Know your public art: Oakland/Madrona’s ‘Working’ gateway

Many of Tacoma's works of public art are tucked away in municipal nooks and crannies (consider, for example, our Liberty Bell replica or James Washington Jr.'s “Goldfinch” – written up in previous versions of this column). Such invisibility is not the case with the giant, wooden tools that stand at the southwest corner of the intersection of Tyler and Center streets. The huge hammer, wrench, chisel and screw driver are there for all to see along this well-traveled route.

Entitled “Working,” the sculpture is the creation of Tacoma artist Otto Youngers. The gigantic wooden tools are fixed to a gateway made of treated lumber. A cluster of giant, wooden gears are mounted on top of the structure. The piece was commissioned in 2001 by the Oakland/Madrona Business District and was part of a larger project to clean up a neglected corner of land and to give it a both artwork and a community garden. The result is Tyler Square Park and Youngers' “Working.”

“Oakland/Madrona wanted a location marker – a landmark,” explained Younger. It has been a trend in recent years for neighborhoods and business districts to commission public art to provide a distinctive character to their locations.

Youngers submitted several proposals to the selection committee and the idea for the giant tools was chosen over some that were more abstract. One proposal was for a structure of unusual shapes – “like something out of Willy Wonka or Yellow Submarine” – that children could climb on. The selection committee, however, were wary of liability issues and shied away from this idea.

In the end it was the easily understandable giant tools that won the approval of Oakland/Madrona's business leaders. The monument is reference to the big box hardware stores (Home Depot and Lowe's) located a few blocks to the west. More generally, “Working” is meant to commemorate the industrial history of the district. The name of the district is carved onto the handles of the tools.

In addition to the gateway, Youngers planned a series of wooden cartoon characters called “Pickles, Paint and Power.” Referring to the now-defunct Nalley Valley pickle plant, to the paint manufacturers and to the Tacoma Power buildings in the district, these characters were to have had openings for visitors to put their heads in to pose for pictures. It was to have been “an odd landmark” according to Youngers, “a spot that people would stop at and have their pictures taken.” Alas, budget restraints kept the giant pickle, paint can and power transformer from occupying a place in the new park.

While showing off the virtuosity of Youngers' carving skills, the giant tools of “Working” seem tame by comparison to the wild and cutting edge wooden sculptures for which this artist is known. His work, which is exhibited internationally, often depicts fantastical birds and beings with weapons and other accessories. Socio-political commentary is Youngers' stock in trade. The garish paint job on “Working” gives the appearance of children's playground equipment. Youngers' gallery sculptures, by contrast, are generally done in raw and untreated (usually recycled) wood.

After a decade of standing in the Northwest climate, the giant wooden tools are marked with dark streaks. The paint is beginning to peal while lichens and dark mold appear to be growing here and there. “Working” cannot be said to be aging gracefully.

Youngers did his undergraduate studies at University of Kansas and earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from San Francisco Art Institute in 1992. He has taught art at Bellevue Community College, the University of Puget Sound and at a university in Bangkok, Thailand among other places. His record of shows is impressive and he has a number of public art commissions to his name. Youngers is currently working on a public work to be installed in a Spokane area school.

For further information on Youngers and to see examples of his brilliant art, visit his website at www.ottoyoungers.com.

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