Tacoma is fortunate to have inventive and visionary individuals staffing its municipal arts organizations. The economic recession has emptied many of the city's downtown buildings of their tenants. Blank, unoccupied, street level windows and storefronts could well have become the hard-bitten face of recession-era Tacoma were it not for the efforts of the Tacoma Arts Commission (in conjunction with Shunpike and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce) which is bringing together property owners and area artists in order to fill those vacant windows with art.
The citizenry thus benefits from exposure to art while the artists get to have their work exposed to the constant stream of eyeballs that pass those windows each day. The void of vacancy is thus filled and perhaps a downward spiral of urban decay is averted. It is a beautiful feat of symbiosis orchestrated by the wily hands that we are so fortunate to have at the helm of the arts commission at this time in our civic history. The program, known as "Artscapes" (part of a larger enterprise called "Spaceworks"), has transformed a strip of Broadway (between 9th and 11th streets) into an open-air gallery. Instead of shuffling past dark and spooky buildings, pedestrians along that stretch of the Theater District are treated to illuminated, artistic vignettes.
Starting at 9th and Broadway and moving south towards 11th Street, a pedestrian will encounter a trio of installations just across from the Pantages Theater. Tory Franklin's "Firebird" exhibit (908 Broadway) combines intricate Russian decorative elements with paper cut-out figures reminiscent of Indonesian shadow puppets. Next door (910 Broadway) is Michelle Acuff's window display in which one peers through a lattice made of shapes like branches or antlers into a mysterious space in which a life-sized blue deer stands with an impossible pile of antlers atop its head. Waxy yellow birds punctuate the scene. Ben Hirschkoff, meanwhile, (912 Broadway) has composed an artistic vignette that is like a landscape from a "Monty Python" cartoon. A puffy cloud cut from thin metal is outfitted with piping from a sprinkler system. An elegant metal bird is fixed to the terminus of the pipe. The cloud is suspended above sparkling green Astroturf and hangs in front of a heavy black backdrop on which light blue or green paint has been splashed and dripped.
Further along Broadway are the famous Woolworth windows where Joseph Songco's photos of New York storefronts reside next to a busy and colorful mess in which yarn, cotton, deflated plastic guitars, plastic eggs, photographs and children's drawings are bewilderingly strewn about. Called "Ackawacko meeting" by a group called "meadow starts with p" (a father and his two young children), the installation purports to explore the essential interchange between art and play.
Gretchen Bennett, meanwhile, has put together a charming abstraction in which strips of striped felt are pieced together into a form like an animal pelt. Little details such as a row of curved sticks, placed like ripples on a pond, are discovered as one looks closer.
Lisa Kinoshita's "Jack's Epitaph" is one of the more thought provoking installations associated with "Artscapes." The furnishings of a mundane, outdated office are accented with a quirky element: a static-buzzed television set, a house of cards and an anthropomorphic lamp. A taxidermied bear (front half only) is mounted on the wall so that it seems to burst forth with claws flailing. A sheet of paper posted on the window tells the story of Jack the bear who was like the 1890s version of Ivan the gorilla. The bear lived at the Tacoma Hotel and often roamed the streets, visiting the local saloons where he was served mugs of beer. Jack was beloved by local Tacomans as a creature of the wilderness that almost magically fit into the world of humans. Such magical moments, however, never seem sustainable. The chaos of the wilderness almost inevitably comes into conflict with the agents of order. One day Jack was gunned down by a frightened policeman. A bullet burst the magic bubble of Jack's time as Tacoma's wild mascot. There was reportedly much public outcry at the loss of Jack (and perhaps the loss of civic innocence).
Around the corner, in the Commerce Street Woolworth windows there is a display of bicycle contraptions by Scott McGee, Eric Holdener and Bil Fleming. These are examples of the "Zeitbikes" that are annually featured on parade during national bicycle month, (May).
The current "Artscapes" installations run through Sept. 24. For further information visit www.tacomaculture.org/arts/resource/Spaceworks Tacoma/default.htm.