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Roq La Rue — now Capitol Hill’s home to pop surrealism — celebrates 21 years of Seattle art

By Tim Kukes

One of the few remaining dedicated art galleries on Capitol Hill is celebrating its 21st birthday but its two decades of art and creation mostly took place far from Pike/Pine. It started with a question.

“Someone asked me, ‘If you could do anything for a living what would you do?’ Kirsten Anderson, owner of E Pike’s Roq La Rue, said.  “I just said, ‘open a gallery,’ which is not anything I’d ever thought of before. Just came out of my mouth.”

The gallery started in a little space on 2nd and Lenora in 1998, which was being lent out as business incubator until the building could be developed in six months.  After that Roq La Rue moved to a space between the Lava Lounge and Shorty’s, and then later to a larger location next to the Rendezvous, according to Larry Reid, manager at Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown, who happened to be an early mentor of Anderson’s.

“Kirsten quickly established herself as a pivotal figure in the emerging Lowbrow/Pop Surrealist movement based on the West Coast, but [it was] soon to become a global phenomenon,” Reid said.  “Locally, she filled a void that had been largely absent from the local art scene.”

Anderson is credited with coining the term “pop surrealism” in the book, “Pop Surrealism: The Rise of Underground Art”, which she wrote in 2004.  Kristen described pop surrealism as using pop culture iconography as archetypal imagery to tell classic stories or fetishizing subcultural nostalgia.

“You can call it the bastard stepchild of Andy Warhol, basically,” Anderson said.

Roq La Rue was in Belltown for 15 years before moving to Pioneer Square for three years.  The Pioneer Square space offered more space which allowed her to do two to three shows a month with different artists and allowed for a certain amount of experimentation in what was shown.  Risks could be taken because if one show didn’t so well the others would cover for it.

At this point, Anderson decided she wanted to pursue other interests and closed the gallery.

“I started a non-profit for wildlife, that was fun, but it wasn’t lucrative – I need to make a living,” Anderson said.  “I decided to open a store that focused on housewares. I had a big idea; we were going to do a shop for home décor with artists I had worked with before previously.”

That didn’t work out for Anderson, so in 2018 she went back to the thing she knew how to do – selling art.

“I did not plan to open a gallery again, that was not in the cards and yet it happened through a series of synchronicities and coincidences and things like that, so I feel like we’re sort of meant to be opened again,” Anderson said.  “That’s unheard of for a gallery to close and reopen. That’s not normal in the art world, so I take that as a very positive sign.”

The original plan had been to open the home décor store on Capitol Hill, so that’s where the reincarnation of Roq La Rue opened in late 2017 – in a space that was once an art gallery that had inspired Anderson.

“Before, I opened there was a short-lived gallery called, Vox Populi, that was on Capitol Hill, and it had that kind of cool raucous art and weird kitschy art,” Anderson said.  “So, I remember that used to be in this exact space. Like, I’m guessing 25-30 years ago.”

To celebrate the 21 years that Roq La Rue has been in existence the gallery is doing a show, “Ace of Spades, Queen of Diamonds,” according to Anderson a badass title that her artist friend, Jack Daws, came up with.   And just so you know, the cards add up to 21.

The show will be featuring artists that have shown at Roq La Rue over the 21 years, including local artists Casey Weldon and Brian Despain, and Montreal artist Peter Ferguson.

“It will be a time capsule of the styles we’ve shown,” Anderson said.  “It will be very cohesive because Roq La Rue has always been, but there will be a big variety of things to look at.”

Though her current space is much smaller than the Pioneer Square gallery, Anderson has made it work.  Less ambitious, but more refined she called it – a state Anderson said she is fine with as she grows older.  According to Anderson, she’s very lucky to have a skill for picking artists who are going to go on to do good things.  It’s why she’s still around. And celebrating 21 years of doing work that she chose.

“Our openings are super laid back, they’re not hoity-toity,” Anderson said.  “They are very easy going and the art is going to be absolutely amazing. It will be really fun, and I definitely want Capitol Hill – I want them to come here.”

“Ace of Spades, Queen of Diamonds” opening will be August 8th, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Roq La Rue Gallery, 705 E. Pike Street. You can learn more at

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