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Sunday, June 4, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gardens Of Geometry And Grace -- A Verdant Setting Gives New Life To The Sculptures Of Robert Maki

Listening to sculptor Robert Maki can remind you of high school geometry.

He cheerfully tosses out such brain twisters as "a truncated oblique cylinder intersecting a right angle conical form," as though the phrase should quickly conjure an image. (It happens to be the physical description of one of his latest sculptures.) And he sings the praises of the Timaeus Triangle, or a right angle balanced by 30-degree and 60-degree angles, which he says has "has always been such an important aspect of my work."

Then, right when you're ready to transfer to a remedial class, he switches to metaphysics: "One of the things I'm interested in exploring is the idea of being halfway between a wall and space."

Looking at least a decade younger than his 56 years, Maki has spent a lot of time lately talking about his work. In a mating of sculptured gardens with garden sculpture that is unprecedented at the Bellevue Botanical Garden, 18 of Maki's works are on display there through July.

As one of the region's most critically acclaimed sculptors, it is at first glance not so surprising that Seattle-based Maki would be asked to exhibit work at the much-praised garden. The garden, which has been open to the public three years, is being complimented in such toney places as "Horticulture" magazine.

A native of Walla Walla, Maki has been winning acclaim much longer. He's been awarded national fellowships and grants since he finished graduate school in the the late '60s, and has had sculpture shows in museums and galleries from San Francisco to Paris. Locally, his best-known public-works project is Westlake Star Axis/Seven Hills, the cube-like, building-block sculptures at the south end of Westlake Park.

Still, people who love perennial borders are not necessarily people who love steel and aluminum sculptures that can look like the leftovers from a Brobdingnagian tool and die project. Maki's sculpture is inevitably described by art critics as minimalist, intellectual and formalist; a browse through his portfolio proves that he's never done work that could be described as soft, cute or figurative. A one-time engineering student, Maki's aptitude for applied geometry is obvious in the balance and visual elegance of his work.

"It's easy to describe my work as minimal, but really it's always been an additive process, not a reductive one," said Maki, who nevertheless seems good-humored enough not to care what people call it as long as they spend some time looking at it. "I usually talk about my work as a fragment of something larger. I rely heavily on ideas, on instinct, on spontaneity and on discovery."

Coming across the sculptures in the gardens is indeed a discovery - and a delight. From the striking piece called "Short's Pool" near the visitor center to the pieces almost hidden among the trees along the Garden Loop Trail, the sculptures are in harmony with their sites. The flowers, trees and garden ponds seem to soften the hard edges of the sculptures, and the sculptures add intriguing focal points to pockets of the garden that might easily be overlooked. Architectural designer Rod Clarke helped site the pieces, as did Maki's daughter, artist Andrea Maki.

In a larger sense, the notion that a man-made hunk of steel or aluminum can enhance nature, and in turn be enhanced by nature, is an optimistic, distinctly humanistic point of view. Far from being a jarring juxtaposition of modern art and nature, Maki's exhibit is an exhilarating demonstration of the symbiosis of artistic human endeavor and the natural world.

Walking up the trail to find the two rust-colored steel ovals called "Canary Cedar" is like finding two huge loops of ribbon magically standing on alert in the forest. A 9-foot aluminum spike called "Triple Void" looks like a slice of sunlight cutting through the trees. A three-foot diameter mirror Maki sited on the surface of a tree-circled pond creates a mysterious optical illusion by reflecting the tree above it. A rusted steel sausage slice called "Oblique Oval" is nestled in a rivulet draining from a small pond like a sleek river rock. The effect of finding it among the real rocks is partly the delight of discovery.

Art lovers and garden lovers have long been cut from the same cloth. From the Mesopotamians to the Renaissance Italians to such contemporary art lovers as Virginia and Bagley Wright, people have long considered gardens ideal sites for large-scale sculptures.

Yet in the Seattle area, despite impressive pieces that are sited individually, there is no public sculpture garden. But Barbara Quinn, a Bellevue Botanical Garden trustee and one of the people most responsible for the Maki exhibit, says the board has always been interested in having art in the garden. She was familiar with Maki's work and arranged for the garden's administrator and other trustees to see it. After luring Maki out to the garden last Christmas, the project took shape.

"I was thinking maybe we could get him to loan us five or six pieces for a Mother's Day show," said Quinn. "I had no idea Robert would be inspired to bring over so many."

Maki says he was so taken by the idea of doing a museum-sized outdoor show that he built 10 new pieces between Christmas and late May, when the show opened. He also brought over eight others that he made a decade ago and that had not been shown in the area. The Bellevue Arts Commission chipped in $7,000 to help cover expenses and Maki's long-time fabricator, Seattle Boiler, donated services, as did welder John Christianson.

Quinn says she would love to have some of the sculptures remain permanently, though she says the Bellevue Botanical Garden Society, the primary public support group for the gardens, has no money to purchase the works.

Maki, meanwhile, says one of the biggest compliments he gets is when visitors assume the display is permanent. "I wanted the pieces to be integrated into their physical setting, and not be too aggressive . . . Without verbalizing or getting too intellectual, the point is that everything is really connected to everything else and everything is organic."

------------------ VIEWING MAKI'S ART ------------------

Sculpture by Robert Maki at the Bellevue Botanical Garden, 1200 Main St., Bellevue, through July. Dawn through dusk daily, admission is free.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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