If you do your running up Sixth Avenue from Titlow Park, you might be familiar with Gonya Klein — or at least with her work. Enormous abstract or primitivist sculptures of wood, bronze and concrete dot her lawn at the corner where the road makes a sharp turn downhill, an attention-grabbing sight in a leafy neighborhood.
But for most people, Klein remains unknown, a sculptor who has carved her own original path with relatively few exhibitions — none in the last two decades.
With a residency next week at the Museum of Glass, however, the diminutive, 82-year-old sculptor from Tacoma steps into the spotlight to do more of what she’s always done: make large-scale, idiosyncratic works out of unexpected materials.
“This one’s a fly,” explains Klein, bending down to a 4-foot aluminum framework sitting in her studio amid abstract metal and neon shapes and lumps of concrete. “The wings are from my old swimming pool. And this one’s a cave beetle, but they wanted extra legs for strength, so now I suppose it’s a cave spider. You never know, they might exist.”
Klein laughs conspiratorially over the giant lemon-yellow metal insect, detailing the colors for the insects’ enormous blown-glass abdomens she’ll be designing at the Museum of Glass next weekend. Tiny, with short white hair and an apple-cheeked face, Klein looks like somebody’s harmless grandmother, which she is. But she’s more than that. She’s a relentlessly individual artist who has spent her career making monumentally sized work in all kinds of media, from metal to concrete to trees — and her age doesn’t affect any of it.
Except, perhaps, the fact that she’s created so many decades of unique, award-winning work while flying completely under the local art radar.
“She’s not very well-known,” says Michiyo Morioka, a Seattle art historian who’s working on Klein’s catalogue of work. “But she’s a really interesting artist. Age has not diminished her at all; she remains so creative and imaginative. Her art work varies so much.”
As you walk around Klein’s yard and studio, that variety hits you between the eyes. On one edge of the lawn is a rusty sheet metal rooster, 8 feet high and strutting with a playful mixture of pomp and nervousness. Nearby are a dozen concrete people, larger than life and balloon-plump, emerging from the soil or bent over tasks. In the distance is an angular, abstract set of neon tubes, which reveals itself as a horse; beside it are chunky concrete and bronze abstracts, smooth Henry Moore-ish shapes, willowy treelike figures. Inside the studio are stark neon works of brushed aluminum, and a giant aluminum ovoid with a delicate hole in the middle — a proposal for University Place’s central roundabout several years ago. The range of styles is fascinating, the range of large media astounding for such a tiny person.
“The material asks for a certain thing,” explains Klein about why her sculptural voice varies so much. “With sculpture, very much so.”
Or maybe it’s that Klein has lived such a varied life, at least in her formative years. In her soft Dutch accent, she tells vivid anecdotes about her childhood in Indonesia (her father served in the Dutch navy) exploring Bali and Java, hearing stories of aunts facing tigers, living three years in a Japanese concentration camp with little to eat but plenty of family around. When World War II ended, her family went to Australia to recuperate for nine months, then headed home to a much-changed Holland, where Klein skipped a few grades of school and discovered a passion for Latin and Greek that, along with Christian and Asian theology, fed her artistic imagination.
“The myths and the Old Testament, they have the same kind of psychological insight,” she says.
But Klein has always marched to her own beat as well. When she received a painting scholarship to the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, she asked to study sculpture instead. “I felt everyone had already gone into all the directions possible with painting.” She found that she liked the discipline that was “so direct.” She married a medical student, who found it easier to get a practice in the United States than in competitive Holland, and she found herself in Tacoma.
“I felt really out of it, coming from Europe,” Klein confesses, “I went to Seattle as much as I could.”
That included studying glass at the new Pilchuck School and Pratt Fine Arts Center, and earning a master’s degree in fine arts in ceramics from the University of Puget Sound. Klein had a few solo exhibitions in Seattle galleries, the Bellevue Arts Museum, and the Tacoma Club, and won awards at the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair.
Since then, however, she’s been making art purely for the sake of it, exploring as many media as she could. At 82, she no longer welds, and she gets others to do the heavy lifting of bronze and concrete casting.
Then came a Museum of Glass connection, through a book-club friend, who brought her husband and former MOG director Tim Close to see Klein’s work.
“He liked what I did because it was different,” says Klein simply.
The result is a visiting artist residency in the MOG’s hot shop next weekend. Working with the hot shop team, Klein will create half a dozen giant insects, using the metal frames she’s welded together and their blown glass in swirly blues, greens and yellows for the segmented abdomens. She was inspired by a king-size butterfly quilt she recently completed, now draped casually over her sofa. Like her other work, the dragonfly, fly, spider and beetles speak more to form and dramatic line than aesthetics.
“Gonya isn’t interested in beauty in the conventional sense,” says Morioka. “It’s much more forceful in conveying certain ideas.”
Ask Klein why she makes what she does, though, and she doesn’t have an answer.
“People tell me I make big work because I’m so little, or that the war really got to me,” she says. “But you do things without knowing why. You just do it.”