George and Gerard Tsutakawa’s artistic legacy honored in New Wing Luke museum exhibit

by Kamna Shastri

The life-size metal sculptures of George and Gerard Tsutakawa – father and son – today are sturdy pillars that adorn Seattle’s public parks and fountains. The sculptures are almost always curved, the edges rounded. You will rarely see any sharp, sloping corners or ridges in these designs. Continuity runs through each individual sculpture – and between the sculptors themselves. A new exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum, titled “Gerard Tsutakawa: Stories Shaped in Bronze” delves into public art, the inspiration and processes of father and son.

Born in 1910, George was Nisei, a second generation Japanese American. He was never very interested in his studies, “preferring to practice his drawing and his calligraphy”, writes his daughter Mayumi Tsutakawa. George received his BA from the University of Washington (UW) in 1937 and volunteered for the United States Army during World War II, mainly teaching Japanese at a military intelligence school in Minneapolis. During World War II, he also visited his relatives interned in the internment camps on Lake Tahoe, where he met his future wife Ayame Kyotani.

Husband and wife were both artists in their own right: Kyotani, a talented practitioner of traditional Japanese dance and flower arrangement, and George, among others, an architect, designer and sculptor. After earning his MFA, also at UW, George held faculty positions at the School of Architecture and later at the School of Art. He would teach for 37 years, move to Mount Baker with his wife and raise four children surrounded by the rhythms and inspirations of his home studio. His artistic career spanned 60 years, leaving marks in Japan, Canada and across the United States, making him a mainstay of Seattle’s Asian American heritage.

George passed on a legacy of artistic appreciation not only to his four children (who now pursue careers in music, writing and sculpture) but to our city. No matter where you are, you’ve probably walked past one of her or her son’s creations. At the Seattle Library Fountain, Seattle Japanese Garden, Amazon Campus, and in front of T-Mobile Park, among many other places. Still, these sculptures are imbued with a sense of the organic as the metal-based designs embrace the qualities of moving water and the soft, rounded edges of nature.

During an artist talk at Wing Luke promoting the exhibit, Gerard said he and his siblings grew up surrounded by artwork. Sometimes George would carve wood, tinker with all kinds of tools. Other times he painted in oils or in the traditional Japanese style of Sumi painting, which George used to capture scenes from nature.

Gerard began his practical 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 in the store as a kid hired to sweep the floor,” Gerard says, but before long he was working with some of the heaviest equipment in the studio. “I think it’s very lucky that my first skills were mechanical – learning to weld and build things.”

An entire section of the gallery is devoted to this first work. George was asked to design a fountain against the wall in the library entrance plaza.

“My dad looked at this site and said we really need to do something different – just think of the whole space,” Gerard said. Instead of staying on the outskirts, George brought the fountain to the center of the square and created the Fountain of Wisdom and the iconic swimming pool that now graces the entrance to the Central Library of the Seattle Public Library.

A working model of George Tsutakawa’s “Fountain of Wisdom”, dated 1960. Tsutakawa constructed and installed the full-scale sculpture in the entrance plaza of the Central Library of the Seattle Public Library. (Photo: Kamna Shastri)

the Fountain of Wisdom was inspired by the obos – a stone-piling ritual practiced by pilgrims trekking through the Himalayas. When George first read the ritual in a book by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, he was won over by the idea. To him, it seemed like a gesture of human connection with the natural forces of the earth. From then on, the stacking of objects becomes a recurring motif in his work.

Gerard says what made his father’s work glue wasn’t just the aesthetic design, it was the way George worked with public sites and the mechanics of sculpting materials. While George had a keen eye for design, his friend Jack Uchida brought in the additional mechanical and electrical expertise that made George’s job complete. As a team, working in bronze sculpture was both a feat of art and engineering.

According to Gérard, George’s process was meticulous and calculated with a first 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 scale model of the artwork. This helped shape the relationship between the artwork and its surrounding context.

“He made models out of everything – [from] from ping pong balls to plastic cups to cardboard, lots of paper, sticks – whatever he could find, ”said Gerard.

George Tsutakawa often sketched his designs in the Japanese style of sumi painting.
George Tsutakawa often sketched his designs in the Japanese style of sumi painting. This sketch includes various models of fountains. (Photo: Kamna Shastri)

Gérard’s personal work

After years of learning with his father, designing, constructing and erecting the sculptures, Gérard was able to refine his own artistic process. Always, Gérard starts from a sketch then, like his father, creates a model of the space.

After the design process, the realization of the sculpture is another ordeal. As Gérard says, there are “always hoops to go through, like structural engineering”.

Gérard tells about a particular project where, after having poured and put in place a concrete base for a sculpture, his team found themselves without any means of bringing the base to the project site. “We talked about a dump truck, we talked about going through 108 steps 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 hauled all the concrete to the site.

Gérard’s first public artwork was in the International Children’s Park in 1979, where he erected a bronze dragon. He wanted the children to be able to touch the statue, incorporate it and interact with it in their play. Since bronze is a conductor of heat and he didn’t want the sculpture to be hot to the touch, he filled the statue with sand. The sand would allow the heat of the sun to move away from the surface of the bronze and spread into the sand.

It is a process he will return to throughout his career to make art more accessible and integrated into people’s lives. For example, the iconic MITT at the entrance to T-Mobile Park’s left field prompts visitors to peek through the circular hole in the center.

“Each of these projects has a unique flavor,” said Gérard. While the themes, sites, and contexts of each room may require different designs, her aesthetic is deeply influenced by the natural beauty and elements of her Pacific Northwest home as well as her Japanese heritage. Like his father’s work, Gérard’s style embraces softness, movement and curvature reminiscent of water.

“I love the image of waves and seeing them curl and break,” Gerard said of the inspiration for his recent “Ocean” series. These patterns are found even in the more structured and solid doors, arches and railings that he designed. The Kubota garden gate is fitted with lines that intersect to create shapes such as the patterns of sunlight playing on the water.

Above all, Gérard wants his art to be accessible, to be part of people’s daily lives and to be something to touch and interact with – entangled in everyday life. “The community that sees and interacts with my works is not just visitors to museums and galleries, but a community of children, young and old,” he said.

Even in the exhibition, which just gives you a glimpse of the thought, time and effort put into these iconic public works of art, Gérard invites us to participate. A coin is a glass prism in a metal box filled with water. The orb is lit from below and when you look inside the box it is otherworldly, calming and mirror-like.

The exhibit showcases the works of father and son and even maps them across Seattle with a virtual guided walking tour. The walls are lined with original George sketches and the gallery features a number of models, miniature versions of the memorable and iconic sculptures woven throughout Seattle. There are also a number of replicas of George’s fountains and original bronze works colored by Gerard using a special chemical oxidation technique. These renderings give us special insight into 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 complete 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 creator with a love for community storytelling and journalism that focuses on personal storytelling, identity and social justice. His print work has been published in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and his audio work on KUOW, KEXP and KBCS. More of his stuff at Twitter: @ KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.

📸 Featured Image: A scale model of Gerard Tsutakawa’s sculpture titled ‘The MITT’ that has graced the entrance to Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park) since 1999. (Photo: Kamna Shastri)

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