Special Reports

Art in the outdoors - Opening installations outside Museum of Glass reflect on artistic response to environment

Apart from the rakish tilting cone, the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art's most striking feature is its array of outdoor plazas with their sparkling, rimless reflective pools.

Instead of offering the blank space of traditional white-walled art galleries, the plazas interact visually with some of Tacoma's best features. They are open to everyone - whether or not the museum is open - and have the benefit of curatorial direction from the museum staff.

They comprise Tacoma's first public sculpture garden. And they mark the museum's dedication to living artists.

For its opening this week, the Museum of Glass commissioned Mildred Howard, Patrick Dougherty and Buster Simpson to create pieces for the plazas that will stand for about a year.

Accompanying those is a large-scale work done by incarcerated young women through a government-funded social service project, as well as a permanent installation by Howard Ben Tré that was commissioned by the City of Tacoma.

All that will be joined to Pacific Avenue by the largest sculpture of all: the city-owned Chihuly Bridge of Glass.

The works came about as a response to the environment and the occasion.

None has been seen before.

The artists visited from all over the United States to get ideas. They were influenced by the open fan of the cable-stay suspension bridge nearby, the museum architecture, the cone, the Tacoma Dome, buildings on Pacific Avenue, Mount Rainier, the weather and the museum's glass emphasis.

They returned this spring to build their art along the bank of Thea Foss Waterway. Here's what they came up with:

The Chihuly Bridge of Glass

The City of Destiny may soon become The City of the Blue Towers.

Dale Chihuly's art-bespeckled pedestrian bridge cuts such a dreamy swath across the entryway to downtown that passing under it on I-705 feels like cutting the ribbon on a new era for Tacoma.

It has three sections: "Crystal Towers," 40-foot-tall pilings of aquamarine polyurethane chunks; "Seaform Pavilion," a 50-foot-long skylit ceiling of 1,500 glass sea shapes; and "Venetian Wall," an 80-foot-long series of shelves encasing 109 Japanese- and Italian-influenced sculptures.

The Museum of Glass paid $3 million for the structures holding the art and $3 million for an estimated $12 million worth of art; Chihuly donated the rest. Government sources picked up the rest of the approximately $11 million in construction costs.

The City of Tacoma owns and will maintain the bridge, including periodic cleaning - except for the first year, during which it will be taken care of by Chihuly Studios. It will be lighted at night and monitored by security cameras and patrols.

The "Crystal Towers" are tough; a bullet would pass through them, not shatter them.

Safety glass guards the other installations, though there's no such thing as totally vandal-proof glass, project manager Ryan Smith acknowledged.

"Venetian Wall" and "Seaform Pavilion" are ventilated by tubes running from the museum's basement. The system, adapted from hospital technology, will keep air moving so the sculptures won't gather dust.

Chihuly began designing the bridge with architect Arthur Andersson in 1993. In 1994, it was to be a triangular walkway. In 1995, it had gazebos for chandeliers.

The current design was unveiled in September 2000.

With its complex engineering, multiple styles of works, long-term planning and public nature, "the bridge is the hardest project I've ever undertaken - by a long shot," Chihuly said.


Buster Simpson

A series of rectangular glass panes - expressive "easels" depicting whatever they reflect at a given moment - appear to stand on water.

Shining down from the highest roof plaza, the panes, leaned against each other, are anchored to a structure running the 120-foot length of a pool.

Simpson kept with his ecologically friendly ways in fashioning the supports, using Trex decking, which is made out of waste wood and recycled plastic bags.

Most of the Seattle artist's works are permanently installed - such as his giant mobius strip at the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center on Bainbridge Island and his experiment with growing vegetation, "Host Analog," at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

He enjoys interacting with naturally occurring materials, using them as media. He once placed limestone disks into the headwaters of the Hudson River to neutralize the acidic waters.

Currently, he's working on a sculptural project in San Francisco - an 18-foot foot with a light in it to be placed near a sea wall to aid bay navigation.

The Museum of Glass pool "called for something simple, elegant, and I felt strongly that it needed to address the mission being glass," he said.

Therefore, he made glass the medium and the environment the message, he said. He made the 4-by-8-foot panels transparent so they would be almost invisible directors of the outdoor content - outdoor windows that frame natural views.

"Incidence" changes according to the weather.

"It's a very moody piece," Simpson said.


Mildred Howard

The middle-level plaza features Howard's red glass house, standing at the edge of a pool covered by several hundred floating glass apples that are anchored in fishing net.

Howard, who's from Berkeley, has made glass houses before. For her and for the visitors who walk inside them, they're "containers of information," she said - information both intimate and universal.

"They evoke certain memories, issues, emotions," Howard said. "They're different for different people."

The piece is formal in its use of light and color, but Howard wanted to ensure a warm, inviting, narrative quality as her work often does, regarding family, place and memory.

The Museum of Glass reminds her of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, an economically depressed city that improved its fate significantly with the splashy Frank Gehry-designed museum built in the 1990s.

"This is a mini-Bilbao because it's very much about working, everyday people," she said.


Remann Hall Women's Project

Sharing the middle plaza with Mildred Howard's red glass house is "Remorse Reconstructed," created by 165 girls ages 11 to 18. It was paid for chiefly by an $80,000 grant from the Governor's Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee.

Museum of Glass educators worked for a year with girls held in the maximum-security pod at Remann Hall, Pierce County's juvenile jail. The result is two structures designed and built by the young women, then installed by museum staffers. Both houses are shelters for visitors, one representing the girls' hope and the other their sorrow, loss and remorse.

The "hummingbird house" is about "making change and choices in your life," said museum staffer and project coordinator Kim Keith. Visitors can sit on a bench inside, where openings in the roof and a "hummingbird girl" costume with wings suggest transcendence and escape.

The other structure is a ramped passageway with windows. Audio presentations activated by pressing a button in the windows tell the girls' stories, but so do the walls, stained with layers of colored paint and then carved with words.

On the back wall of the passageway a 13-year-old girl inscribed: "I've lost a pair of shoes. I've lost my earrings. I've lost all my CDs. I've lost my favorite shirt, but that's not all that important. These are the important things: I've lost my dad's love. I've lost my guy friend from Manila, I've lost my cousin Jimmy. I've lost my grandpa, my great-grandparents. I've lost my first love. I've had a chance with the guy I love but lost it. I've lost my virginity. ..."

In large, deeply carved writing, the front of the wall reads, "My heart is still there."

"No matter where my mistakes may take me," one girl wrote, "I'll always have my plans."


Patrick Dougherty

There is no adhesive holding together Dougherty's massive pitcher of sticks, which appears to "pour" sticks like a stream of water across a pool toward the Thea Foss Waterway.

Dougherty arranges the thousands of sticks in his works by bending and shaping them around one another so they hold each other together.

The North Carolina artist has built more than 100 of these awe-inspiringly simple twig sculptures around the United States, Europe and Asia.

For this one, "I wanted to have a conceit about pouring stuff that's not glass - phantom glass."

His assistants gathered vine maple, willow, red twig dogwood and bitter cherry wood saplings on Weyerhaeuser property (the company sponsored the project).

Then, Dougherty built a concrete bumper on the museum's lowest plaza with short tubes rising from it to secure the sticks on the ground. Inside scaffolding, he began twisting and building, tying together each new level with rope on the inside that was later cut off.

Visitors are encouraged to enter the hollow ewer. It has openings facing the water and the museum and a sky view up the throat.

Smaller tempests of sticks make a flowing path across the reflecting pool.

What about windstorms?

"We're hoping we built it with that in mind," he said. "The form is good."

His works generally weather storms, he added.


Howard Ben Tré

When the City of Tacoma made its Thea Foss Waterway Esplanade plan a decade ago, it set aside about $200,000 for an interactive water feature.

Ben Tré's permanent "Water Forest," now standing on the gallery level of the Museum of Glass, is that feature.

It is "an environment. It is neither decoration nor statuary. ... It is a sculpture for the public not only to observe, but also to be within," Ben Tré said.

The Providence, R.I., artist - a pioneer in making massive cast glass sculptures - built a grove of 20 bronze and Pyrex towers, 10 feet tall each, standing in concentric rings around a circular granite bench. The towers, lit from within at night, are receptacles that fill with water until it cascades down the sides.

A complex underground tubing system circulates the water in a rhythm that reflects the ebb and flow of the Thea Foss Waterway tide.

Visitors are welcome to touch the towers and interrupt the water flow or simply sit on the bench.

Ben Tré was born in Brooklyn but studied in the 1970s at Portland State University and the Pilchuck Glass School. He met Dale Chihuly and was taken with glass, a medium that "allows me to form images that are at once powerful and very dense, and yet ... ethereal and almost mystical."

The glass in "Water Forest" is prefabricated Pyrex tubing, but Ben Tré is known for his affection for casting.

Unlike Chihuly and most glass artists of the time, who blew, Ben Tré was drawn early to casting and enjoyed the cracks that can result after the glass cools over a period of weeks or months.

"People working in glass would say, 'OK, you have to throw that one away. It's broken,'" he said. "And then I would think to myself, well, what does that mean? What is 'broken' in contemporary art?"

Jen Graves: 253-597-8568



Views of the museum

• In Friday's SoundLife, we showed you the art inside the new Museum of Glass. Today, we feature the art outside the museum. You'll find Friday's story and other recent stories about the Museum of Glass, online at www.tribnet.com.