Friday, July 16, 2010

Oly public art

The good, the so-so and the monumental

Published in the Weekly Volcano, July 15, 2010
Photo courtesy Olympia Raffah Mural Project.

Overall I’m less than impressed with the quality of public art in Olympia.

OK, yeah, "The Kiss" by Richard Beyer at the Percival Landing boardwalk (4th Avenue and Water Street) is kind of fun. People love to get their picture taken with the kissing couple. But it’s really silly and not great art. "The Park of the Seven Oars" by Tom Anderson, Karen Lohmann, Mark Osborne and Joe Tougas (between the two roundabouts going up Harrison hill after crossing the 4th Avenue bridge) is a nice little urban park, and "Tide Pool of Time" by Brian Goldbloom and David Vala, also at Percival Landing, is a nice little fountain that kids love to wade in despite signs saying not to. Both are well designed and attractive, and each has content rife with local history ("Seven Oars" is based on a famous photograph related to the founding of Olympia, and "Tide Pool" references the rich maritime history of the Puget Sound region), but they are more impressive as landscaping than as art.

Simon Kogan’s World War II memorial on the Washington State Capitol Campus is well designed and well thought out. The idea of wheat stalks blowing in the wind and chiming musically when the individual stalks hit together is brilliant, although when I’ve visited it I’ve never seen them actually move. The Korean War Memorial by Deborah Copenhaver, also on the Capitol grounds, is a powerful, realistic and gritty depiction of the reality of war that is far better than most monuments of the type.

I don’t want to come across as being too snarky, and I have to concede that there may be some wonderful public art works in Olympian that I have not yet seen, but judging from what I have seen, these few works are pretty much it — with one marvelously notable exception: the Olympia Raffah Mural at the corner of Capitol Way and State Avenue in downtown Olympia.

The Olympia Raffah Mural is a huge public art project involving more than 150 artists, activists and social justice organizations from Olympia and across the USA, and even from the West Bank and Gaza in Palestine. The 4,000-square-foot mural was created to honor the legacy of Rachel Corrie, the Olympia native and former Evergreen State College student who was murdered in the Palestinian city of Raffah in Gaza when she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the destruction of a Palestinian family home.

Artistically it is monumental and mesmerizing. The central image is a huge olive tree, a universal symbol of peace, whose branches spread across the face of the building and whose leaves are each painted by a different artist or group of artists. Artistically the style and imagery varies from leaf to leaf, yet the whole is a unified image.

Driving by and looking at it from your car is not good enough. In order to appreciate it you must park your car, get out and walk around to view it from different angles, from a distance and up close. The only drawback is no matter how close you get, some of the individual images are hard to see, so I highly recommend that after viewing it in person you visit the project Web site at

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