Seattle public art well worth a look

Hulking under the Aurora Bridge in Seattle is a 7-ton troll clutching a real Volkswagen Beetle, as if it snagged it off the roadway above. And incidentally, the VW has a California license plate.

The statue, made of rebar steel, wire and concrete, is at Troll Way and 36th Street in the funky, artistic neighborhood of Fremont.

One of the delights of visiting the Northwest is the vast array of public art. Some of it, like the Fremont Troll, is fun. Some is thought-provoking; some stirs controversy. I had the joy during recent visits of wandering around Seattle, my home for 17 years, looking for the art that delighted me back then and finding some new ones.

I was in Fremont to revisit "Waiting for the Interurban," by Richard Beyer. It's one of the city's most beloved and interactive pieces of sculpture. The cast aluminum piece portrays six people and a dog with a human face (allegedly that of Arman Stepanian, a local legend who feuded with the artist). Locals dress up the statues with mufflers and hats or Halloween costumes or messages to loved ones.

Just to the east is a tribute to J.P. Patches, a TV clown known as "the best friend the children of Seattle ever had." Also in the area is a giant and controversial statue of Vladimir Lenin and "Make Yourself at Home," a fanciful metal fence at the entrance to Fremont History House.

Even the buildings can be artwork. Across from "Waiting for the Interurban" at Fremont Avenue North and North 34th Street is the Epicenter Building by Mark Stevens. Twenty-one welded and polished steel curlicues adorn the facade.

Thousands of pieces of public art are on display all around the area. Seattle, its public utility company Seattle City Light, the area's light-rail line Sound Transit and many area cities like Edmonds and Kirkland all have sculpture, murals, paintings and art installations.

The profusion of publicly and privately funded art is the legacy of the Seattle ordinance passed in 1973 that required 1 percent of capital improvement projects to be set aside for the commission, purchase and installation of artwork. It pays for art in parks, libraries, community centers, roadways, bridges and public buildings. In more than 30 years, that program alone has produced 368 permanently sited works, 2,792 portable artworks and 53 other works (including audio, video, film).

And that doesn't include the Seattle Art Museum and its sculpture park or the myriad of private pieces that are in plazas and other open areas.

Olympic Sculpture Park

The story goes that a donor left $1 million in his will for a sculpture in Seattle, but only if it was male, nude, anatomically correct and had a fountain that made a big splash.

That caused quite a stir. But in 2006 at the south end of Olympic Sculpture Park on the city's waterfront, Louise Bourgeois' "Father and Son" was unveiled. The two figures reach out to each other as the fountain engulfs one and then the other. It's a poignant piece that evokes the longing for closeness and distance between dad and boy.

The Bourgeois piece didn't seem to cause any controversy for the tourists ambling by or cyclists taking a rest on Bourgeois' giant "eye" benches nearby when we visited in early October.

A couple of the pieces in the sculpture park did bring snickers. A temporary installation by Tennis Whiting includes washer, dryer and a stereo cabinet sitting out in the weeds. Maybe if you are from New York City, Whiting's piece seems witty or evocative. But if you've lived in a rural area where your neighbors really do put their old broken-down washer and dryer in the yard, it's not as appealing.

But pieces like Richard Serra's "Wake," with its towering waves of rusted steel the color of red enchilada sauce, give you a real sense that you are part of his imagined space - a piece of the sculpture itself. And Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's "Typewriter Eraser," which stands 19 feet high, always makes me smile - though if you are younger than 40, you probably have never seen a real typewriter eraser, or a typewriter for that matter.

You could spend the better part of a day exploring the park and its open spaces with native trees and grasses, and I recommend it to anyone. The Seattle Art Museum downtown is also a place of many delights - worth a trip for the Northwest Indian button blankets alone. Even if you don't have time for a tour, "Hammering Man," a towering mechanized sculpture that marks the entrance, is worth seeing.

Downtown Seattle

I was searching for one of my favorite pieces, Henry Moore's "Three Piece Sculpture #3: Vertebrae," which has been in Seattle since it was unveiled in 1971. When I first moved to the city, friends scoffed at me for admiring it and referred to the giant forms as "dog bones." But there is something appealing about the smooth, undulating brass that changes in every light.

At first, I couldn't find it. I knew it was at a bank building, but the bank had changed hands a couple times and I didn't know the name of the building. I asked a friend who works downtown, and she didn't remember it. We stopped by an art gallery in the Washington Mutual building to ask and discovered "New Archetypes," a huge, polished steel sculpture of four towers cut in segments. Two are standing, two have toppled and they are accompanied by a giant cursor arrow stuck in a pond. The receptionist in the gallery didn't know of the Henry Moore sculpture either.

"I'll be really embarrassed if it is nearby," she said.

It's about four blocks away. Thanks to Google and an iPhone, we found it. "Vertebrae" is across from the new Seattle Public Library building, a piece of art in itself. The venerable piece is a bit neglected, with not even a plaque to identify it in a windswept plaza with nowhere to sit. But I was glad to see it again.

Seattleites don't visit it much now, but when the building's owner tried to sell it in 1985, locals demonstrated and canceled their bank accounts: a testament to Seattle's feelings for its public art. The landlord sold the piece to Seattle Art Museum.

Also nearby at Third Avenue and Madison Street is "Seattle Tulip" by Tom Wesselmann, on the plaza outside the Wells Fargo building. The painted-steel sculpture changes shape depending on which direction it is viewed from.


Something about taking found pieces and broken china and marbles and making art from it is appealing to me. "Meridian Archway" and "Gasworks Memorial Sundial" are two favorites. They are mixed media, mosaic sculptural installations. "Meridian Archway," by Chuck Greening, welcomes the visitor into the Good Shepherd Center with a path and bench of seashells, pebbles and river rock. Inside the grassy park with its old apple trees are smaller fanciful pieces that appeal to the kids, like "Let the Rumpus Begin," based on Maurice Sendak's book "Where the Wild Things Are."

I've visited the sundial, created by Greening and Kim Lazare, dozens of times. I lived for a time in the Wallingford neighborhood just up the street from Gas Works Park, a grassy mound on Lake Union with a spectacular view of downtown. My downstairs neighbor played drums in a rock band and practiced six and seven hours a day. So there were times when a quiet hike up the hill to watch the boats pass by was necessary for sanity.

The hilltop sundial is set in the ground, and you tell the time using your body as the gnomon that casts a shadow (if the sun is out, which in Seattle isn't always a guarantee). Like the Meridian arch, it is made of natural and colorful objects. It's a little worn and could use some upkeep, but it is still a magical piece.

In the burbs: Edmonds, Wash.

Edmonds, a town just north of Seattle where you can catch the Kingston Ferry across Puget Sound, has its own 1 percent for art program. It isn't a place I visited much when I lived in the city, but now I have family there, so I visit often.

On the waterfront walkway along Railroad Avenue is one of my grandsons' favorite areas that has lots of art. "Seeing Whales" by Richard Beyer (2003) is a cast aluminum tableau of a family at the seaside. The little ones particularly like climbing on the wheelchair and seeing a (sculptural) sea gull perched on two of the whale watcher's heads. In that same area is "Bull Kelp and Sea Life Elements" by Patrick Maher, which includes forged bronze sea creatures embedded in the rocks along the beach, and "Locals" by Georgia Gerber (1989), which includes cast bronze sea lions and a figure carrying a child on his shoulders.