For decades Seattle has been amassing outdoor sculpture in public places. Some major works, prominently placed, have become symbols of our city. Other fine pieces remain mostly unknown. Call them hidden treasures. Or, in some cases, neglected ones.
For decades Seattle has been amassing outdoor sculpture in public places. Some major works, prominently placed, have become symbols of our city. Other fine pieces remain mostly unknown.
Call them hidden treasures. Or, in some cases, neglected ones.
Sometimes you need only look down to discover our city’s finery. Downtown, a series of bronze manhole covers includes a Chilkoot-Tlingit design by Nathan P. Jackson, a reminder that white settlers weren’t the first to walk the banks of Puget Sound.
In the Eastlake neighborhood, catch Stacey Levy’s pleasing cornerstones of cast glass and stone. The attractive sidewalk insets are also practical: they identify the streets that flank them.
Some of the city’s best art even crops up underground. Tour the Metro Bus Tunnel entrances downtown for works by many of the region’s outstanding artists. Robert Teeple’s witty “Electric Lascaux” at the University Street entrance is a guaranteed brain tingler for kids and adults. A constantly shifting display of electronic animations andrandom poetry created from 10,000 LEDs, it spans the greater part of a 60-foot wall.
Those are among the success stories. Yet sometimes public artworks are so poorly situated that not even the people they’re intended to please really notice them. In other cases the works are cherished neighborhood icons, but little-known to outsiders.
That’s the case with Ken Leback and Rolon Bert Garner’s sculptural installation “Equality.” The project was held up for 12 years in bureaucratic red tape before its completion in 1996. The piece was funded by “1% for Art,” with assistance from DOT and the Parks Department. When it finally got installed, there was little fanfare — city officials seemed glad to get the long-delayed commission out of their hair. Today, with nearly a decade of growth to the landscape and the fragrance of incense cedars wafting in the summer air, the artwork has come into its own.
Situated on Sturgus Avenue South above I-90 at the north edge of Beacon Hill, the installation incorporates a sweeping view of the downtown skyline into its composition. Based on a quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (inscribed on a plaque at the site), the 30-foot grid of granite houses faces a grassy mound topped by a single bronze house. Behind it, the city stretches out against the northwestern horizon, moving the message of the piece — about the nature of freedom and equality — from metaphor into reality. The grid of houses also evokes the stark lines of a military graveyard and gives an added resonance to the metaphor.
On the opposite end of Beacon Hill, at the edge of the Benefit Playground (at 39th Avenue South and South Benefit Street) an earlier sculptural installation has an equally tucked away but less auspicious site. Joe Ojo Wheeler’s 1982 sandstone and granite “Common Ground” doesn’t sit comfortably in the context of the park and has poor sight lines. Still, it’s a wonderful piece of public art that emanates a mysterious spirituality. Two tall stone sentinels form a gateway, flanked by steps on one side and a ramp on the other. On one side, a group of craggy stones seems to be crawling up the stairway like animate objects. On the other side, it’s as if those jagged stones have re-emerged round and smooth. Or maybe the round stones are also ascending toward the portal where all of them transform and vanish. Whatever the metaphor, it’s a haunting image. A plaque refers to the sculpture as “An Earthe prayre, affirmation of the spirit of all Beings.”
“Common Ground” was funded by neighborhood organizations, SAC and others. It’s been pressure washed and stripped with solvents a number of times to remove graffiti, and residents in the area have rallied to protect it. The piece looks worn.
Across town, “Meridian Archway” and “Gasworks Memorial Sundial,” two wonderful sculptural installations by Chuck Greening, delight neighborhood residents and visitors. “Meridian Archway” makes an inviting entry to a park and playfield at the Good Shepherd Center at North 50th Street and Meridian in Wallingford. The charming gate and ramp — a stone mosaic of textures and colors, boulders and pebbles — incorporates planter boxes, a bench and a sweet single-seater chair on its route as it zigzags from the street corner to the park. Wandering through it, from the streetcorner to the park, is a mini-adventure. At the top of the ramp, a circular knoll of lawn ringed with trees looks back through the portal to the street. The whole composition is nicely considered.
The only false note to the otherwise endearing piece is the glaringly institutional strip of handrailing added to the design after it had been initially approved and funded, to make it meet city safety and accessibility requirements.
Greening, with Kim Lazare, also created the poetic “Gasworks Memorial Sundial” situated on one of the city’s most spectacular viewpoints. Atop a grassy mound at the former industrial site that is now Gasworks Park at the north end of Lake Union, the sundial is a glorious thing, part ancient science, part magic. It’s a mosaic circle of concrete and aggregate, embedded with seashells, marbles, bronze stars, fish emblems, bits of colored glass, astrological symbols and a great blossom like the navel of the world. You can actually use it to tell time, placing your own body as the gnomon (indicator): A plaque provides instructions. Since it was installed in 1978 (paid for by an anonymous donor) a few bits of the mosaic have come off and the sculpture has been used as an ashtray. A little cleaning and maintenance would help.
In a post 9/11 world, previously public artworks have become off-limits. Douglas Hollis’ beloved “Sound Garden” is an installation of twelve steel rods and weather vanes that funnels wind through pipes to create unearthly music. It sits at the edge of Magnuson Park and is now locked up with other excellent artworks (including a sculpture by Martin Puryear) at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Western Regional Center. Security is beefed up at the federal facility, and when our government is on orange alert no unauthorized visitors are admitted. This summer, when the weather is fair and the federal alert status relaxed to yellow, visitors may enter the gate from Magnuson Park to “Sound Garden” from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. You must provide ID and purses and backpacks are subject to search. Or enter on foot through the gate at NOAA.
In some cases the only thing that keeps a public artwork hidden is neglect. That’s the problem with the late James Washington Jr.’s 1981 “Testimony in Stone” a graceful stone carving nearly lost in the shrubbery outside a Central Area health care center at 22nd and Yesler. Who chose to put it there? Rumor has it a contractor working on the building remodel took it upon himself to relocate the sculpture. The tender huddle of birds and a small animal, carved from a single piece of stone, is stained and partly shrouded by ivy and drooping branches: a reminder that our public art investment needs to be carefully tended.
Sheila Farr: email@example.com