Artist Lynn Di Nino’s creative commute

For more than a decade, local artist Lynn Di Nino has traveled several times per week between Seattle and Tacoma via public transportation. While most passengers nap in their seats, study their smart phones, or read a book, Di Nino has found creative inspiration aboard Sound Transit’s Route 590/594 Express buses, which cover roughly 35 miles in 45 minutes between the two cities.

“I love to take the bus,” Di Nino recently explained. “The bus gets there faster than cars do. It takes 45 minutes and you couldn’t drive your car for the price [of bus fare].”

Di Nino’s enthusiasm can be found in a new exhibit that opens this month at Tacoma Public Library’s Handforth Gallery. Entitled Riding the express bus Seattle/Tacoma, the artwork consists of 14 vignettes of three-dimensional 10-inch, wall-mounted figures seated next to photographs of landmarks Di Nino captured on her smart phone while the bus traveled its route—the shimmering Puyallup River and snow-capped Mount Rainier visible as the bus leaves Tacoma and enters Interstate 5; the brightly-colored tubes and slides that comprise the Wild Waves Theme Park between Fife and Federal Way; and a lush, open field rimmed by several copses of trees near Weyerhaeuser’s headquarters in Federal Way (among others).

The figures were created using paper, cement, wires, and other mixed media, and represent composites of some of Di Nino’s fellow bus passengers—a bored stoner wearing a gray hoodie with a giant marijuana leaf design ironed onto its back; a man in a kilt reading a newspaper; a machinist on his way to work at Boeing; and a young woman holding a large potted plant (among others). There are even a couple celebrity figurines who would probably never be found on a public bus.

Each figure took one week to complete, and Di Nino began the project three months ago. The figures are charming and fun, and the photographs are surprisingly crisp and beautiful (no blurry drive-by shots or grainy digital images here; it’s as if Di Nino asked the driver to stop the bus so she could set up her camera and capture the images).

“I think Lynn is an incredible craftsperson, and even the concept is beyond my imagination,” said David Domkoski, Tacoma Public Library’s community relations manager who also manages Handforth Gallery. “Who would think about doing an art show about a bus ride? Lynn is full of big ideas, but she can execute them, and this is stunning.”

Di Nino’s work is on display next to another exhibit, A Fable, which she curated and features more than two-dozen local artists who created their own figures inspired by the parable of the blind man and the elephant. Both exhibits will officially open this weekend during a celebration at 2 p.m. on Sat., June 6. The event is free and open to the public. Handforth Gallery is inside Tacoma Public Library’s main branch, located at 1102 Tacoma Ave. S., in downtown Tacoma. More information is available online here.

The Tacoma Daily Index met De Nino this week to discuss her artwork.

"I love to take the bus," says local artist Lynn Di Nino, who travels between Seattle and Tacoma several times per week aboard Sound Transit's 590/594 Express bus. The commute inspired her latest exhibition, which is on display at Tacoma Public Library's Handforth Gallery. "The bus gets there faster than cars do. It takes 45 minutes and you couldn't drive your car for the price [of bus fare]." (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

“I love to take the bus,” says local artist Lynn Di Nino, who travels between Seattle and Tacoma several times per week aboard Sound Transit’s 590/594 Express bus. The commute inspired her latest exhibition, which is on display at Tacoma Public Library’s Handforth Gallery. “The bus gets there faster than cars do. It takes 45 minutes and you couldn’t drive your car for the price [of bus fare].” (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: How did this idea come about?

LYNN DI NINO: It was really my boyfriend’s idea, in a way. He lives in Seattle. I’ve trained him to take the bus. Before that, he said, “You’ve got to be kidding. No way am I taking the bus.” So now that he has taken the bus quite a lot, he talks to me about the stations of the cross, which are basically the places you pass on that express bus to Seattle over and over.

For example, you look up from your reading, see the Federal Way towers, and say, “Oh, good. We’re two-thirds of the way home.” Or you see Weyerhaeuser on your way to Seattle and say, “Oh, we’re one-third of the way to Seattle.” When he was talking about the stations of the cross, it occurred to me that I could make these small people in bus seats looking at the scene as they go by.

I’m no photographer, so I had to figure out how you get pictures of these places on the freeway as if they were taken from the bus. It just so happened that I got a [smart phone] at the same time and the [smart phone] I have freezes a frame at 60 miles per hour. I had to go back and forth between Seattle and Tacoma quite a lot to get the pictures that I wanted because the bus windows are pretty dirty. I had to find that one clear spot on the window.

INDEX: What are the significant stations of the cross between Seattle and Tacoma?

DI NINO: There are quite a few more than I have in the 14 pieces in this show. There is the Puyallup River as you leave town. Often, you can see Mount Rainier beyond it. It’s really beautiful. Headed to Seattle you have Southcenter [Mall], of course, and Weyerhaeuser. It seems like there are more great things to see coming from Seattle to Tacoma, which is probably a good incentive for Seattle people to come to Tacoma.

You have quite a few open spaces of beautiful trees. You used to be able to see the Kent valley. Of course, now it’s all industrial. I don’t think of that as a particular landmark. When you head into Seattle and you round the freeway to come down under the Spokane Street viaduct, there’s really a beautiful Seattle skyline to see right there.

INDEX: Tell me about the process of completing this work. Were people looking at you funny as you took pictures out the window at various places? And how many trips did you have to make in order to complete the work in this show?

DI NINO: I’m on the bus all the time anyway. But I had to take a couple car trips to get pictures of certain things. For example, when you take the bus headed to Seattle it’s very hard to see Weyerhaeuser because there are a lot of trees. You have to get ahead of it and shoot back. If you are riding the bus on that side, you would really never see Weyerhaeuser because you would be twisting around in your seat. So I had to cheat on that one.

One time I was on the bus just madly taking pictures and the guy next to me said, “Oh, are you visiting the area?” [laughing] Well, no. I didn’t want to tell him what I was doing just because I was busy taking these pictures. But he managed to wheedle it out of me. I told him these were for an art project. He happened to be a guy who worked for Pierce Transit. So that made it fun. He could really appreciate the characters you see on the bus.

INDEX: You took a lot of photographs. Why not just exhibit the photographs? Instead, you have incorporated figures into the show.

DI NINO: I’m a 3-D artist. I’m not a photographer. The photography was just something extra I had to do in order to accomplish my goal. I’m mostly a mixed-media artist. I use cement and—in the case of these small figures—wire, papier-mache, paint, and crumpled paper. I also had to teach myself to carve tiny little faces. I haven’t done much of that before. It’s hard.

INDEX: Do the figures represent real people you saw on the bus?

DI NINO: No. They are composites of types, mostly. You will see the woman who always wears black. She’s on her way to work, probably, and even her fingernails are painted black. So I have somebody like that. The people that ride the bus, of course, it’s a giant spectrum from clean-cut and ordinary people who are not especially remarkable. It wasn’t as much fun doing those people. There are the nose-ringers or the people covered in tattoos. There are the homeless-looking people. Or extremely slim people all the way over to the other side. People in suits and cargo pants and almost no clothes at all. I was sorry that I couldn’t do more than 14 figures because every minute I see people and think, “Oh, a receding chin. I didn’t give one person a receding chin. Oh, look at that—purple hair!”

INDEX: How often do you take the bus between Seattle and Tacoma? How long have you been making that commute?

DI NINO: Since I first moved to Tacoma, which was in 2001, I would say I ride the bus an average of four times a week, back and forth between Seattle and Tacoma. I have a lot of friends in Seattle and part of the art community is there. My boyfriend [artist Dick Weiss] lives there. He’s also on the bus four times a week because we are either down here or up there.

INDEX: I know you said the figures are composites, but did you have to take some pictures of people just to remind yourself who rides the bus?

DI NINO: Oh, no. I don’t need a reminder of that. But I do take notes. I’ll be on the bus and say, “Oh, my God. Look at that. A wrist watch. That’s a good idea.” I make goofy notes to remind myself of the possibilities because I might forget those details. But most of the time when I was taking pictures of people on the bus it was for posture, or I needed to see exactly— when you are doing a selfie—where your thumb is and where the rest of your fingers are. You take those things for granted. So I got just completely immersed.

INDEX: What do you think of the bus service between Tacoma and Seattle?

DI NINO: I think it’s fantastic. I think the service is great. It goes until 11:30 at night. I’m always persuading people I know who only take the car to take the bus just once. A lot of people say, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe how easy it is. I can’t believe how convenient and cheap it is.”

When I moved to Tacoma, I had a lot of long-time friends in Seattle and at least half of them said, “You’re kidding me. You don’t expect me to go to Tacoma to see you.” I was going back and forth a lot. A lot of people will say to me, “Oh, my God. I’m not going at rush hour.” The bus gets there faster than cars do.

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and author of A Reporter At Large and Wah Mee. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.