Performance Art

Seattle artist Rose Briar Bates created many ephemeral artworks in her life, pieces that were meant to exist for only a brief time—a moss-covered piano for people to stumble across in a public park; a canopy bed draped in mosquito netting with a mattress made of plants—and then decay and fall apart.

“Her art wasn’t trying to create something that was going to last forever,” says Danny Berg (in a video created by the Seattle Times), a close friend who lived with her in a rambling retreat and art-making space on Vachon Island. “Just like the garden changes season to season, her art had that kind of impermanence.”

“She was really good at drawing people into her magical world,” said another friend.

So it didn’t surprise friends and cohorts how Bates reacted when she was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer at the age of 42, and given only weeks or months to live: she created. “At any given time, she was probably cooking up 20 to 30 things,” says her friend Katrina Morgan.

“She just wanted to see how much she could live in the time she had left,” says another friend, Nicole Kistler. “She was on fire with ideas.”

One of her many ideas was that she wanted her friends to create and perform an Esther-Williams-style water ballet in a public park, a surprise flash-mob takeover of a giant kiddie pool, with coordinated costumes and choreography and music. She had been inspired by a chandelier she’d made that hung over her bed: she’d adorned it with a squad of Barbies, all wearing swim caps and maillots, between strands of translucent aqua beads.

And so it was to be. As Seattle reporter Brendan Kiley writes in the Times: “The dying artist’s request for a water-ballet memorial was playful and absurd, but everyone else took her request for silliness with dead seriousness.” It was a huge product, and Bates oversaw many of the details—the swimsuit fabric and design, the choreography—but she would not live to see its performance.

But you wouldn’t know that the performance was a memorial at all from watching it: 42 of her friends performed, dozens of the artist’s friends attended, and hundreds of passer-by stopped to witness the joyful, madcap celebration. There was nothing sad in the air; just the earnest desire to send off a beloved friend in the brilliant, creative, memorable way in which she had lived her life.