From the ground up

Northern and the Olympia All Ages Project breathe life into Oly's all-ages music and arts scene

By Nikki Talotta on December 23, 2009

A small sign pokes out from the building in downtown Olympia, along the Fourth Avenue drag: “northern,” it says in lowercase black cursive. There are no pictures, no other words, and no indication of what type of establishment might dwell below the curious sign.

The building sits inconspicuously across from a Thai restaurant and a hookah shop. Kitty-corner stands the China Clipper, and right next door is one of the abandoned, “for lease,” spaces Olympia seems to be seeing more.

The front of the building is all window and alcove, and there’s a newspaper clipping and a flier for an upcoming show taped to the right of the door. I peek inside, but it doesn’t reveal much — about 1700 square feet of concrete floor. There is some exposed brick on the right wall, and a few scattered papers litter the ground.

It’s a Tuesday and the front doors are locked. The business hours read 4-8 p.m. Friday and 1-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Intriguing. So I contact Northern’s woman-in-charge, Mariella Luz. We make plans for a visit and interview the next Friday.

Oly’s mishmash

Friday comes, and I step inside the double doors. The space has been transformed. The once-bare walls are now adorned with color, shape, texture, and pattern. My eyes absorb the change and are drawn to the back wall. Someone has taken the time to layer strips of brightly colored, zigzag-cut paper over the entire wall. It’s awesome.

Luz sits behind a table, sipping tea and nibbling on a pastry. She notices my admiration.

“We have a whole mishmash of art.  It’s quite representative of Olympia,” she says with a smile.

I agree. We immediately slip into a comfortable hour of conversation.

Luz explains that Northern is the new home of Olympia All Ages Project, a local, non-profit organization that — as the name implies — came to be as a vehicle to bolster Olympia’s all- ages music and arts scene. Officially open in May of this year, just in time for Spring Arts Walk, Northern exists mainly as an art gallery and music venue, but umbrellas many other facets of self-expression.

As I look around it becomes obvious the pieces of art adorning Northern are all the work of local artists — one of the main purposes of this space I find myself in. Luz tells me the art is on display for a month and then rotates out. Most of the artists are young.

According to Luz, there’s nowhere else in Olympia that has gallery shows of this particular age group — 20 to 30-year-olds — or that displays so many varieties of artistic media.
“We really try to have a gallery that’s more alternative,” she tells me.

A compliment to the art scene, Northern is home to many other events and programs aside from art exhibits and rock shows. Presentations and workshops are put on by PLOP (Performance Laboratory for Objects and Puppets) every third weekend, with evening puppet shows geared toward adults and matinee shows for children. Free swap meets, record shows and movies have also taken place inside Northern’s walls.

Music is another big part of the Olympia All Ages Project, and DIY shows are commonplace at Northern. In addition to the obvious, sound workshops are available at Northern so that musicians and groups can help support themselves and learn how to run sound equipment, and Olympia Free Choir, advocated by Kimya Dawson and open to anyone, is known to practice and perform at Northern.

Hard work pays off

With the help of more than 30 volunteers, Northern and the Olympia All Ages Project have come to fruition through months of dedicated hard work — which is perhaps best exemplified by the actual remodeling that was needed to get Northern up to snuff. Shelves and walls inside the space had to be torn down, and soundproofing needed to be installed. Painting and construction had to be done.

And like any new endeavor, there were hiccups along the way. City codes had to be met, and permits acquired.  A leaky ceiling caused water damage in an upper loft.

Tough stuff, for sure; and that’s not to mention managing scheduling, promotions and funds. But the people behind the Olympia All Ages Project and Northern are troopers. There are now 12 staff volunteers; each dedicated to a division of Northern’s expanding agenda.

“I’m really proud and amazed that people have devoted so much time,” says Luz. “People understand the need for this type of resource in the community, and they realize that it takes a DIY approach to get things done.”

“Oly has a longstanding reputation for exciting music and art and having a space like Northern is vital,” says Ben Hargett, a volunteer whose specialty is running sound.

The hard work seems to be paying off.

“Shows have been consistent and affordable; people want to come check it out,” Hargett says.

What it’s all about

The mission statement says it all: “The purpose of the Olympia All Ages Project is to develop, foster and promote music and art as experiences central to the lives of the young citizens of Olympia.”

Luz recalls being a teenager growing up in DC where there weren’t age restrictions on bar shows. 

“It saved my life as a kid,” Luz says of her childhood nights spent at punk shows.

Now, as an adult, she wants to make that lifestyle accessible to the next generation. And she wants to do it in Olympia.

Luz also works full-time for K records, where she’s no stranger to helping bands reach their audiences and the problems they sometimes encounter.

How many 17-year-olds are able to scrape together the cash to be able to get their music out there, Luz asks, with obvious concern on her face. How are kids supposed to go to shows when there aren’t many all-ages venues, she wonders.

“I felt like someone with grown-up skills should take control,” she says, rather maternally.

So Northern was born — a truly unique place where everyone in the community is welcome to participate. Through the Olympia All Ages Project, Northern has even expanded next door to provide a place for artists and musicians to work. There are affordable studios for rent that are perfect for Olympians to jam and create.

Now that Northern is establishing its roots, Luz looks forward to the future.

“We’ve gone through the growing pains,” she says. “Now, we’d like to continue to raise our profile within the community so that we can better support the all-ages music and art scene through grants and fund raising.”

Based on everything Northern and the Olympia All Ages Project have already accomplished, something tells me they’re well on their way.

If you would like more information, contact Olympia All Ages Project at Northernolympia. org. Or attend one of their monthly meetings held every third Monday, 8 p.m. at Northern.

[Northern, 321 Fourth Ave., Olympia,]