Jesse Sykes will join Damien Jurado, Rosie Thomas, and others at The Round’s 50th show.

Blurred Vision

The Round celebrates more than four years of fusing music and visual art.

“There are two voices in the mind of every artist,” painter and Round co-founder Scott Erickson says as he sips an iced coffee at a Capitol Hill coffeehouse called, appropriately, Bauhaus. One of the voices is the one that keeps you going in spite of all the hardships that come with the territory. The other, he explains, “is saying ‘Stop doing what you’re doing. Start being responsible. Grow up and get a real job.'” To quell that voice, Erickson and fellow Round founder Nathan Marion decided to start a monthly showcase focused on building an artistic community rather than entertaining an audience. After months of experimenting, that showcase became known as the Round, a place where songwriters and poets (like Danny Sherrard, Laura “Piece” Kelley, and Tara Hardy) can experiment and try out new material in a supportive setting while visual artists work alongside.

Most showcases serve to attract an audience, but the Round’s main purpose has been to create a place where artists could interact, collaborate, and support each other. “We wanted to have something where artists could regularly come together and mingle,” Erickson says. “We wanted it to be a good show, but we also want our artists to feel like it’s a really positive experience that encourages them to keep [creating].” To encourage that inter-artist dialogue, Marion and Erickson host preshow meals for the performers. At the beginning, “the main focus was the dinner beforehand,” Marion explains. “That was sort of the undergirding thing.” And it still is—before each Round, the artists and volunteers share a meal prepared in the Fremont Abbey Arts Center’s kitchen.

As for the performance itself, Marion says, “It’s not really to put on a show. It’s to collaborate and see what happens.” While the showcase’s cross-disciplinary scope is unusual, it gives fans a unique opportunity to see some of their favorite songwriters (prominent Round alumni include David Bazan, Laura Gibson, Jesy Fortino, Damien Jurado, and Rosie Thomas) trying out new songs, bullshitting with their fellow performers, and branching out in ways they’d never dare at bigger venues.

“Every time I’ve gone onstage in the Round, I’ve gone up there with a list of songs and never played any of ’em,” songwriter and fellow Round veteran Mark Pickerel says. “When you are exposed to the paintings, or you hear a word or a sentence in someone’s poem that fits to one of your own songs or something like that, it inspires you to take a different course of action.” It’s much the same for the visual artists. “When I listen to music,” Erickson says, “I see images.”

Pickerel—a former Screaming Trees drummer and current member of the Tripwires—hesitated when he was first asked about performing at the Round. “I thought that it might be a little too hippity-dippity for me,” Pickerel admits. “I wasn’t really sure if my music would fit in there, or if I would appreciate it aesthetically. I just wasn’t sure if it was really my scene. I guess I was afraid that it could be too pretentious, or take itself too seriously, possibly. But it turned out to be very relaxed. The synergy between the poets, artists, and musicians was really alive, and there seemed to be a lot of mutual respect amongst all the different entertainers. So that put me in a really great place to just kind of expose myself and not worry about any of the consequences.”

Despite the Round’s informal nature, there are still rules. Neither poets nor songwriters may perform more than once a year; for visual artists, Marion makes an exception. Creating art in a live setting alongside bands is something of a new phenomenon. A handful of bands do it—Minneapolis group Cloud Cult and local instrumental band Bird Show of North America both include resident artists who work while the band performs—but because so many artists work in solitude, it’s been difficult to find visual artists willing to expose their creative process to an audience. Along with Erickson, painters Skye Graves and Jen Grabarcyzk are the Round’s most regular contributors. At next week’s Round, the 50th in the series, Barsuk artist Jesse Sykes will make her first appearance, joined by veterans Jurado and Thomas, poet Buddy Wakefield, and Easy Street Records muralist Glenn Case, among others.

Though other song-sharing showcases do exist, the Round’s cross-disciplinary format is unique—so much so that people as near as Tacoma and as far away as Lebanon, Pa., have started their own versions. “I know there have been other things like it,” Jurado says, “but the Round really is its own special thing. I have been a part of other music projects and get-togethers, but the Round, by far, is unique.”