MEMORABLE MOMENTS ABOUND naturally at Seattle Center, our collective keepsake from the 1962 World’s Fair. And for me, its touchstone is the amphitheater west of the Space Needle, anchored by the rich hues and galvanizing composition of its 60-by-17-foot mosaic mural by Paul Horiuchi. 

Both arresting and unifying, the juxtaposed Needle, green grass and mural bear a timeless appeal, enveloping us like a hug. Where else, over the past six decades, could we rather have passed time alone in urban contemplation or enjoyed an outdoor experience with a festive crowd? 

Now & Then

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I’ve long presumed that the mural’s warmth and complexity derived from the art itself, but thanks to a recent reunion of Horiuchis at the mural, I know it also springs from a stinging saga. 

Born in 1906 in Japan, Horiuchi first delved into ink-wash painting as a boy. He came to the United States in 1920, becoming a railroad worker in Wyoming until World War II, when he was fired for being Japanese and lived largely in hiding with his young family in a truck while laboring as a janitor and gardener. 

Postwar, after a move to Seattle, Horiuchi’s artistic career took off. Fifteen years later, the Century 21 Exposition commissioned what became the soft-spoken collagist’s best-known and most-beloved piece. His melding of odd-shaped and multicolored chunks of glass from Venice, Italy, was touted in 1962 as the largest single work of art in the Northwest. 

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Brian Horiuchi, a descendant and L.A. screenwriter-director who organized the reunion, sees accessibility and emotional truth in his great-uncle’s creation. 

“Though it’s abstract, it doesn’t strike me as intellectualized or at all forced,” he says. A family gathering at the amphitheater, he says, becomes a pilgrimage to a tangled but triumphant legacy: “I think there’s celebration with the darkness, for sure.” 

His 5-year-old daughter, Cosima, a budding artist, catches the symbolism while twirling before the parabolic mural: “It’s about feelings.” 

My own feelings about the mural hover to amphitheater events such as Pete Seeger inspiring a 1997 Northwest Folklife audience to sing along to “Amen/Freedom/Union” with the new Seattle Labor Chorus, as well as, more recently, the perennially mesmerizing performances of Eduardo Mendonça and Show Brazil. 

The long ribbon of such occasions bespeaks permanence — and survival amid sporadic talk of redesigning Seattle Center, especially a scuttled late-1980s Disney scheme. 

The mural’s endurance also breeds comfort that its creator expressed in a handwritten message, shared at his 1999 memorial service: “I have always wanted to create something serene, the peace and serenity, the quality needed to balance the sensationalism in our surroundings today.”