Know Your Public Art

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In 2014, when the Tacoma Art Museum underwent a bout of expansion and renovation, several outdoor sculptures were installed. Among these was Vashon Island artist Julie Speidel’s “Kinetic Repose,” a set of ten stainless steel objects (seven “boulders” and three benches) that were set in place as a seating area and protective barrier outside the museum’s lower entrance.

The faceted “boulders” were inspired by the big rocks that are scattered throughout the region. These “glacial erratics” originated in the mountains of British Columbia and were carried here in the ice sheets that covered this region during the last ice age. When the Vashon Glacier melted away, some 14,000 years ago, Puget Sound was formed and these big rocks were left all over the landscape.

On Dec. 8, Speidel visited TAM to talk about her life and to disclose some of the secrets of her inspiration and the process of her work. She noted that her interest in large stones was first piqued when, as a teenager, she lived in the United Kingdom and Europe and was able to explore the megalithic monuments that reside in the ancient landscape.

Later, Speidel was able to build an art studio on family property that she inherited on Vashon Island. There, she became fascinated by the boulders that dot our local landscape, courtesy of the time of the great glaciers.

During her talk, Speidel recalled her childhood in Seattle and the communities on the east side of Lake Washington. She would make the rounds of neighbors’’ houses, asking for broken plates and cardboard that she could use to make things. As a young adult, Speidel became a jewelry designer and ran a workshop in which artisans made jewelry according to her designs. Her work was featured in high end cultural publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Gallery proprietor Linda Farris suggested that Speidel go from jewelry into sculpture so that she could work on a larger scale. Speidel took that advice and never looked back.

When she described the process by which she goes from idea to final sculpture, however, it is clear that Speidel did not give up all of her jewelry-making skills. As it turns out, her large-scale, steel monuments start out as very small blocks of wood. Speidel creates prototypes for her works by using a belt sander to shape blocks of wood. She then deploys digital technology to make 3-D scan of the resulting form. Computers are used to print patterns that allow the objects to be made at any size desirable.

Inspired by the huge natural rock formations and by the hand-hewn monuments of the prehistoric human past, Speidel is able to envision objects of a similar magnitude and create them with the aid of digital technology and access to the skills of expert workmen.

The scattered, faceted, brightly painted sculptures outside the lower entrance of the museum make for a transition between the street and the museum. Positioned beneath the concrete roof of the parking garage, they are like geological concretions found in a geometric cavern. Next time you approach the museum via this lower entrance, take a moment to watch how these forms change as you move towards them and around them. Notice how their bright colors animate the drabness of their surroundings and how they are able to animate the simple experience of approaching the museum. Already they are reaching out to you as works of art – like a mental appetizer they are prepping the palette for the visual feast to come.

For more on Speidel, visit juliespeidel.com.

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