Tuesday, July 25, 2017 This Week's Paper

Know your public art

// Wright Park’s 'The Leaf'

Larry Anderson’s “The Leaf” is a bronze sculpture of two figures: an old man is seated on a bench while a little girl kneels before him holding a leaf. Located in the southwestern quadrant of Wright Park, the figures are so true to their human models that passersby – especially from dusk to dawn – must often mistake them for actual people.

Such modern sculptures as “The Leaf” owe much to Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), the pioneer of modern sculpture. Prior to Rodin – from the Greeks on down – public statuary consisted of depictions of gods and heroes mounted on pedestals. Rodin (most well known for “The Thinker” and “The Kiss”) often depicted ordinary people and presented them at ground level.

In general, however, public taste was for heroic, pedestal-mounted memorials of soldiers, celebrities and sundry bigwigs. At some point during the iconoclastic 1960s, however, tastes in public art began to shift and since that time there has been vogue for bronze figures of everyday folks and animals that stand on the same ground as we do. They sit on benches in our parks and campuses. They stand on our sidewalks and sit in our ballparks. The contemporary cityscape is populated by these life-sized bronze figures like the pieces on a chessboard.

In Tacoma the majority of these bronzes are the result of the industrious and homegrown Larry Anderson, who spent much of his career working out of his Stadium District garage-turned-studio. From there he cranked out the monuments that are familiar to most Tacomans. After “The Leaf” came “Trilogy,” a group of three children also at Wright Park. Anderson made “New Beginnings” (the carpetbagger in front of Union Station), “Clearing the Way” (the logger in Fireman’s Park), a statue of Abraham Lincoln for his own alma materLincoln High School and many more.

Born in 1940, Anderson attended Central Washington University in Ellensburg, University of Washington and the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna, Austria. He earned his master of fine arts degree from Cranbrook Art Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. in 1968. He taught art for 10 years at Hunt Jr. High School and Foss High School. In 1975 he quit teaching in order to devote himself full time to the artistic output of his own studio.

Anderson worked in a multitude of media and was adept at producing some abstract and edgy stuff. It was by catering to the public taste for easily apprehensible, non-confrontational work, however, that Anderson won fame and financial success. He was able to move to a larger studio in Bonney Lake in the early 1990s.

“The Leaf” would be the first of the life-sized bronze figures that are now such a common element of our urban landscape. Dedicated in December 1975, “The Leaf” is a three dimensional portrait of two generations. The old man and the young girl are captured in an idealized (sentimental even) moment of wonder and affection as the girl presents a leaf to the old man.

Anderson explained his interest in the old and the young in a 1970s interview. “They are dreamers,” he said. “They don’t have the responsibilities that parents have. The young have a freshness and optimism that the older people don’t have, but crave. Both young and old have time to enjoy life.” An Anderson sculpture called “Legacy” at the Washington Soldiers Home in Orting has a similar juxtaposition of young and old.

Anderson’s daughter Marti is the model for the pig-tailed little girl while a man named Merle Legg sat in as the old man. Models were required to hold their pose through numerous sessions that could total as much as 30 hours. During the making of “The Leaf,” Legg had what he described as a near heart attack and attributed his recovery to his wanting to help Anderson finish the piece.

It took Anderson six months to create “The Leaf.” To make his figures, Anderson built an armature of pipe, wire and styrofoam that was then covered in an oil-based clay that he mixed himself. He has been particularly adept at making his clay surface mimic the cloth of the various costumes worn by his figures.

Clay figures were then sent to the foundry (for his early works Anderson used Blue Heron Foundry in Port Townsend, where he put in time as an intern). There a mold was made and the figures were cast in plaster. A wax version of the plaster copy was made before the final bronze version was cast. Once the clay originals were back in his studio Anderson would unceremoniously dismantle them to use the clay for his next project.

The plasters, however, remain available to make additional bronzes of a given piece. A second edition of “The Leaf” was cast in 1980 and now resides in Stranahan Square in Toledo, Ohio, where it is entitled “Seasons.”

Later this month the Tacoma Art Museum will unveil a new exhibit of the work of Norman Rockwell so it is fitting at this time to enjoy the sentimental moments of ordinary and idealized citizens that Anderson has captured in bronze.