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Friday, March 19, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Milky World Gallery: An Animated Art Galaxy

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

De Kwok once was a casualty of success, Seattle-style. An animation artist, he worked for the empire established by Chuck Jones, creator of such characters as Road Runner and Pepe Le Pew.

Kwok worked for Linda Jones Enterprises in Woodinville. He had the long commute, the high-tech job and the big-bucks paycheck. But he also had no social life and met few people. Today, all that's left of that old stereotypical lifestyle is the double latte cooling in his hand.

Kwok changed it all himself, through the room in which he's sitting: Belltown's Milky World Gallery, on Battery Street.

It's early on a Monday afternoon; almost every exhibition space in town is closed. But people flit in and out of Milky's tiny gallery - and some of them corral Kwok in order to make purchases. After writing out receipts, signing for a UPS man and taking half a dozen "pressing" telephone calls, he has almost forgotten his coffee.

"It's not always quite this crazy," he says, perched on the couch.

That couch - black-and-white houndstooth - dominates a "chill out" space, also known as the Milky World Gallery Gift Shop. This is stuffed with fanzines, art books, sculpture, jewelry, T-shirts, badges, posters, tapes, CDs, comics and artists' prints. It resembles nothing more than an art-world Archie McPhee.

Like that venerable joke shop, Milky World is now expanding. Inside Capitol Hill's Penny & Perk, there is a "Milky World 2." Yet the font of all this energy is barely two years old. Milky World (its name comes from Kwok's fanzine, Milky) was thought up by three art-loving pals: Kwok, painter Sky Forrest Hutchens and art fan Amee DeVaul.

Says Kwok, "We started talking back in 1997. Local art was starting to boom - and we wanted in on the action."

The trio hardly had the thought when they stumbled into a space. A single room owned by the Catholic Seamen's Club, it was about to be vacated by a portrait painter. "I was the money bags," says Kwok, "so I jumped right on it. For me, it was `OK, put your savings where your mouth is.' "

In June 1997, one month after signing the lease, Milky World opened - a hymn to silver paint and sweat equity.

Their first show featured works by dollmaker Ignatz Green, paired with pop paintings by Jessica Barnes-Wolfe. This was rapidly followed by 15 separate exhibitions, some of which set out to transform the space. Cartoonist Jeremy Eaton papered it from floor to ceiling, Sarah Chase and Jesse Paul Miller sound-wired an installation, and 30 artists did a Christmas show completely in Play-Doh.

But there were also more straightforward shows by painters, sculptors, cartoonists and photographers.

The little gallery has since gained a broader reputation. "Belltown," explains Kwok, "comes alive on Saturday nights, so that's when we have receptions. But we're open every day, and we always try to be friendly."

The ambience Milky wants was shaped by Kwok's native L.A. "I was a big fan of the L.A. punk movement; I grew up seeing music, art and fashion all entwined. That was a totally do-it-yourself kind of movement. So why should I wait for some grant to say I'm legitimate? If you want to show art, I say go ahead and do it!"

Until last week, one such effort was intriguing visitors. It was "Carry On," a presentation by the Lump Gallery in Raleigh, N.C. Kwok encountered the work of Team Lump through cartoonist Paul Friedrich, whose art he exhibited last summer at Milky World.

Friedrich introduced him to the Lump Web site. Through the extended e-mail correspondence that developed, the two galleries decided they shared tastes and fans. So Kwok proposed a modest "art exchange": If Team Lump would come to Seattle, he would allow them a month at his gallery.

Milky World would do all the press and house the artists, taking only its usual 40 percent of any sale. But in return, Lump had to reciprocate: mount and duly publicize a show of Seattle artists.

There was one other requirement: All the art would be "carry-on," able to fit inside the overhead luggage compartment of an airplane. Neither gallery had the money to foot shipping bills.

Lump's show featured assemblage, sculpture, paintings and mixed media. Of the nine artists involved, seven flew out to Seattle. Mixed-media artist Bill Thelen, who manages Lump Gallery, says he was stunned by the young arts landscape they found. "When I was there two years back, that scene was sparse. Now it seems incredibly vibrant; there's just a ton of stuff happening."

Now, Kwok is organizing Milky's half of this exchange, a theme show of 20 artists he calls "The Soft Museum." In late April, it will fly out to Raleigh.

As Milky manager, he loves the fact his gamble worked. "This is going so well, we're making plans for a really big tour." That one should include carry-on shows to Houston, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, London - and, possibly, London, Pittsburgh and Prague.

But showing such art, Kwok emphasizes, is not a picnic. "To the establishment, you're still this little runt gallery. Some of the art you show is always gonna be disparaged." Nevertheless, Milky World has hardcore followers - and hardcore patrons who are starting to make it pay.

This means Kwok has had to rearrange his life. He's quit the long commute and now works from home - when, that is, he isn't busy at the gallery. With Forrest and DeVaul, he's now set up a board of directors: Milky-minders who work in arts administration and software. A crew of volunteers keeps the space open in his absence. Each of them has a time slot, and each gets a voice in the business.

Milky World is open, welcoming, upbeat and funky. But it's not the place to head if you're introverted. Even artists on the walls are expected to mix and mingle. "I like to give the artists little tasks," says Kwok. "Things which force them to interact with their audience."

In the past, visitors have played board games with painters, arm-wrestled sculptors and issued critiques on cartoonists' poetry.

It's all added to Kwok's reputation. Kirsten Anderson, who runs the nearby Roq La Rue gallery, describes him as a definite civic asset. "De's been incredibly helpful to all kinds of people. He knows there's plenty of room in the art scene for everyone."

But for Kwok himself, the real benefits are personal. "Like I said, I used to be the typical sufferer of `success.' I started Milky World for my emotional well-being. What I discovered is that it depends upon a community."

Milky World is at 111 Battery St., 206-374-0933. Hours: Monday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Milky World 2 is inside Penny & Perk, 616 E. Pine St., 206-324-8799. Hours: Closed Monday; Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m.

Artists wishing to submit works or proposals to "The Soft Museum" should deliver them directly to the Battery Street gallery within the next two weeks. The show will be juried by the gallery's board of directors.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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