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The Obstacle Removers


How are we able to do what we do? What can get in our way?

Many of us think of teachers, mentors and our parents as being helpful. We think of self-doubt and finances as barriers. But what about the physical, material barriers? Who helps us with those?

Custodial and maintenance workers are those who literally take away all the trash, compostables and recyclables, all the germs and hazardous materials that mount up each day. They are the Obstacle Removers, clearing our path so we can move forward and do our jobs.


The Obstacle Removers is my public art installation on Sound Transit’s construction walls at Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, just south of North 45th Street, the future site of Seattle’s University District Light Rail Station. It pays tribute to all custodial and maintenance workers, particularly the 243 who work at the University of Washington (UW), serving 98,000 students, faculty and staff. The illustrations are of 5 workers, who also answered the following questions:

  • What are some things you want other people to know about you?
  • Why did you become a custodian or maintenance worker?
  • How do you bring value to your work? What value or benefit do you see in your work?




I love my children — two boys. I enjoying cooking for others and gardening. I love flowers, the Seahawks and Huskies.

I love the University of Washington and I enjoy cleaning.

I take pride in the quality of cleanliness I provide. I make sure all the tasks are completed as required. The employees where I work tell me how much they appreciate what I do — that makes me proud. Also [I] want to create a clean environment for all the hardworking students and make it as comfortable for them as possible.




I value the work I do. I appreciate the benefits (e.g. medical) this institution gives me. I have received commendations for the work I do.

I believe that indirectly, I help in patient care by providing the healthcare providers a clean working environment.

I bring value to my work by coming in on time and maintaining good attendance, by respecting the people I work with and the healthcare providers of UW Medical Center, by giving my children an example of good work. I can see myself working in this institution for the coming years.



This is my 5th career. I worked as a farmer and coffee bean picker from 1st grade through middle school. As a young adult, I taught martial arts and began a career as a kick boxer for several years before suffering a broken jaw and a forced retirement from competition. I speak three languages, besides espanol and ingles. I may not have a college degree, but most graduates cannot do my job.

Recovery from a broken jaw meant I needed an indoor job with benefits. This job covered most of my son’s medical needs after a head injury he suffered. Wages that I saved helped cover the rest.

[I bring value to my work] by accomplishing more than everyone else in the department. Students and staff value my assistance when they are in a bind. Clients don’t pay attention to custodial work unless it’s been done exceptionally well.




I love helping my co-workers. I take my job very seriously. I love making people smile. I respect management; anything they ask me, I do.

[I became a custodian because] that was the only job available when I first came to the U.S. and I don’t mind doing physical work.

I have a great relationship with our clients. I love seeing change happen over the years, like the new equipment that they brought to help us with our daily job.





I am a devout Christian. I have been married to my wife for 41 years. We have one son, two daughters and four grandchildren. I won the Distinguished Staff Award in 2010. That was a great highlight in my life, being recognized by the people who I work for. My belief has always been to treat people as you wish to be treated. I have worked for the UW since August of 2000.

Cleaning was always one of the things I did well. As I worked for University of Washington over the years, I enjoy interacting with my co-workers, managers, professors and TAs (teaching assistants).

I bring my work ethic to my job. I clean and maintain my work area as if I’m taking care of my own house. I treat my superiors and co-workers with respect. I try to fulfill all of the professors’ and TAs’ needs in respect to their offices. When I do these things, I get the same respect in return.

Thank you to this kind crew who allowed me to photograph and draw them, and to Gene Woodward and Allison Nitch, of the UW Building Services Department, who wholeheartedly supported this project.

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