Dear Readers: This is an ongoing series of articles paying tribute to Tacoma’s public art works that often go missed by busy commuters passing through and even locals who walk past these monuments every day but never stop to appreciate them. Enjoy!
With lots of open space and with ample foot traffic, the pedestrian walkway along the Ruston Way waterfront is ideal as a repository for many of Tacoma’s works of public art. Our showcase waterfront is punctuated with sister city monuments, sundials and sculptures both figurative and abstract (look to these pages for further exploration of these in the future).
One of the oldest works along the waterfront is Betz Bernhard’s “Tidal Pool,” a set of five giant-sized, plump sea creatures (four seashells and a sand dollar) that are covered in a mosaic of stained glass tiles. The piece is located along a gravel side path just north of Katie Downs.
“Tidal Pool” was commissioned by the Tacoma Arts Commission in conjunction with the construction of Fire Station 5 that was built along Ruston Way to house fireboats, among other functions. Funding for the artwork came via the One Percent for Art Program in which 1 percent of the cost of new construction of municipal buildings goes toward the funding of public art. In 1981, this amounted to $3,600 that was paid to Bernhard. The cost of materials came out of that budget. Bernhard was one of 18 artists who applied for the commission. In 1999, budget cuts forced the closure of Fire Station 5, yet Bernhard’s artwork remains as part of Tacoma’s collection of public art.
To create her five sea forms, Bernhard used a technique that she developed while earning her master of fine arts degree at the University of Washington. Styrofoam and a wire mesh were covered in a mix of concrete and fiberglass. The artist painstakingly hand-cut the glass tiles from sheets of stained glass and then fixed them to the form.
Bernhard’s sea forms are plump and colorful. Some resemble big dollops of cookie dough. “I wanted the shell pieces to have humor, to be sort of playful and elephant-like,” Bernhard told The News Tribune in 1981 as the work was in the process of creation. “I wanted them to have a real kind of fat quality.”
The central sand dollar is done in tones of white with a star or flower design on top that is done in blue, green and purple bits of glass.
A conch shell is done in browns and reds and rests opposite a fat scallop shell that is done in orange-brown and cream colors. A blue and purple moon shell, meanwhile, rests opposite a pretty spiral shell that is done in pinks and light greens (the pastel tones so popular in the 1980s).
The shells themselves are inviting places to sit. There are five large basalt blocks set around the mosaic sea forms that also create good seating. The angular edges of the stones contrast nicely against the rounded forms of the mosaic seashells.
The whole of the “Tidal Pool,” however, is so low to the ground that it does not stand out and is often overlooked. It is not until one stumbles upon it that the artwork is noticed. The work also looks as if it suffers from vandalism despite the fact that they were restored to their “original glory” in 2008. The busy hands of undirected youth cannot seem to resist trying to pry the glass tiles loose. Every piece is missing a few tiles here and there, giving the effect of a smile with missing teeth. Cracks also cover the surface of the pudgy scallop.
Originally from the New York City area, Bernhard obtained a bachelor of fine arts degree from Kansas City Art Institute before she moved to Seattle in 1976 to obtain her master’s in fine arts at UW. She has been a Northwest artist ever since. Bernhard was still in her 20s at the time that she created “Tidal Pool.” She was fresh on the heels of another commission in which she created a mosaic crocodile and a Gila monster for the new reptile house at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.
Bernhard went on to do more public works including a piece with neon and mosaic mirror trim at Sea-Tac International Airport. She has also created work for municipal buildings and public schools - including Tacoma’s Crescent Heights Elementary. Her latest work is a series of charming, mosaic-covered frogs. For more information about Bernhard, visit her website at www.betzbernhard.com.