Know your public art: Wheelock Library carved brick panels

Sharp-eyed motorists and pedestrians traveling along North 26th Street through the Proctor District may have noticed a series of relief carvings projecting out of the brick wall outside of the Wheelock Library (3722 N. 26th St.). These five square, baked-brick reliefs contain densely packed figures that give the wall a lively presence.

The five brickwork panels are the work of Richard Beyer, who is best known for his 1978 “People Waiting for the Interurban,” the well loved sculpture that is a hallmark of Seattle's Fremont neighborhood.

The Wheelock Library panels were done during the 1987-88 construction of the library in conjunction with Gary Knudsen, the architect who designed the building. The Wheelock library itself was but one facet of a massive revamping of Tacoma's public library system that was carried out in the latter half of the 1980s after voters approved a $15.8 million bond issue to finance improvements to existing libraries and construct a number of branch libraries. While no funds were set aside specifically for public art, the architects were instructed to incorporate artwork into their building plans.

To construct the Wheelock Library panels, Beyer hand carved each brick before it was baked. Each brick was then numbered, dried and fired. The scenes were then assembled as the library wall was built.

The five scenes that Beyer has depicted do not appear to have any kind of narrative sequence and only three have content with an obvious connection to the library's function as a repository of books and information. The westernmost panel, called “A Librarian Reading,” shows a smiling woman with a child on her lap. They both support an open book upon which rests a huge butterfly. The scene suggests that the book has become alive to the child in the form of the butterfly. The opening of a book is like the opening of the wings of a butterfly that may proceed to flutter among colorful delights.

“Author with Quill Pen” features a man with a parrot on his shoulder (the voice on inspiration) writing on a huge scroll like some Carolingian scribe.

“Animals Burning Books” shows human figures with animal heads and an imp-like boy who are arranged around a column of fire coming from burning books. The obvious reference is to the book burnings of Nazi Germany. This is a warning against the kind of intellectual rigidity and intolerance that results in the burning and banning of books.

“This is What I Saw” has a less direct connection to the role of a library. In this panel a dense arrangement of five figures remind one of medieval carvings. Each figure is looking and pointing in a different direction. Each has a different facial expression. A look of despair is on the features of the face that looks down at the viewer. The panel seems to play with the subjective nature of reality. Each individual has a different reaction to something that has just taken place and a different opinion on where it happened.

A very engaging panel is the one at the eastern end of the series, “Solar Boat Over Tacoma.” In this scene, a cast of people and animals are crammed aboard a boat that is jutting upward as it propels skyward above the rooftops of a town. A big solar orb is attached to the boat. A desperate-looking Jonah-like figure is at the tiller. A stoic grandmother with a hair bun and granny glasses sits bolt upright next to some children. A mother holds her new baby. In the bow of the boat is a man who clutches a bear and a moose. The scene is a kind of zany variation of the chariot of Apollo that drags the sun across the heavens each day. It is like a scene from a wacky children's book or a misplaced fairy tale.

Born in Virginia in 1926, Beyer was a child of the New Deal of the Franklin Roosevelt era. His parents both worked with the government. His father was a labor management consultant and his mother worked with the Roosevelt administration in the development of labor standards. During World War II, Beyer fought at the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he earned a degree in English and history from Columbia University and then worked on a graduate degree in economics. His studies brought him to the University of Washington in 1957, and Beyer eventually went to work at Boeing.

Profoundly affected by the totem poles of the local Indian tribes, Beyer began doing small carvings as a means to relieve stress during his graduate studies. Although he was never academically trained as an artist, by 1966 Beyer quit his job and decided to devote himself to his art full time – working out of a studio in Fremont.

His liberal upbringing and his status as an outsider artist have shaped Beyer's philosophy of public art. His art is approachable, understandable and humorous. In a 1987 interview with the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Beyer asserted that public art should “say what the realities are: the family, the human beings you live with and support, the things that make us laugh, the things we've got to endure. These are the things I call community values around which I build sculptures for community art.”

Beyer is famously disdainful of professional arts organizations and committees and fought a loosing battle with the Seattle Arts Commission over placement of one of his sculptures near Green Lake in 1989.

Some have described his work as “clumsy.” His human and animal figures are boxy caricatures. Yet there is a dynamism and a tension poised in these chunky volumes. A viewer of his angular style can see the strong influence of the totem poles that first awakened Beyer to the expressive possibilities of carving.

In 1988, the year of the completion of the library, Beyer moved from the Seattle area to Pateros, Washington to be closer to his daughter. In 2001, at the age of 75, he suffered a stroke but he was able to recover. Now in his mid-80s, Beyer continues to create his art of the people. For further information on Beyer, visit his website at www.richbeyer.com.

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