Know your public art volume 1: ‘Locomotive Monument’

Dear Readers: This is the first of what will be a 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! - Ed.

Douglas Charles Granum's 1988 sculpture "Locomotive Monument" predates the grand revival of Tacoma's downtown. The sculpture is a jumble of geometry and bright color that has seen it all: the coming of UW Tacoma, the building of the new Tacoma Art Museum and the rising of the crooked cone of the Museum of Glass.

Set in place in an odd little plot of municipal no-man's land during the administration of mayor Doug Sutherland, "Locomotive Monument" pays homage to Tacoma's railroading heritage. The site even overlooks the sets of parallel train tracks that run alongside Dock Street down below.

Originally from the coalmining town of Beaula, ND, Granum received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Washington in 1970. Since the creation of "Locomotive Monument" Granum has gone on to leave his mark on Tacoma with a number of other public art work including the bronze masks, carved stone work, wall plates and stainless steel street banners found in the Theater District. He is also the man behind "The Eagles Nest," the garish rock pile, waterfall and eagle sculpture that functions as the 40th street entrance to University Place.

"Locomotive Monument" is a creature of its era. Standing 19 feet tall and 32 feet long, it is made of steel and baked polychromatic porcelain. Its 17 colors and explosion of geometric shapes are a blast from the 1980s - like a visual manifestation of a song by Adam Ant.

A great red slab rests on top and a big blue square frames the back of a busy center of zig-zagging colors that sit upon a set of wheels that are a series of concentric circles in vibrant colors. As its name suggests, the sculpture is a semi-abstract version of an old steam locomotive mounted upon a concrete base. The whole affair is set in the middle of a pedestrian roundabout edged by a semicircle of pleasant benches (that are almost always vacant). The site might be inviting were it not that it is an island in the middle of a network of busy streets, including the entry ramp to I-705.

Many there are who have breezed by in their cars and thought, perhaps, that this jumble of gaudy color is a dinosaur of the 1980s. It is safe to speculate that relatively few have ventured over from the main drag (Pacific Avenue) to spend a little time in this pocket park. On foot, however, the monument has more the feel of an old friend - familiar but taken for granted. This was, when all is said and done, the first bold splash of color - the first bold brush stroke - of the downtown revival.

Up close, "Locomotive Monument" does play well with its environment. From one side there is a screen of evergreens to paint a meditative backdrop to the busy color. From another vantage, the monument holds its own against the geometric forms of the buildings climbing up the slopes of our City of Destiny.

"Locomotive Monument" is perhaps most easily approached by walking a block north from the Tacoma Art Museum. TAM visitors would be well advised to make the excursion and pay homage to Granum's brash, early splash into the public culture of our city.

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