The Tacoma Arts Commission is the main agency via which public art flows into our municipal space. The commission mentors, midwifes and maintains the stock of city-owned art treasures. Our beloved arts commission, however, is not the only game in town. Works of public art also come to us through other entities, agencies and combinations of agencies such as the parks department, neighborhood groups, churches, property owners as well as commissions at the state and county level.
The Pierce County Arts Commission, for example, oversees the county’s One Percent for Art Program that directs publicly funded construction projects with costs exceeding $100,000 to allocate one percent of the project for public art. Thus, when the parking garage devoted to those citizens called to serve on jury duty was constructed as part of the county court building complex, the Pierce County Arts Commission saw to it that artwork was incorporated into the building which now stands at the corner of South 9th and Yakima Streets.
For this project, the county commissioned a set of colorful murals done in fused glass tiles that feature various wetland species. The work, entitled “As Above, So Below,” is the result of a collaboration between two area artists that specialize in fused glass: Richard la Londe and Michael Dupille. The murals, which are mounted on aluminum backings, were set in place upon the brick walls at the southeast corner of the building in May of 2000.
“As Above, So Below” is a suite of three main murals. The “Heron Mural” is 12 feet tall and features a noble heron with a squiggly green tadpole in its beak. The artists allow us a view below the water as well as above. A fish peeks out from the lower left corner and a frog occupies the lower right. Up above there is a cluster of stylized rain clouds emitting cartoonish drops of rain. A big dragonfly hovers in the middle zone. The clouds above and the heron’s pointed rump stick out beyond the frame, breaking the rectangular composition. Compositions that spill out of the bounds of the frame are a hallmark of Dupille’s work in particular.
The 3-foot by 6-foot “Frog Mural” gives us an underwater view of the wetland environment. We see the head of a duck jutting down from above as it goes for a sub-aquatic worm on a dark log. Several fish, meanwhile, are moving upward to catch bugs on the surface of the water. A group of green tadpoles is swimming along and a big, green frog with an enigmatic starburst for an eye occupies a lower corner.
The most eye-catching mural is the “Duck Mural.” At more than 5-feet high and almost 14-feet long, it depicts iconic mallard ducks in flight above a wetland scene. A big kingfisher stands in profile off to one side. The ducks in flight break free of the bonds of the mural. One of the ducks has flown completely out of the mural and is on its own on the side of the building.
A fourth mini-mural echoing the “Duck Mural” is high up on one of the building’s brick surfaces. It is a square with more of the stylized clouds with one duck mostly out of the frame and another totally free.
The two artists, La Londe and Dupille, are both accomplished practitioners of the art of fused glass. In the fused glass process, designs are laid out almost like a sand painting using variously colored glass that is crushed into a granular form called “frit.” The designs are then heated in a kiln. The resulting fused glass composition has a number of advantages as public art. It will never fade and it is easy to clean. “As Above, So Below” should be able to last for centuries to come. Mounted on aluminum backings, the glass art can be removed and relocated if necessary. These works of art might well outlive the building upon which they reside.
These murals are not beyond reproach however. The whole wetland theme, for example, is somewhat puzzling since the only “wetland” within miles of the building is the artificial pond in Wright Park. The colors are so brilliant and crisp that they are almost jarring in their contrast to the brick building and drab colors of the city. Neither is there any harmony in the color scheme. The murals are reminiscent of gaudy birthday cakes seen in glass counters of supermarkets. The rendering of some of the creatures can also be off-putting. The tadpoles and the sub-aquatic log, for example, are mere blobs of color. The dragonfly in the “Heron Mural” and the titular frog in the “Frog Mural” are somewhat awkward. The stylized rainclouds seem out of character with other more naturalistic elements of the murals.
That being said, it is good to have something to entertain the eye in this otherwise imposing quadrant of town.
The two artists each have impressive records and do fascinating work. Seattle-based Dupille has been involved in glass work since he was part of the glass blowing program at Central Washington University in the early 1970s. He is one of the innovators in the fused glass field and teaches workshops all over the country.
La Londe, who lives on Whidbey Island, began fusing glass in 1981. He has taught at the Pilchuck Glass School. Locally his work can be seen at Pierce County Library in Parkland, at Edgemont Junior High School in Edgewood, at Puyallup’s Good Samaritan Hospital and at SeaTac International Airport.