Exit Interview: Kelton Sears, the future of arts journalism in Seattle, has moved to New Orleans

If you're in the music scene, you likely know Kelton Sears from his influential band, Kithkin. If you're an artist in Seattle, you remember Kelton Sears from his short but mighty stint as the young and vivacious arts editor at the Seattle Weekly in the months just before the paper's collapse. If you're in the Seattle comics scene, you know Kelton Sears by his boundless love for the Short Run Festival and his incredible animated comic Trash Mountain.

The point is, if you participated in virtually any Seattle arts scene over the last decade, you know Kelton Sears. His passion for the city and his energy for the arts scene seemed unstoppable, which is why I was shocked to hear that late last month, Sears had left Seattle and moved to New Orleans.

Sears arrived in New Orleans late last week. I spoke with him yesterday on the phone as he was watering tomato plants in his new New Orleans home. What follows is an edited and condensed transcription of our conversation.

May I ask why you decided to leave Seattle?

My girlfriend [photographer Allyce Andrew] and I have been together for seven years. She is super-Cajun — like, her grandma's first language is Cajun French. She grew up in Lafayette and Louisiana — the heart of Cajun country.

She moved up to Seattle right after she graduated college in Louisiana, because she really liked Sasquatch and she liked the music scene. But after seven years she just really missed the culture and her family. And I think she was also starting to experience the same old story you hear about Seattle a bunch now: she went there looking for a really fun, vibrant arts community, which is still there and was there. But a few years after she got there, people started leaving for LA and New York and the neighborhoods started changing.

And as a photographer, probably around 2017 or 2018, she was just like, "man, there's not really much I want to photograph anymore." Because her whole thing was photographing shows and artists that she liked. And for me, the Weekly had fallen through by that point. I had loved being a big cheerleader for the Seattle art scene — I really appreciated and relished that role over at the Weekly. It was really fun to seek out local music and try to show it to as many people as possible.

I think after the Weekly fell through and my girlfriend started talking about wanting to go back to Louisiana, I just realized I'd been in Seattle my whole life — my family moved to Washington from Texas when I was four — so I've never really lived anywhere else.

And the few times I've been in New Orleans, I loved it. It's really messy, but in a great way. The thing that sold me was one time we were walking down the street and there was just a four foot hole in the sidewalk, but they just put stakes around it and a bunch of beads. It was like a big celebration: "Look out for this hole!"

Yay, hole!

Exactly. Yeah.

So we just started talking about [moving to New Orleans] more and more. It was sad for me, because I love the Northwest. I have a Cascadia tree tattooed on me and in Kithkin, a lot of that music was about being in the Northwest and what that meant. And I loved covering Northwest artists and being really rooted in a place. At first it was kind of scary to me, but now, being here, I really love it and I think we made the right decision.

Is there anything that you think Seattle could specifically be doing better to support its artists?

Besides the friends that I had made in college and I had already made through Kithkin, I started to feel a lot more isolated there. I think part of it is just because there aren't as many sort of gathering spaces now. [Pauses.] Maybe that's not true — I think they're just further on the edges of the city. There's cool things happening in Beacon Hill and in South Seattle and I think there's still fun, cool DIY stuff happening way up north. The structure of the city just started to feel atomized, I guess.

What changed?

[After the Weekly,] I started working at DigiPen, which I loved. So I'm not going to sit here and trash-talk tech, because I think tech is really cool. There's a lot of kids doing really awesome freaky stuff at DigiPen, and I love that. But it is true that I'd walk around Capitol Hill and look around and be like, "this didn't use to be here. And I don't know any of these people."

Again, it's that same old story. As far as what Seattle could do differently, I don't know. I was talking to my dad about it the other day and he was reminding me that Seattle's always been a boom-and-bust city, and it's in a boom right now and that makes it harder for freaks, but it's great for other people.

But who knows? Maybe once we finally start taxing Bezos and the rest of them, maybe it'll bust and then the freaks will come back. I am really reluctant to trash-talk tech, but I'll trash-talk Bezos all day.

One thing that really attracted me to New Orleans was this artist called Geography of Robots. He incorporates these South Louisiana landscapes into this alternative-future video game set here called Norco. And seeing that people here are interested in making freaky digital art really attracted me to this place. Because it does have that messy, wild vibe to it.

Coming here from Seattle, I'm really interested in how the internet can be messy and wild again, too. I feel like there's only, like, three websites that any of us go to anymore. I'm really interested in doing some web stuff inspired by this place.

I think that tech-versus-art conflict is kind of a false binary. It's more of a class issue.

Absolutely. Yeah, that's absolutely true.

But Americans will look anywhere other than at class, right? It's the one thing that we don't talk about.

Yeah. Obviously New Orleans isn't immune to that. I'm not going to also pretend that this is some amazing paradise, because I know they've got a whole big problem with Airbnb pushing everyone out of these neighborhoods, and gentrification and stuff.

But already being here a few days, just as soon as we moved in all of our neighbors came out and were shaking our hands and saying hi and, "Hey, come to our fish fry." That wouldn't happen in Seattle.

I remember way back when I was still at The Stranger and you started writing for the Weekly, I told my bosses at the time that I thought you were the future of arts journalism in the city. I loved what you were doing with gif recaps of events and your coverage of teeny-tiny indie acts, and I was encouraging them to find room to hire you. And of course, they went a different way, eventually getting rid of most of their arts staff.


And then you took over the arts coverage at the Weekly, and then that fell apart, and City Arts closed. And I don't know if there is a future of arts journalism left in Seattle. Do you have any thoughts on media and arts coverage based on your experience?

It's such a bummer. I grew up in Seattle reading The Stranger. I grew up reading you. And one of the reasons I was really passionate about comics and newspapers — a big part of that was Short Run, but another part of that was just like reading Tony Millionaire in The Stranger. I was 12 going, "This is nasty! What is this?"

It's kind of funny, now, that all the Weekly boxes are full of Pet Connection Magazine. I like pets, they're great. But it is also really sad, just because there's a lot of people who are still doing great stuff in Seattle, and they just don't get covered. No matter how much sort of scrappy, independent spirit you have, at some point you want some sort of recognition from people outside of your basement.


That's just a human thing. And I feel like the state of art coverage in Seattle right now is still so focused on the obvious major players. There's this upper tier of artists in Seattle who have broken through, one way or another, and they're known entities. And a lot of papers just only cover them.

There's just so much amazing music being made in — not even just Seattle but Tacoma, Bellingham, Olympia, too — that doesn't get covered, but which I think is so crucial to the real identity of the region. That was something that I really wanted to make a point of at the Weekly: we're only going to cover local stuff, and of that local stuff I'm going to really try to focus on the things no one's talking about.

With City Arts gone and the way The Stranger is — I mean The Stranger still covers freaky art stuff, but you know everything that's going on with The Stranger: it's definitely very, very different. — I think for people trying to be freaky [in Seattle], you can't afford to be there and no one wants to cover you. It's a bummer.

Coming to New Orleans, there's a great alternative paper called Antigravity. It's full of comics. It's got horoscopes. They're always covering weird bands here. They always put little bands playing in a basement on the cover. It's all black and white. It is very scrappily put together, but it's great. I picked it up the other day in a coffee shop and saw a bunch of shows I want to go to. On Thursday, we're going to go to a show that was in Antigravity.

That's how it should be. Newspapers should be this thing you can pick up and immediately hook into your community, instead of just reading about what Allen Stone is doing this week.

So say somebody is talking to you and they're making the opposite trip. Say her girlfriend's moving to Seattle to take a job, and she's going along for the ride. She's a poet and musician. What advice do you give her, if she doesn't know the scene, but she wants to make the most of it?

I think the key in any place, but especially Seattle, is just to try your best to find the community. If you're a poet, go to the Hugo House. If you're a musician, find those DIY spaces quick. I think my fondest memories of Seattle were when I was really, really plugged into the community there. And I think that's still possible. There absolutely is still an arts community there that is thriving, even if they're not getting media coverage.

I think in Seattle, that's especially important because it is so easy to kind of get in that rhythm: you go to work, you come home, it's dark and rainy outside, so you're like, "well I'll just watch Netflix and stay in."

After we finish setting up all our furniture, we're trying to go out and meet people. I think it's maybe a little harder in Seattle — if you aren't already a part of that established community, it can be a little scary just because I think people are a little less warm in general.

So just find your people and really rely on them and try to support them. As an artist in Seattle, I feel like when you are in a community, people are so quick to celebrate you and hook you up, and I just think that's so important. The community that I had there was amazing and I think if someone was going there, I'd say just try to put yourself in the places where that would be.

What are you going to work on now? Are you doing any new art now that you're out there?

I'm working on my next big GIF comic. It's actually set in the west coast still, so I haven't left Seattle completely. It's about two trees. You're going to start at the bottom of the website and scroll up instead of the other way around. It's all one single panel stacked on top of another — just one giant column and the panels are really tall, following these two trees talking to each other, and you're scrolling up their trunks as they chat, and time is passing behind them.

Wow, that sounds amazing and I can't wait to see it. Did you have any messages you wanted to send Seattle?

Cherish the trees. The trees there are so cool. We have pictures of Northwest forests up in our apartment. I love the trees here — they're great. But it's just different out there.

I'm sure there'll be plenty of people here who would be willing to send you photos of trees if you get homesick.

I hope so.