Walk into the new Stadium District Starbucks, and you’ll see something unusual. On the exposed brick wall, right where you’d expect to see some bland corporate painting, is a sculpture.
Mounted on a sawtooth circle are wrenches, pliers, chains, boat bits, coffee grinders and spigots, all neatly arranged and slightly mysterious. Yes, it’s painted bronze to match the décor. But this isn’t generic Starbucks design. This is a newly-commissioned work from Tacoma gallery artist Matthew Olds. And it brings together Tacoma and Starbucks history in a single, fascinating circle.
“So these round things are parts of coffee grinders,” explains Olds, pointing to the 2-inch textured metal circles all over the sculpture. “And this is a propeller. And this is some kind of tea sorter.”
It’s an odd sort of show-and-tell from an artist who usually makes highly conceptual work like the recent “Migration” installation at Pacific Lutheran University, or “Shipwreck” at the Foss Waterway Museum. But that’s the fascination of Olds’ untitled commission for the Stadium Starbucks — a collection of 115 historical items found around Tacoma and at the coffee shop’s roasting and parts facilities in Kent and Seattle.
When you look closely, you can piece the puzzle together. At the back, anchoring everything, is a big saw wheel, cut from plywood because, as Olds points out, a real one weighs hundreds of pounds and can’t be drilled. Next, around the circumference, are historic railroad spikes, made of iron and jutting out like a punk collar.
“They were the only thing that couldn’t be drilled,” says Olds, who pounded them into holes cut into the plywood wheel.
The rest of the objects are screwed and glued on in segments, rather like an old-fashioned cabinet of curiosities. Some are easy to recognize: tools, chains, carpenter’s squares. Then there are bigger items: a boat propeller, anchor, line hook — all referencing Tacoma’s maritime, logging and railroad industries.
“Tacoma has such a blue-collar history of making things,” says Olds.
And then there are all sorts of weird implements that you probably won’t recognize — they’ll be the parts from coffee production equipment, Olds says. Even he doesn’t know what they all are. Everything is spray-painted a matte bronze, matching the industrial-chic vibe of the counter and backsplash of the serving area.
For both artist and corporation, it’s something new. The coffee company had come to know Olds through his work supplying other artists with materials and services, and commissioned him to make a piece that referenced local history. But unlike other corporate gigs he’s done, they gave him free rein to make whatever he wanted, with the paint color and size the only restrictions.
“They loved it,” Olds says. “It was a surprise for them, different from the rendering. … This is something they’re trying to make strides in, to make each store unique, more community-based.”
“We’re fans of Matthew and his work and are thrilled with the installation at our Stadium District store in Tacoma,” said Maggie Jantzen, global communications manager for Starbucks, in an email statement, adding that the company is working with “emerging artists to make site-specific work” in cafes worldwide.
For Olds, a painter and mixed-media artist, it’s a confluence of fine and corporate art. In his original art, Olds creates mini-worlds exploring human themes. His recent Tacoma installations have included the salvaged-wood “Shipwreck” half-sunk into the floor of the Foss museum; an ironic lake view with actual water, plastic chair and jagged gunfire painting at 1120 Creative House; and “Migration” at PLU, which included a 1,200-pound salt sculpture, cement, concrete, painting, video and audio. The Starbucks work has a similar understated voice, a conceptual theme rendered in practical materials.
But Olds’ corporate-commissioned art can sometimes make up half of his yearly output, like paintings for new Seattle condominiums where the palette has to match the decor.
“It felt like (the Starbucks piece) dovetailed between my two bodies of work,” says the artist.
And, points out Olds, a Wisconsin native who has lived in Tacoma since 2014 and on Vashon Island before that, it was an opportunity to make new work tied into local history.
But here’s the question: Is it an artistic sellout to make art for Starbucks? Or is it a good thing to raise the aesthetic for the masses?
“I think it’s a good thing,” says Olds, who has another Starbucks commission coming up. “As an artist, you have to have so many streams of revenue to make it. It’s been rewarding.”