of Duwamish River, the lowermost four-and-a-half miles of which empty into the Salish Sea south of downtown.

“We bought it moored in south Seattle and considered relocating to Ballard or Lake Union,” she says. “But I found myself enjoying the quirks of the Duwamish. I’d rather have tugboats as neighbors than party boats.”

The weather has shaped her experience living over water; standing over the stove to cook can be a gentle event or a wobbly on depending on wind gusts. She contends that the rhythm of the tides, the ebb and flow of the clouds, and the local wildlife make her feel more connected to nature.

“It’s a joy that I happily trade for the burdens of boat life.”

Named after the Native American tribe indigenous to Seattle, the Duwamish’s bends and curves were smoothed out long ago to make port- and shipping-related business easier to facilitate to the determent of its nearshore ecology.

Lingerfelt says living in industrial south Seattle is like living under a machine’s plastic cover. If you loosen and remove a few screws, you’ll see the strength of humankind’s ingenuity as represented by the tools, processes, and engineering that keep an entire city, our city, humming along.

“I watch tugboats move boulders, then gravel to the Ash Grove Cement complex. I hear the rocks as they’re dropped and crushed,” she says. “Seattle is known as a city of the future. It’s shiny. But underpinning it all is the maritime industry along the Duwamish, which feels old, rusty, dirty, and that smells like diesel.”

Features of her neighborhood, including barges, gears, and engine components, have all been represented in her works. She often pairs her weathered, mechanized subjects with reflective, serene waters and flora.

The contrast between natural and manmade, industry and unemployment, and wealth and poverty is stark in some areas immediately south of downtown. Lingerfelt says the polarity between these elements can be both frightening and beautiful.

“Walking out of my door to an actual, functioning industry is incredibly inspiring. There aren’t any tree-lined streets, garden boxes, or cute 900-square-foot homes selling for half a million dollars like there are in many Seattle neighborhoods,” she says. “Instead, I find warehouses, train tracks, loading docks, RV communities, tent cities, and barges.”

Lingerfelt feels like her slice of the city is ground zero for many of the important issues being discussed and debated by state and local lawmakers.

“My work is almost entirely representational. I pair my drafting skills with a more saturated than natural palette. It’s my way of applying rose-tinted glasses to my surroundings with a contrasting sense of nostalgia and curiosity for the future.”