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Overlooked public art in Tacoma

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Watch out when you’re walking, you might step on the art. It’s all over the place, more often than not hidden in plain sight. Sometimes hidden by virtue of being overly familiar; your eyes just take it in and spit it out without ever processing it through the brain. Like the tiles inset in the sidewalk on 11th Street between Broadway and Commerce that were installed with great fanfare a few years back but which not just get stepped on.

Or like Buster Simpson’s Parapet Relay at the UW Bookstore downtown. Simpson is an internationally known installation artist and sculptor whose works include major public installaltions in Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Walla Walla, Boston, Kansas City and many other cities. Tacomans might remember Simpson’s grand rooftop sculpture that graced the Museum of Glass from 2002 to 2006. But how many even notice the ghostlike image of enigmatic words along the parapet of the UW Bookstore? This is art that was designed to vanish in plain sight; art that only those who are willing to take the time to look and think ever notice. The words STORAGE, LABOR, GATHER, IDEA & WISDOM in block capital letters wrap around the parapet, but not all can be seen from any given angle. As you move around the building looking at it from different viewpoints, the words appear and disappear. They refer to the site’s original industrial function morphing into its current educational function. Take a look. I wonder how many people pass by every day without noticing.

On the other hand, there is some public art that becomes so ubiquitous around here that it’s a good thing it goes unnoticed. I’m talking about salmon. There are salmon sculptures all over Tacoma and down in Olympia, too. They’re everywhere, and they’re boring, boring, boring. In Olympia they had a contest about 10 years ago and practically every artist in town submitted a salmon, and they were placed in public locations all over town, but eventually had to be moved into public buildings because people were desecrating them (who can blame them?) and stealing them (who would want to?).

And then there are Larry Anderson’s 19th century-style figures all over T-town, most noticeable perhaps in Fireman’s Park and in front of Union Station. I’m glad that this style of public sculpture is no longer popular, or at least no longer as popular as it once was, but I have to admit there is a kind of working-class charm to Anderson’s sculptures that I enjoy. That guy with his suitcases in front of Union Station looks so damn happy to be catching a train out of town.

Speaking of Union Station, the Chihuly glass there is among his better work, especially the two oval windows. These are much better than the work on the so-called Chihuly bridge of glass that connects the Tacoma Art Museum with the Museum of Glass.

Another often-overlooked work that I’ve always enjoyed is Kurt Kiefer’s Washingtonia Domus on 26th Street near the Tacoma Dome. Simultaneously delicate and airy and heavily industrial, Domus is a row of potted palm trees — a tricky bit of false Tropicana in the dreary Northwest.

And then we have God in the clouds in two locations, two wall paintings with imagery borrowed from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, both of which are so bad they’re good. One is the Grandfield’s mural (artist unknown) behind the store at 20 Broadway, and the other is the Youth for Christ mural at 201 N. I Street, which is actually well done but is unbelievably corny.

A terrific bit of public art is the pop-icon  Oakland/Madrona fence art by Eddie Hill at 3818 Center St. These flat cut-outs of workers are quite striking.

Discovering public art by accident can be a lot of fun. But you can also find a virtual tour online with photos, descriptions directions and maps.

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