Sunsets inspire spherical sculptures

Artist’s green orbs brighten new rain gardens on Tacoma’s Pacific Avenue

Staff writerDecember 2, 2013 

Artist Elizabeth Conner installs a temporary plug before applying the final finish to her “Green Flash” piece last week in the rain garden on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma.

LUI KIT WONG/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Vashon Island artist Elizabeth Conner likes to keep people guessing. Her artwork, spherical forms installed in the rain gardens along the Pacific Avenue Streetscape Project, is inspired by a rare optical illusion called a green flash.

She became familiar with the phenomenon earlier in her life when she worked on small cruise ships. Every so often, as the sun sinks low into the Pacific Ocean, the last glimpse of sunlight becomes a bright green flash.

The wonder of this event became her inspiration for the project. Conner’s multicolored concrete creations can be seen in the 14 rain gardens along the project’s 10-block length, from South Seventh to South 17th streets.

The other “green” that inspired her, she said, relates to the environment. The rain gardens are designed to filter storm water runoff to prevent pollutants from reaching the Thea Foss Waterway, which flows into Commencement Bay.

In addition to Conner’s round sculptures, the streetscape project features ceramic tiles with wood and water patterns, the work of Chicago artist Bryan Kerrigan.

Conner’s past work includes the lighting and seating at the Thea Foss Waterway esplanade. She has sculptures at Portland’s Lincoln Street Station, Town Square Park in Kent and the Whatcom Creek Estuary Shoreline Restoration and Boardwalk in Bellingham.

Question: How do you create artwork for a space as small as a rain garden?

Answer: The street is long. ... The rain gardens themselves are relatively small within that space. What I was trying to do with artwork is actually knit all of those series of spaces together in one, long line.

I was interested in something, if you walk from Seventh to 17th, you would have something interesting and surprising and delightful and curious along the way. It’s like something to accompany you on your walk. You would recognize that they would be related to each other but they wouldn’t be exactly the same thing.

Q: Can you describe the pieces that comprise the artwork as a whole?

A: There’s 16 pieces, and they are inspired by plant materials. They also could be looked at as seeds. They are all based on spheres – round, concrete forms that have other things that are added to them. You can see stems. You can see texture.

I am very pleased that being out there and installing them, people had a variety of different reactions to what they might be. Somebody said “that looks like something I might throw for my dog to catch.” I thought that was great. It’s much larger and heavier – because it’s concrete – than something her dog would catch.

Some people have thought they were some kind of pastry. ... Lots of times they thought of it as some kind of toy. Other people do see them as plants and components of plants.

As a sculptor, I am very interested in forms that are not necessarily interpreted one way or another. People can have their own ideas about what they might be. I think it’s more fun, more mysterious. People out in the public can own those things in a way and think of some things that I never thought of.

The water that falls on these concrete spheres will channel rainwater in interesting ways. Everything that was put on there was quite intentional to break up the flow of rainwater. It’s nice to think about enjoying the rain in the Pacific Northwest. I think a lot of us do.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I’m working with a design team on the intersection that is located at the Tacoma Art Museum. I’ll be communicating with the landscape architect for the Prairie Line Trail to look at some future plans for what happens at that intersection. Quite fascinating because the light rail goes through there.

It’s a complicated intersection. University of Washington Tacoma is there, the Prairie Line Trail is there, so I’m working on those concepts and potentially some artwork for that.

kate.martin@ thenewstribune.com

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