by Kamna Shastri
The life-size metal sculptures of George and Gerard Tsutakawa — father and son — are solid mainstays gracing public parks and fountains across Seattle today. The sculptures are almost always curved, edges rounded. Rarely will you see sharp, angled corners or ridges in these designs. Continuity runs through each individual sculpture — and between the sculptors themselves. A new exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum, titled “Gerard Tsutakawa: Stories Shaped in Bronze” dives into the public art, inspiration, and processes of both father and son.
Born in 1910, George was Nisei, second generation Japanese American. He was never very interested in his studies, “preferring to practice his drawing and calligraphy,” writes his daughter Mayumi Tsutakawa. George received his B.A. from University of Washington (UW) in 1937 and volunteered for the United States Army during WWII, mostly teaching Japanese at a military intelligence school in Minneapolis. During WWII he also visited his relatives interned at the Lake Tahoe internment camps, where he met his future wife Ayame Kyotani.
Both husband and wife were artists in their own right: Kyotani a gifted practitioner of traditional Japanese dance and flower arrangement and George an architect, designer, and sculptor, among other things. After he completed his M.F.A., also at the UW, George took on faculty positions at the School of Architecture and later the School of Art. He would go on to teach for 37 years, make a home with his wife in Mount Baker, and raise four children surrounded by the rhythms and inspirations of his in-home studio. His artistic career would span 60 years, leaving footprints in Japan, Canada, and across the United States, making him a pillar of Seattle’s Asian American heritage.
George has passed on a legacy of artistic appreciation not only to all his four children (who now pursue careers in music, writing, and sculpture) but to our city. No matter where you are, you’ve most likely strolled past one of his — or his son’s — creations. At the Seattle Library Fountain, the Seattle Japanese Garden, on the Amazon campus, and in front of T-Mobile Park, among many other places. Always, these sculptures are imbued with a sense of the organic as the metal-based designs take on the qualities of shifting water and the soft, rounded edges seen in nature.
During an artist’s talk at the Wing Luke promoting the exhibit, Gerard said he and his siblings grew up surrounded by artwork. Sometimes George would be carving wood, tinkering with all kinds of tools. Other times he might be painting with oil or in the traditional Japanese style of Sumi painting, which George would use to capture nature scenes.
Gerard began his hands-on training with his father as a teenager, helping with George’s first public art project for the Seattle Public Library in the 1960s.
“I started out in the shop as a hired kid to sweep the floor,” Gerard says, but before long he was working with some of the studio’s heavier equipment. “I think it’s very fortunate that my first skills were mechanical ones — learning to weld and build things.”
A whole section of the gallery is dedicated to this debut work. George was asked to design a fountain against the wall of the library’s entrance plaza.
“My father looked at this site and said we really have to do something different — just think of the whole space,” said Gerard. Instead of staying at the periphery, George brought the fountain to the center of the plaza and created the Fountain of Wisdom and the iconic pool that now graces the entrance of Seattle Public Library’s Central Library.
The Fountain of Wisdom was inspired by the obos — a ritual of stacking rocks practiced by pilgrims trekking through the Himalayas. When George first read about the ritual in a book by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, he was taken by the idea. To him, it seemed to be a gesture of human connection with the natural forces of the earth. From then on, the stacking of objects became a recurring motif in his work.
Gerard says that what made his father’s work stick wasn’t just the aesthetic design, it was how George worked with the public sites and the mechanics of the sculpture materials. While George had a strong design sense, his friend Jack Uchida brought the added mechanical and electrical expertise that made George’s work whole. As a team, working in bronze sculpture was both a feat of art and engineering.
According to Gerard, George’s process was meticulous and calculated with an initial modeling step. As soon as George had a site designated for a public artwork project, he would build a model of the site and then build a model of the artwork to scale. This helped shape the relationship between the artwork and its surrounding context.
“He made models out of everything — [from] ping-pong balls to plastic cups to cardboard, a lot of paper, sticks — whatever he could find,” Gerard said.
Gerard’s Own Work
Through years of apprenticing with his father, designing, building, and erecting the sculptures, Gerard was able to refine his own artistic process. Always, Gerard starts with a sketch and then, like his father, creates a model of the space.
After the design process, actually rendering the sculpture into being is another ordeal. As Gerard says, there are “always hoops to jump through, like structural engineering.”
Gerard recounts a particular project where after pouring and setting a concrete base for a sculpture, his crew was left without any way to get the base to the project site. “We talked about a dump truck, we talked about walking across 108 stairs and bramble bushes to get to the site,” he said. “[We] went to a lumber store, bought buckets, hired a crew, used a truck, and hand carried all the concrete to the site.”
Gerard’s first public art piece was in the International Children’s Park in 1979, where he erected a bronze dragon. He wanted children to be able to touch the statue and incorporate it and interact with it in their play. Since bronze is a heat conductor and he did not want the sculpture to be hot to the touch, he filled the statue with sand. The sand would allow for heat from the sun to transfer away from the bronze surface and into the sand instead.
This is a process he would come back to throughout his career to make art more accessible and embedded into people’s lives. For example, the iconic MITT at the left-field entrance of T-Mobile Park entices visitors to peek through the circular hole in the center.
“Every one of these projects has a unique flavor,” said Gerard. Though the themes, sites, and contexts of each piece might call for different designs, his aesthetic is deeply influenced by the natural beauty and elements of his Pacific Northwest home as well as his Japanese heritage. Like his father’s work, Gerard’s style embraces the softness, movement, and the curvature reminiscent of water.
“I love the image of waves and seeing them curling and breaking,” said Gerard of the inspiration for his recent “Ocean” series. These motifs carry through even in more structured, solid gates, arches, and railings that he has designed. The Kubota Garden Gate is fitted with lines crisscrossing to make shapes like the patterns of sunlight playing on water.
Above all, Gerard wants his art to be accessible, a part of people’s daily lives, and something to touch and interact with — entangled in the day-to-day. “The community that is seeing and interacting with my artwork is not just museum go-ers and gallery people but a community of kids, young and old,” he said.
Even in the exhibit, which gives you just a glimpse of the thought, time, and effort put into these iconic public art pieces, Gerard invites us to participate. One piece is a glass prism in a metal box filled with water. The orb is lit from beneath and as you gaze into the box, it is other-worldly, calming, and mirror-like.
The exhibit features the works of father and son and even maps them throughout Seattle with a virtual, guided walking tour. Walls are lined with George’s original sketches, and the gallery features a number of models, miniature versions of the memorable and landmark sculptures woven throughout Seattle. There are also a number of replicas of George’s fountain designs and original bronze work colored by Gerard using a special chemical oxidation technique. These renderings give us a special glimpse of the genius, process, and philosophy behind the work of two Japanese Americans who have left an indelible mark on our landscape through public art.
For a full list of George Tsutakawa’s work, visit his website.
For a full list of Gerard Tsutakawa’s work, visit his website.
“Gerard Tsutakawa: Stories Shaped in Bronze” will be on display at the Wing Luke Museum until April 17, 2022.
Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at www.kamnashastri.wordpress.com. Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.
📸 Featured Image: A scaled model of Gerard Tsutakawa’s sculpture titled “The MITT” which has graced the entrance of Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park) since 1999. (Photo: Kamna Shastri)
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