This illustration  of 12th Avenue that Watkins posted to reddit is how he came to the attention of the First Hill Improvement Association.
This illustration of 12th Avenue that Watkins posted to reddit is how he came to the attention of the First Hill Improvement Association.

Nathan Watkins has quickly become First Hill’s unofficial artist in residence, and it all started with a simple reddit post. 

The Seattle University digital design major had made an illustration of 12th Avenue, near where he lives, and shared it on the Seattle subreddit last year. The positive response was so great that it eventually caught the attention of First Hill Improvement Association executive director Alex Hudson.

“I was just immediately taken by the quality of the art, as well as how it was done by a young student in the area,” Hudson said.

“It blew up on reddit,” Watkins said, “and they (FHIA) just happened to be looking for art that represented First Hill.”

FHIA tapped Watkins to design 50 panels that were just recently wrapped around 10 signal boxes in First Hill, all of which can be found along a Park-to-Park walking path mapped out by neighborhood organization.

Watkins was contacted last June about the public art project, and completed the designs in December, he said, adding there were so many ideas that didn’t make the cut.

Watkins has been a freelance designer since high school. He grew up in Orange County, California, and moved to Seattle four years ago.

“It just over time began becoming more and more of a serious thing,” Watkins said of starting his own small business.

The signal boxes spread across First Hill were Watkins first public art project.

“The I-5 art columns, that’s going to be my crowning achievement,” he said.

FHIA received $40,000 from the Office of Economic Development’s 2016 Only in Seattle grant, which it is using to beautify 73 concrete columns under Interstate 5, between Cherry and James streets.

A countywide call for artists was sent out in January, and Watkins was one of 19 applicants, putting his “Sunlight Over First Hill” designs together in just two weeks.

“I was working day and night,” he said.

A steering committee identified five finalists, Hudson said, and then a public vote was held. Watkins said he received 43 percent.

“Nathan was overwhelmingly selected as the favorite,” Hudson said.

The 22-year-old First Hill resident is still wrapping his mind around the enormity of the I-5 columns project.

“Every time I go through there, I try to imagine it, but it’s such a big thing to imagine,” Watkins said.

FHIA is still finalizing project details with the Washington State Department of Transportation, which owns the columns.

Tackling the art installation will be Urban Artworks, a Seattle-based nonprofit that completes art projects by working with local artists and at-risk and underserved youth. Watkins said he’s looking forward to helping.

“I think it will be really inspiring for them to see someone not far from their age having such a burgeoning and successful art career,” Hudson said of the Urban Artworks youth crew.

Watkins said he plans to stay in Seattle, finding the nature more inspiring for his creativity. Looking forward, he said he’d like to have a design studio of his own some day.

“I never expected to do this public art, but it’s allowed me to pursue a more fine-art illustration focus,” Watkins said.

Park-to-Park Pathway

Along with some of Watkins’ signal box art pieces, people following FHIA’s Park-to-Park Pathway, which loops Yesler Terrace and Freeway parks, will also soon find some Little Free Libraries popping up.

The first Little Free Library was installed Thursday, April 13, at Harborview Medical Center, 319 Terry Ave.

Hudson said future sites for Little Free Libraries include Horizon House, Stimson Green Mansion and outside the Old Colony Condominium.