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Monday, February 23, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Sculpture Garden Grows On Island `Lid'

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

MERCER ISLAND

How to get there

From Bellevue: Take the Island Crest Way exit off Interstate 90. Turn left and go over the freeway. Turn right on Southeast 30th Street, right on 80th Avenue Southeast and left on Southeast 27th Street. From Seattle: Take the 77th Avenue Southeast exit off I-90. Turn right on 77th, left on Southeast 27th Street.

Interstate 90 charges across the northern tip of Mercer Island, a vast gully with colossal concrete banks. Once viewed as a potential eyesore, it was tempered by concessions won by the city, including a $200 million lid covered with lush parks, playing fields and trails.

The city has also been using another means to balance the harshness of this immense structure: art. And it's for sale.

On a narrow strip of green atop the freeway, 12 sculptures emerge from the neutral colors of their surroundings. It's an unusual place for a sculpture gallery, flanked by a Chevron station and a Tully's Coffee shop with a commanding view of a Metro park-and-ride lot. But location, as they say, is everything, and in this case it is the gallery's raison d'etre.

"We wanted to enrich the community culturally, and we wanted to enhance the I-90 environment we have to live with," said Susanne Foster, a member of the Mercer Island Arts Council.

"And I think the gallery takes you out of suburbia and takes your mind off I-90. We couldn't exactly pull a curtain over it."

"It does give me a kind of uplift. Some of it's sort of quirky," said Jose Ornelas, who works at the Chevron station across the way. "There are a lot of cities that don't do anything for their landscapes. It's a good start."

The Mercer Island I-90 Outdoor Sculpture Gallery came to life three years ago when the arts council, on a limited budget, was looking for ways to provide quality public art. Greta Hackett, a councilwoman and a key force behind the gallery, found inspiration in outdoor galleries she had visited in Japan. Hackett, who died last spring, hatched a plan with other members to create a low-cost gallery with rotating works.

Artists submit slides of their work to the council, and, if chosen, are given a $200 installation stipend. The gallery, former arts-council member Andrea Lorig noted, exposes people to a variety of expressions and avoids the commitment of spending the usual tens of thousands of dollars on a single piece.

"Here was an opportunity to take some land that had been created for us and give everyone the opportunity to look at Northwest artists," Lorig said. "The artist has a place to display his or her works, and the public gets art without the hideous investment."

"Primavera II," with spiraling multicolored slats, stands guard at the gallery's eastern entrance on a knoll surrounded by a moat of ivy. Created by San Francisco artist Rosalyn Mazzilli, it is the gallery's one permanent piece and is owned by the city.

The rest of the works are for sale with price tags ranging from $2,600 to $14,500. Although some people have expressed interest, the gallery has yet to make a sale. If it does, the arts council will take a 15 percent commission.

Sales or not, the gallery, run on an $800-a-year budget, gives artists a venue and exposes the public to art.

"It's my very deep belief that lives are enriched with the presence of fine art," said Rosalie King, an art professor at Western Washington University and arts-council member.

"By placing the work of practicing artists in one's daily surroundings, you see the challenge of the design, the color, the movement. And, if just for a moment, it moves your thinking away from the practical problems of the day, it can be worth your while.

"It isn't that all art is beautiful, but it should make people think. What mattered to me is that people notice."

Someone took notice a little over two years ago when a bronze nude of a crouching woman, her hands raised to the sky, was installed. First, an unknown person placed a halter top on the figure. Then "Temple," as it was titled, was sawed from her base, kidnapped for a few days and dumped in bushes on the southern end of the island.

The incident drew concern over the safety of the artworks, but many on the arts council saw it as an anomaly in the well-trafficked area. The theft hasn't deterred artists from submitting their work.

"It's worked out for me. It's definitely good exposure," said Seattle sculptor John Hoge. Two recent private commissions came from people who viewed his unconventional polished basalt benches at the outdoor gallery.

His "Bench" and "Chaise Lounge" seem to be favorites, with smooth surfaces and undulating curves inviting passers-by to take a seat.

For sculptors relatively new to the scene, such as Gunnar Anderson of Durango, Colo., having display space and trying out various ideas are crucial needs the gallery fulfills. His biggest challenge has been finding places to exhibit his large works.

"Thanks," Anderson's large mobile, is a whimsical piece with yellow flying saucers hanging from wiry tendrils, all emerging from a rusted-red, torchlike base.

"Extraordinary Journey," also by Anderson, was made in a similar celebratory, carnival spirit. Three slender, rust-red petals peel away from a bright green stem, zigzagging toward the sky and ending in wiry corkscrews and small yellow balls.

Anderson says his intentions are twofold: to provide an enjoyable, uplifting experience on a gut level and to express a deeper spirituality and life force.

"Someone said to me that God is like the wind," he said. "You can't see it, but you can see what it does. I wanted to make something that spins in the wind and sparkles in the sun. `Thanks' is with a big `T' for my life, the good and the difficult all at one time. It's gratitude."

Keiko Morris' phone message number is 206-464-3214. Her e-mail address is: kmor-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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