Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park: Kid Magnet Extraordinaire
By Joyce Kiefer
Anyone who has been to Seattle or seen pictures of it, knows that the city is perched on ridges running down to the water, that on a good day you see snow-capped mountains on the skyline, and that the grace of the Space Needle ties nature to the built environment. The city’s new Olympic Sculpture Park in the Belltown district connects these elements and poses the question: where does art begin and end ?
I doubt that kids perceive a distinction. My grandkids – ages 13, 6 and 2 – instinctively loved the place.
As soon as we entered the park at the top on Broad St. and Western Av., our 2-year-old Adam ran to the huge representation of a traffic cone. He’s an urban kid from Salt Lake City. His cousins Amri, 13, and Gwynne, 6, were drawn to the field of lupines in the North Meadow. They’re country kids from nearby Vashon Island. I stopped to gaze at a leafless tree covered in metal. Was it dormant? Was it fake? Named "Split", the tree is composed of industrial plates heavy enough to support 5,000 pounds of cantilevered branches.
BACK STORY REVEALED
The park was once a fuel storage and transfer station divided by highway and train lines into three parcels. The Seattle Art Museum in collaboration with the Trust for Public Lands purchased the nine acres from UNOCAL in order to develop a vibrant venue for contemporary sculpture. The design by Weiss/Manfredi Architects would exploit the friction of combining art, architecture, landscape design, infrastructure and ecology to foster new insights and perceptions. The design team’s statement reads: "Our intent was to establish connections where separations existed, inventing a setting that brings art, city and sound together."
Did they end up with friction or connections?
From the slope where the tree stood, I looked toward Elliott Bay in Puget Sound and beyond that, to the snow-covered Olympic Range. Somehow this lovely sight seemed like a backdrop for the park rather than a scenic view. We continued down the Z-shaped path toward the waterfront. Had we entered the park from the waterfront entrance on Alaskan Way, we would have the cityscape as our backdrop as we climbed the slope. Our experience would have changed.
The Oldenburg/van Bruggen sculpture of a typewriter eraser, set on a grassy slope, is a case in point. The oversize eraser wheel and the windblown-hair look of the brush made my husband think the piece should be called e-racer . But viewed in context with a backdrop of buildings, the giant typewriter eraser seemed to mark its own grave, done in by White-Out and later by Microsoft. Gwynne, our 6-year-old, was not intrigued. She has never seen a typewriter.
At this point we could have warmed up with coffee, hot chocolate, or an early lunch at the TASTE Café, run by the Seattle Art Museum. But it was Monday and the café was closed, as well as the adjoining museum store. Since shopping is always part of my museum experience, I was disappointed.
ART & NATURE
As we followed the path down to the waterfront, we passed a grove of aspen with an understory of native plants. Again, that juxtaposition of nature with art, or is nature God’s art? But instead of birds we heard the heaving and chugging of a locomotive. Sure enough, a train was getting ready to run through the middle of the park. From the wall we watched a couple of massive BNSF locomotives rev up to haul a load of freight cars. All the kids were delighted. For a minute I perceived the train like the eraser – real yet not real. The graffiti on the cars was bold and, dare I say, fit in with the art.
We stopped at Love & Loss for a rest. Its revolving neon-lit ampersand drew us to the spot. The letters form benches and the "O" is a pool. The painted juncture of the two main branches of a tree forms the "V". Nearby is a show-stopping view of Calder’s massive Eagle with the Space Needle as backdrop.
The path ends at the water’s edge at Alaskan Way. The kids looked down at the rocks for starfish. A fountain with the nude figures of Father and Son stands at the lower entrance of the park. The kids had no trouble perceiving Olympic Sculpture Park as all of a piece, the way they see the world as a whole until they are taught otherwise.
For more information on Olympic Sculpture Park, an online tour of the sculptures, directions and bus routes that get you there, go to
and for information on other interesting places to see in Seattle, go to
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