“The thin blue line” is a phrase that has long been used as a general term for the police force. Referring to the standard color of police uniforms, it is a romantic description of the police as protectors of the peace, of those whose function it is to stand between the lawful order and the forces of chaos that always threaten to disrupt. The police force is a thin blue line of protection without which the rule of law is vanquished and a primordial domination by the most powerful and most ruthless becomes the state of things. History is rife with examples of what happens to societies that lose the protection of that “thin blue line” of protection.
The individual officers who form that line of defense do so at personal risk. Since 1885, the Tacoma Police Department has lost 10 officers in the line of duty (a blessedly low number when one considers the four recently lost by Lakewood’s young police department in a single morning). Yet until 2006, the Tacoma Police Department did not have a monument to memorialize its fallen.
As part of the building of the new police headquarters - located at 3701 S. Pine St. - a commission for a memorial sculpture was awarded to Port Orchard sculptor James Kelsey, who took up welding in 1996 at Olympic College and soon became a studio assistant to such established artists as Will Robinson and Marilee Moore.
Overall the Tacoma Police Memorial Project consists of three separate but interrelated works: “The Thin Blue Line,” “Memories of Blue” and “For All They Gave.”
“The Thin Blue Line” is literally a blue line made of cobalt glass tiles that are embedded in the main courtyard and lead the viewer from the primary sculpture (“Memories of Blue”) to the memorial sculpture (“For All They Gave”). A poem penned by Detective Randi Goetz (the poem is also called “The Thin Blue Line”) is inscribed along the surface of the blue glass tiles that form the line.
Standing in front of the building, “Memories of Blue” is Kelsey’s primary sculpture of the memorial project. It consists of a trio of geometric, bronze pillars that are partially mounted atop a large boulder. From the top of the bronze form rises a thin and precarious structure of stainless steel in which are caught abstract shapes made of the same blue glass as the blue line.
Kelsey refers to this as a “representative abstraction.” The bronze structure is meant to resemble a figure standing on a boulder/mountain (object of struggle) with upraised arms that are releasing the blue forms - the spirits of fallen officers - to the wind, which is represented by the curved, stainless steel pieces. This upper structure resembles an explosion of silver bicycle frames. The whole composition thrusts upward from the terrestrial to the ethereal. The upper portions are so different from the lower, however, that it is a challenge to find an aesthetic appreciation for the work as a whole.
Following the blue line from the precincts of the primary sculpture, one is led to the “memorial courtyard” - a place of contemplation surrounded by a low wall that is perfect for sitting. The memorial sculpture, “For All They Gave,” is comprised of two of the angular bronze pillars. One lays against a boulder and the other is laid atop the first. A surface of black granite is fixed to one face of the upper form. On this granite is inscribed the title along with the names of the Tacoma police officers who gave their lives in the line of duty.
More than just names and dates are given however. The story of how each officer died is inscribed. These stories are rich in detail and ironic twists. Kelsey rightly notes that a visitor might forget the names on the memorial, but the stories will remain with anyone who stops to read them.
The stories go from the 1892 death of officer Minor Cudihee, who confronted a pair of inebriated men on McKinley Hill, to the 2004 passing of motorcycle policeman James Lewis, who struck a left-turning car on his way to catch a homicide suspect.
In addition to the three works outside Tacoma Police Headquarters, Kelsey did a set of five smaller, related sculptures that are installed in the police substations.
Memorializing sculpture has come a long way from basic bust portraits inscribed with names and dates. Kelsey’s tribute to those who gave their all as they walked the thin blue line performs its task admirably. For further information on Kelsey visit www.jameskelseystudios.com.