It’s not a “manhole” cover.

The inspiration for Storm Print City started in the mid 2000s . After admiring one very special “manhole cover” in downtown Seattle for a few months, I decided to try printing directly from it. That sparked this nationwide hunt, an obsession of sorts, and the idea for the Overlooked Art Tour. What made this cover so special? The city conceived a unique program in the mid 70s when the Arts Council commissioned a local artist to design one iron lid. In 1975, Anne Knight created “Seattle Grid”, the first cover I ever printed, my personal inspiration, and a model for many other cities.

In late 2016, Kevin and I were talking about the random facts and stories I’ve accumulated over the years. I wanted to share what I’ve learned and he seemed to be the perfect person for that task, so we decided to create the Overlooked Art Tour.

We started documenting the iron industry in the area and tracking down the original artists behind these iconic pieces. We wanted to learn about the program, the ideas behind the designs, how they were made, and why the artists chose the symbols they did. After a few emails and phone calls, I finally I got a chance to chat with Nathan Jackson, a Northwest Native American and a master wood carver known for his traditional styles.

His design, “Tlingit Whale” is the second piece commissioned by the city that was cast into covers that still dot the city streets. For this design, he used a traditional whale motif in native art, moving and merging with one another inside the circular border. He said that this is not a particular tribe or family’s seal, but a more openly abstract usage of the style – and he wanted that to be clear. You can see every carve mark made by Nathan’s own hands as he chiseled into the wood. That original piece of wood was used to make the first mold to cast the actual covers and you can actually feel the texture from his cuts.

I had been admiring this particular piece for years (printed earlier that year) and was honored to get a return phone call from Nathan himself. Amazingly, he is still carving wood and making art. As a matter of fact, he was getting ready to work on a commissioned piece that morning. His son has a masters and teaches wood carving at Columbia University in NYC. Nathan said he is “a better carver than his father.” 30 years after carving the wood for that cast iron mould, he is still chipping away at the old block.

There’s more interesting things we learned about Nathan and we talk about it on the tour, but this was too cool not to share.

I’ve spent most of my adult life seeking out historic, symbolic, and ornate “manhole covers” and have been calling these chunks of metal just that. If you search online, you’ll see the majority of people using that same term for any piece of iron that covers the human entrances to our underground utilities. I follow hundreds of people on social media with some variation of “manhole”  in their profile names and the hashtag “manhole cover is used all over the world. I’ve always wondered if the gender-based description was ever questioned and Nathan himself answered that for me. In 1977, he was commissioned to be the second artist that would design a utility cover in Seattle. Before the could happen, it needed funding and here’s what Nathan told me that day:

Dixy Lee Ray, the first female governor of Washington state was in office. Known for being extremely intelligent, supporting science innovation, and a proponent for women’s rights. Nathan asked if I ever heard of Dixy and if not, I should look her up. The he said, “She was an impressive woman and she wanted to get the name of those lids correct before approving the funds.”

The Governor loved the project and wanted to move forward with the approval, but she also wanted to let Seattle know they will not be calling these lids “manhole covers.”  She said the name of the project assumed only men would be going down into these holes and she wanted to change that perception right then… over 40 years ago. If they wanted to fund the project, they would have to consider a new name for it. Of course, the progressive city of Seattle agreed and they started to refer to these chunks of iron as “hatch covers”…. which they are still called today.

I’m definitely guilty of using the term “manhole” in many different ways and I’m not knocking anyone who does, but I can’t help but think about how awesome Dixy lee Ray was for questioning that. After hearing the story from Nathan, we made sure to respect her wishes and use the term hatch cover on the tour. Of course, there’s street metal, street iron, drain cover, pit lid, sewer cap, iron covers, access plate, and many others things we can label them. But since before I was born and thanks to Dixy Lee Ray, Seattle now has “hatch covers” and they’re meant for any human to go down into… not just men.

If you’re ever in the Seattle area, make sure to look up the Overlooked Art Tour. We love meeting people, sharing what we’ve found, and learning new things as we explore together.