Mark Ukelson, 64, is a superhero for the arts.
He’s Rocket Man, dressed in yellow tights and a construction helmet with rockets sticking out.
Six years ago, Ukelson started The Fremont Tour, a seasonal street theater that promotes public art in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle.
“I decided to answer my earlier call to create a story about the collection of artwork here in the Center of the Universe,” he said. “We want people to know that public art is an important community value.”
You might remember Ukelson from his waterfront Edmonds retail shop “Faces of the NW” that featured local artists. He also had a warehouse in Edmonds.
This season’s Fremont Tour started this week and runs Sundays through Sept. 4. beginning at 1 p.m. at Solstice Plaza. Tickets are $20 for “mature but playful” adults, $16 for “somewhat serious” seniors and students. Free for under 10 or older than 90. More information is available at thefremonttour.com.
Talk about your tour.
I first had this idea of doing a public art walk in Fremont back in 1994. That is when I had a warehouse in the Fremont district. I owned a small northwest souvenir business of postcards, magnets, T-shirts, etc. My first postcard was of the sculpture of people called “Waiting for the Interurban.” At that time the area was known for artists, fringe characters and cheap rent.
My souvenir business needed my attention and eventually I moved my warehouse up to Perrinville Village in Edmonds, where the characters were quite normal and the rent was cheaper.
Why a tour of Fremont?
Fremont has since become high-tech heaven. The characters have changed but the artwork and their stories have remained. A number of new sculptures were put up in the neighborhood, like the 47-foot tall Fremont Rocket, the 7-ton statue of Lenin, J.P. Patches and his pal Gertrude and the Center of the Universe sign post. These all make the neighborhood a great study in quirky public art.
What can people expect?
We offer a mix of public sculpture and improvisational street theater. One of the things I enjoy most about this tour is seeing people transform during our playful presentation. Many of them think we will just be walking through the area and talking about the artwork. In fact we are very interactive as we tell our story.
For example, we participate in an art attack, fire the Fremont Rocket and meet the Fremont Troll’s cousin.
Tour guides carry props and costumes. They dress people up during the presentation of our story. The tour guides will also playfully involve strangers in the street who have no idea they are going to be a part of our story. This fun approach seems to really perk up our participants as we move through the telling. It is always very entertaining to persuade a willing grandmother from Iowa to dress up as a rocket scientist with a lab coat and goggles and fire the Fremont Rocket for the crowd.
Any tour disasters?
There were tours when things did not always go smoothly. We have learned how to use these situations to create some memorable and fun moments. There is the occasional street drunk who wants to help tell our story. Sometimes we let them. And there were times when we could not persuade someone to volunteer to help us with our story. Now we know how to pick the right “volunteer” to play with us. We are a summer tour, but sometimes the stubborn northwestern weather will create a challenge.
Who alive or in history would you like to have a beer with?
Drinking beer with an interesting character is something I often ponder. I am a big fan of people with a fun imagination. Some that come to mind that I would enjoy having a beer with are Albert Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci.
Finish this sentence: People would be shocked to know…
I am not sure that people would be shocked to learn anything about myself. I live a pretty staid life. But I do perk up when I tell people about how some pieces of public art offer more than just something to look at. For example, the Fremont sculpture of J.P. Patches called “Late for the Interurban” is an example of how public art supports public health. If your readers want to know how, they can take the tour.
What are you most proud of?
I am particularly proud of sharing my life story with my lovely wife, Kate. It is not an easy task for her to do. I am very lucky to have someone who loves me enough to put up with my headstrong visions. I am also proud of being a foster parent to a number of great kids. People wonder how difficult this must have been. But our experience has always been very positive.
What are you wearing?
We tour guides dress up as characters. There is the Fremont Fairy Godmother and Jeffe, the Turkish rap singer. I dress as Rocket Man, superhero sort of. I am pretty obvious as I lead the tour group down the street. Maybe it’s the construction hat with rockets sticking out from all directions. Or it could be the yellow tights with flames painted up the legs. Once a 5-year-old boy came up and asked if I was a REAL superhero. He looked up with his big eyes and his question was so earnest that it was hard to keep from laughing. It was a precious moment. I told him he should ask his parents.
Any other places that might make a good art walk tour?
Everett would be a lovely setting to have one.
Andrea Brown, Herald Writer