It’s likely that you’ve encountered a Tsutakawa sculpture while traipsing through Seattle’s public streets, parks and plazas at some point in the last half-century. Perhaps you’ve contemplated the stacked, oblong shapes of the Central Library fountain along Fourth Avenue. Or maybe you’ve posed in the hollow round of a giant, ameboid mitt at T-Mobile Park. Whether at the hands of George (1910-1997), or son Gerard (born 1947), the two Tsutakawas have etched the landscape of Seattle with welded forms that continue to influence its cultural identity today.
An exhibition at Wing Luke Museum, titled “Gerard Tsutakawa: Stories Shaped in Bronze,” reflects upon both George and Gerard’s material storytelling, with a spotlight on the latter. “I usually focus on the pieces in front of me, and never look back at my works,” Gerard says. “So it’s different to examine my last 50 years through this exhibition.”
Currently, Gerard is working on one of his biggest pieces to date: a 7-by-9-foot rounded abstraction for Climate Pledge Arena. Titled “SeaWave,” it’s an allegory to flowing water and its universality to life. The work, fabricated in silicon bronze, will be unveiled upon the opening of the arena.
Curated by Seattle-based architect Rachael Kitagawa, the Wing Luke retrospective reveals the intricacies of planning and design behind each large-scale creation. Color photographs along the walls present visual diaries of the process, from fabrication to installation. Some also show scenes of playful visitors engaging with the finished pieces as tactile elements of the open city. Wing Luke has also organized a walking tour of both George and Gerard’s works around the city center. The map can be located on Wing Luke’s exhibition page.
“The public art of both George and Gerry really changed how people interact with an experiential space,” says Kitagawa, a close family friend. “George’s fountains bring a calming effect to a space, while Gerry’s sculptures are so interactive. It shows how art and good design can bring a positive influence to the community.”
George was the first public arts sculptor in the Tsutakawa family. It was as his apprentice that Gerard (known to friends as Gerry), began to practice metalworking. “I was always a hands-on builder of objects,” Gerard explains while sitting in his childhood studio, where he still does much of his work. His practice is rooted here, like a tree tended through generations. “I liked the idea of assembling something that was never made before,” he says, “But mostly I picked up where my father left off in the shop.”
The Tsutakawa studio is occupied by a hefty drafting desk, which claims most of the space in the room. Its surfaces are smothered in stacks of paper and piles of sketch pads. Framed black-and-white photographs line the midcentury wooden walls. A vintage Mongoose IPA tin plate perches on a nearby counter, like a ’70s dive bar, although Gerard himself doesn’t imbibe.
Gerard spent his early career working on projects with his father, until receiving his first independent commission for the International District Children’s Park (now Donnie Chin International Children’s Park). “The Dragon” (1978) soon became a friendly fixture to the neighborhood, its soft angles inviting playmates of all ages to climb along its curved body. “It’s very alive, the dragon sculpture in the children’s park,” says Kitagawa. “I always see adults taking selfies and photos, laughing and enjoying it. People love that piece.”
While training under his father, Gerard also began to develop his own artistic language. The elder Tsutakawa was fluent in the spinal elegance of soaring fountains, but the younger Tsutakawa gravitated toward the strength of sharp angles and blunt edges. These formal elements became more focused as Gerard evolved his discipline. He installed larger and more ambitious works across King County over the next 40 years. In 1999, Gerard created “The Mitt” for Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park), where it has since stood as a landmark, meeting point and photo opportunity for citygoers near and far.
Gerard Tsutakawa is inspired by the abstraction of nature in his sculptures. He often studies from Pacific Islander or Aboriginal cultures, delving into Polynesian, Maori and Southeast Asian craft and folk art. “They have very strong visual images,” he states simply. “Their shapes came directly from the environment. And I kept looking at natural things, like arches and tectonic plates, for my own designs.” In his series of works, Gerard has woven the evocative lines of geographies, origami and other phenomena such as thunder, waves or wind into his primary medium: bronze.
Seattle is scattered with the sundrops of Gerard Tsutakawa’s creative vision; it is almost impossible to traverse its urban pockets without greeting one of his metallic wonders. Near Pike Place Market, “Thunderbolt” (2008) poses proudly with its sharp, sturdy base and trapezoidal slant. The rays of the Kubota Garden Gates (2008) at Rainier Beach swirl, as if in eternal dance. “Salish Sea Circle” (2011) mimics the spokes of a mechanical wheel, or perhaps a conch shell in Port Townsend. “Illusion Dweller” (2012) in West Seattle’s Arroyos Natural Area is a stainless steel monolith, undulating high above the seaside cliffs. Its silver patina bears a striking contrast against the lonely green and stark gravel of its natural surroundings.
“Illusion Dweller” was one of those “logistical nightmares” that challenged Gerard to exercise his engineer’s intellect. “The site was on the bluffs, and down these rickety stairs. The sculpture itself was heavy, but the real problem was laying the cement foundation,” he describes. “We could not get a cement mixer down there. So with a crew of about a dozen folks, we carried two buckets each of concrete down those wooden stairs, and poured it for the foundation.”
“Gerry is a real problem-solver,” comments Kitagawa about the project. In Wing Luke’s exhibition hall, photographs depict a double row of workers hoisting “Illusion Dweller” upon their shoulders down a forest path, like a crew of longboaters. In the next picture, Gerard stands with arms stretched to the sky under the finished installation, his face curled with a hint of smile.
The exhibition also features a small-scale model of the Central Library’s “Fountain of Wisdom,” by George Tsutakawa. The fountain “has welcomed Library users for decades with its calming flow of water through the several basins, symbolizing the constant exchange of information as it moves into and out from the Library,” Jodee Fenton, a former managing librarian of special collections at the Central Library, wrote in an email. “As the first fountain created by Tsutakawa in what would become an international career of innovative fountain sculptures, the ‘Fountain of Wisdom’ stands as a turning point in Seattle’s art history.”
The bronze maquette is scored in overlapping circles, alluding to the process used by George Tsutakawa to weld its complex forms. According to a HistoryLink article, the elder Tsutakawa collaborated with Boeing engineer Jack Uchida to fabricate the library fountain “from sheets of silicon bronze cut to shape by band saws, wrought to form by presses and hammers, and assembled by electric welding. It took nearly two years to complete.”
“Gerry and George have done a lot for the city, especially for making the urban space more special for everyone,” Kitagawa says. She describes the younger Tsutakawa’s partnerships with community groups, including former constituents of the Japanese Language School in Tacoma, the Nihongo Gakko. Although the building no longer exists, and the site is owned by the University of Washington, Tacoma campus, Gerard Tsutakawa worked closely with its past students, now in their 80s and 90s, to design “Maru” (2014), a memorial to the school and its once-vibrant community. “The constituents were older, so if they didn’t like something, they were sure to let us know,” Gerard remembers with a chuckle.
The Nihongo Gakko closed in the 1940s due to the mass removal of Japanese Americans to detention centers in World War II. Greg Tanbara’s grandmother bought the title to the property, to prevent it from being liquidated along with other Japanese assets. The Tanbaras were incarcerated during the war. “My mother still remembers leaving town from Union Station, right around the corner from the school. That’s where they were taken out of town. With only one suitcase each, and the windows all boarded up in the railcar,” Tanbara says, retelling the grim event during an interview. Upon returning to Tacoma, Tanbara’s parents made the schoolhouse their family home in the 1950s.
Tanbara’s mother and aunt were among the former pupils of the Nihongo Gakko to attend town halls with Gerard Tsutakawa. Gerard came with a few potential designs, but “Maru” was most widely appreciated. With its open circle framed by calligraphic lines and acute corners, the work “touches on a bunch of things that had to do with Japanese language and history in the area,” says Tanbara. “You see the Prairie Line Trail, the first railroad that came into Tacoma, through one way. And through the other, see Pacific Avenue and the art museum. It’s like looking at the past and the present through the same piece, but from different perspectives.”
There is a theory by art historian Miwon Kwon that describes site-specific artworks as works that intervene upon a physical locale, producing sites of public interaction. Site-specific artworks encourage visitors to question their surroundings, while also sparking opportunities for collective city-making.
George and Gerard Tsutakawa’s works invite people into this process of shared city-making. Whether through play, reflection or pause, their sculptures transform audiences into active agents of a social space, like oxygen in the beating heart of urbanity. Through their welded shapes and bronze-metal forms, the Tsutakawas have inscribed Seattle with landmarks evocative of its truest nature — the contours of its Pacific Rim environment, the histories of its many people, and its past, present and future.