Father and Son

How many people do you see in this public artwork?

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It took me a moment to notice the boy on the right, surrounded by water.

Fascinating, I thought, as I then went on to explore the other public artworks in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park.

It was only when I came back to this spot and had some time to waste while waiting for a train to pass, that I noticed the sculpture had changed.

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And I became even more interested in this sculpture.

I saw a lot of public art in Seattle last weekend while I was there for an arts marketing conference. It’s not difficult. As one of the tourism brochures states, “From the moment you set foot in Seattle, you can feel it: art is everywhere.”

Seattle, like Vancouver, gets a lot of rain, so it’s unsurprising that there are many references to raindrops and umbrellas. The raindrop seats in the bike rack shelter at McGraw Square were fun to sit and twirl around in, but the story doesn’t go much deeper than this. Same with the inside-out, wind-blown Angie’s Umbrella that marks the end of Pike Place Market and the beginning of Belltown. It’s visually appealing, but it doesn’t tell much of a story other than it rains a lot (and a quick Google search reveals that it’s named after the artist’s mother, just because).

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This Red Popsicle standing 17 feet tall is fun, playful, and intriguing with how it’s leaning on just one of the wooden sticks. Public art can be as simple as this—something to brighten your day as you walk along—but there’s a reason the fountain artwork in Olympic Sculpture Park stayed with me and easily became my favourite piece that I saw in Seattle.

It tells a story. There are layers of meaning. Even the title of the piece, Father and Son, suggests this. It clues the viewer in to the relationship between these two life-sized figures. I found the artwork heartbreaking yet hopeful.

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It makes me want to write a poem—how father and son keep missing each other, exposed at different times. Yet they continue to try.

Public art always has its critics, and nude artworks seem to heighten that. Father and Son was no stranger to controversy. I was saddened to read in this article from Seattle Times writer Danny Westneat that critics interpret the figures’ relationship as pedophiliac. Why does nudity get automatically read as sexual or erotic? Do we have that reaction to Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures?

This artwork has an interesting backstory. It was the result of million-dollar gift to the City of Seattle from the late Stu Smailes who stipulated in his will that the money be used for a fountain featuring one or more realistic nude male figures. The City handed it off to Seattle Art Museum who commissioned French-born, New-York based artist Louise Bourgeois.

So Bourgeois had boundaries to work within. She placed two nude male sculptures on separate platforms, with alternating cloaks of water falling first on one, then the other at hourly intervals. The nudity makes complete sense to the story she’s telling about the relationship between father and son. They are both reaching for each other across an 8-foot gap, alternately exposed and revealed. Alienated but attempting connection. Nudity is about vulnerability, she says.

Sure, the artist could have clothed the figures, but it wouldn’t have been as evocative, especially since the masculine script embedded in western culture is to be tough, strong, and not show emotion. Keep your layers on and your walls up. Known for her unsettling sculptures, Bourgeois is pushing back on this narrative. Also, how many artworks do you ever see of a father and son? Mother and child, certainly (I’m thinking of all the Virgin with child paintings I quickly grew tired of in the Louvre or Uffizi), but where are the fathers with their children?

In the same Seattle Times article, I appreciated what other Seattleites wrote in to say about the artwork when it was proposed:

“This sculpture just left me feeling like I wanted to scream — LET THE FATHER SHOW LOVE AND STRENGTH TO HIS SON!”

Another e-mailer said he saw hope in the notion that a father and son would attempt that reach.

“If it was a statue of me and my father, we’d have our backs turned to each other.”

If an artwork can evoke these kinds of responses, wow. That’s a powerful piece.

I’m reading Ruminate‘s Exposure issue right now and the artwork and writing inside echo these two nude figures standing in the fountain. The sheets are pulled back, arms outstretched, a gesture that asks: do you see me?

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