SDOT Women Paving the Way | Meet Kristen Ramirez

Kristen Ramirez. Photo Credit: James Harnois for Amazon Artist in Residence, summer 2020

This month, we are sharing stories of some of SDOT’s talented, brave, strong, and determined employees who are making our city safer, opening paths for other women (cis,  trans, and gender expansive people) in the workforce, and fighting for a more equitable city. 

Meet Kristen Ramirez. 

One of those amazing women is Kristen Ramirez, SDOT Artist in Residence. Kristen’s role spans across both SDOT and the Office of Arts and Culture (ARTS). We talked to Kristen about her work, including her art outside of her City position (more on that can be found on her website, too)! 


Kristen, it’s so great to meet you. What do you do as SDOT’s Artist in Residence? 

In my role, I manage the process of designing and creating public art around the city. This allows me to work with many incredible artists in our community, together with SDOT and ARTS staff, to create temporary art projects, murals, sculptures, sidewalk inlays, and more that reflect our diverse region and complement the infrastructure. This could include anything from sidewalk installations, like we completed on NE 43rd St, to larger projects, like the lighting under the Fremont Bridge. 

Typically, projects start with a relationship with the SDOT project manager on a project that has significant 1% for Art budget. We work together – sometimes over the course of months – to think about what type of art is right for the project. Then, we draft and release a “call for artists,” which is kind of like a request for proposal, in which we explain the project and welcome artists to apply to create the related artwork. While applications are coming in, I help build a selection panel composed of stakeholders, artists, community members and project staff. We review every applicant – sometimes over 200! – and then interview finalists. After we select an artist, I manage the artist and their process of creating the artwork, which can take anywhere from one to five years.  

Outside of projects, I also created the new SDOT Art Plan in 2020. The SDOT Art Plan is to demystify public art and provide context and direction for the 1% for Art Fund, a program established in 1973 that specifies that 1% of eligible city capital improvement project funds be set aside for the commission, purchase and installation of art.  

This fund continues to make Seattle beautiful through artwork that can be seen on or under bridges, sidewalks, in parks, and much more. Most cities will have an art fund, but Seattle is one of the first cities to have such an ordinance and over the years has invested a lot into public art. It’s not just the City either; it’s also the community that invests in artwork. 


What do you love most about your work? 

I love learning about what it takes to make the city work, which is much more than I ever realized. From infrastructure like roads and bridges to utilities and electricity, it’s a very complicated dance that takes a lot of people. I like how our history is embedded in the infrastructure and I love learning about history. I also love to champion artists and take them to a new chapter in their careers; sometimes that is making public art for the first time.  


What do you feel the benefit of public art is to our community? 

Art and culture are a catharsis for us. They serve as a means for us and our society to metabolize and process what we are seeing in the world, and a way of momentarily getting out of your daily grind. Art is something we experience as a community; it conveys messages about history, beauty, or truth, and allows us to think a differently. 


What are some of the projects you’ve enjoyed working on?  

One of the projects that I’m very proud of as an art administrator is Public Art Comes to Your Yard. When COVID-19 hit last spring and we had just started lockdown, over at ARTS we wondered, “how are we going to support artists? How are we going to pivot in this moment?” We commissioned twelve artists to create designs for yard signs and displayed them all over Seattle. We were able to get this project out very quickly. 

Outside of my work at the City of Seattle, I love creating public art projects in a variety of media. I’ve worked on art plans, stamped concrete, and created permanent sculpture, community newspapers, sound pieces, and much more. But my real love is painting large-scale murals. Last year, I was commissioned to paint a large indoor mural for Amazon in South Lake Union. Painting inside means you don’t have to battle the elements, there is plenty of water, and electricity. Amazon also set up a huge scaffolding system, so I didn’t have to bring ladders. I loved painting this large-scale homage to Muhammad Ali, titled “Me. We.” during this racial reckoning the United States finds ourselves in. The message is simple: it’s time we take care of each other. 


Can you tell us about a defining moment in your career, or a pivotal challenge? 

Bridge Talks Back. An image of the poster from an event Kristen organized on the Fremont Bridge, as part of her artist residency, 2009. Photo Credit: poster by Jacques Moiteret

One defining moment would have to be when I took on my first public art project in 2009 for the Fremont Bridge – an SDOT 1% for Art project! This was long before I worked as a City of Seattle employee and understood very little about SDOT. It was my first residency as an artist and the northeast bridge tower became my studio for the summer. The tower and the bridge were loud, with sounds of cars, people, cyclists, boats, ducks, rowers, and more. I created a temporary artwork called, “This Bridge Talks,” and worked with a sound designer who created a lyrical composition, based on the stories, sounds and experiences people have with the Fremont Bridge. At this time, I worked with SDOT to create a series of signs that were posted in Fremont and Queen Anne. I learned a lot about the City and public art at that time, which really leads to where I am now.  

“Bridge Talks Back.” This is an image of the poster from an event Kristen organized on the Fremont Bridge as part of her artist residency in 2009. Poster by Jacques Moiteret.

We continue to host these bridge residencies for artists in which the city provides time and space to an artist to develop a body of work and ARTS manages the contract. To date, there have been six different artists-in-residence on the Fremont and University bridges. These artists have used the vacant bridge towers as their temporary studios. Under contract with ARTS, they have to develop work that relates to the history or infrastructure of the bridge. There are all kinds of artists who use all kinds of mediums working as artists-in-residence. We’ve had a literary artist, a musician/composer, lighting artists, and graphic novelists.  

In 2019, I transitioned out of my full-time role as “SDOT Art & Enhancements Project Manager” to a part-time role as “SDOT Artist in Residence.” Essentially I scaled back all of the project management I was doing to focus on a new art plan for SDOT and more creative projects within the department. This also allowed me to take on more personal art projects, something I’ve been clamoring to do for a long time. 


Are there female artists in history who inspire you?  

Yes, there are too many to name! Just a few that inspire me include: Margaret KilgallenJenny HolzerBarbara KrugerYoko Ono, and Teresita Fernandez. These artists all share a few traits that I admire: bold, daring use of color in combination with text, and a love of working with public space. They are also not afraid to work at a large scale. 


To learn more about Kristen, you can watch her recent interview as part of the Seattle Art Museum’s Lunchtime Artist Spotlight series! 


Throughout this month we will be sharing stories of other women at SDOT who inspire us. Learn more about Karen Sweeney, our Street Maintenance Manager, whom we interviewed earlier this week.