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Monday, February 22, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Eastside Profile

Passionate About The Public's Art -- City's Specialist Guides Selections For Creative Works

Special To The Seattle Times

BELLEVUE

Call it trial by fire, or trial by controversy, but Mary Pat Byrne had no sooner signed on as the city of Bellevue's art specialist in 1987 than she learned just how much passion public art can engender.

Her first task was to help acquire a sculpture for the front lawn of Highland Community Center, the city's recreation facility for people with disabilities. Tom Jay's "Salmon Woman and Raven" was chosen through the usual public-art process, but when plans for the piece were presented at the center, they were greeted with outrage.

Parents worried their children would be tempted to climb the two figures, a boat and magical ring of fish, and that they'd fall off and get hurt. And they resented the choice of a sculpture that featured a man with the head of a massive-beaked bird because they felt it mirrored an attitude they encountered all too often - that their disabled children weren't fully human.

Then, too, there were Native Americans who wanted to know why a white artist had appropriated one of their stories.

Clearly, there was a lot for the city's arts specialist to do. "That was an amazing first experience to have," Byrne says today. "It was a really tough way to learn about working with the community."

Fortunately, she says, artist Jay was willing to work through the problems. He modified the design so kids couldn't climb on the boat, and he opened the beak to more fully reveal Raven's face, making it clear he was a man wearing a mask, not a creature that was part animal, part human.

In the end, Byrne says, the piece was embraced by the Highland Center community: The day it was dedicated, a previous opponent asked, "Why didn't you tell us it was so powerful?"

During the dedication ceremony, the sculpture was blessed by Native-American elders, who'd concluded it was appropriately and respectfully done.

Byrne believes "Salmon Woman and Raven" fits its site because it captures the moment in the myth when Salmon Woman conjures up fish for the starving Raven, who has been adrift in his boat, and he knows he will survive.

"There's a sense of caring for the needy," she says, and that is what Highland Center is about.

But more important, she adds, "The piece was just good art. (Jay) did a beautiful, beautiful job."

Since that time, Byrne has been involved in many other public-art projects, some just as controversial, some relatively smooth sailing. When Advance Bellevue gave her a Best of Bellevue award last spring, the tally of public artworks acquired by the city under her leadership was 30 pieces valued at more than $800,000.

Byrne says her job has two distinct parts: administering the city's public-art program and helping the local arts community prosper. She is frequently consulted by fledgling Bellevue arts organizations on such matters as how to apply for grants and how to do long-term planning.

"Mary Pat has been the continuous thread in the arts community in Bellevue," says Margaret Lowe, citizen chairwoman of the Bellevue Arts Commission. "She's laid the groundwork, she's watching and facilitating the growth, and she knows what's going on in all the different areas. She's kind of the source, the center."

Lowe adds: "I think she has a real empathy for all the developing groups. She really has a strong feeling for the people who are trying to make groups work."

Indeed, Byrne says she is happy to help struggling arts groups because she has walked in their shoes.

She spent 10 years working for theater companies in Chicago and Seattle before deciding she'd better get a real job so she could pay her bills.

Ironically, the "real job" she got was as a secretary to the superintendent of Everett schools, who was so tickled at having a person with a master's degree in theater working for him that he spread the word around the district. Within months, she'd been asked by the district's director of curriculum to help produce a psychodrama for sexually abused kids, and she was back in theater.

Byrne ultimately became artistic director of the Open Door Theatre, which performed plays in Snohomish, King and Pierce county schools about sexual abuse. She worked half time for the school district and half time for Open Door.

"That was really an amazing time," she says. "I'm more proud of that experience in theater than just about anything else."

When she was hired as half-time arts specialist by Bellevue in 1987, she intended to continue working for Open Door Theatre. But her position quickly expanded, and in 1988 she left the company to become a full-time city employee.

In the beginning, she says, the city's public-art program focused on acquiring objects. Now, she is working on projects such as The Galleria, Bellevue's new downtown office, retail and entertainment complex, where the art is one component of a much larger private project.

Together, The Galleria and the city are developing a public plaza with a food pavilion at its edge. The plaza will feature a number of water features by Seattle artist Nancy Hammer, including large, upright boulders with burbling water; a series of jets that will emit lacy puffs of fog around the bases of the boulders; a blowhole that will shoot a cloud of fog 4 or 5 feet; and a fountain fronting on 106th.

"The idea is that water will appear and disappear throughout the plaza," Byrne explains, as she displays drawings and photographs of the partly completed project in her crowded cubicle in City Hall.

In a slightly different but still large-scale vein, Byrne has begun working with the city's Transportation Department to incorporate art into transportation projects.

As part of widening Newport Way between the entrance to the Somerset neighborhood and about 129th Avenue Southeast, a 124-foot retaining wall is being built. The forms into which the concrete will be poured are being designed by Seattle artist Vicki Scuri so that the surface of the wall will become a work of art.

"It's an economical way of getting more art into the community," says Byrne.

Byrne has her favorite pieces: the two big heads in front of the Bellevue Library called "Double Inquiry" and "Garden of Alternatives" in a strip park along Northeast 12th Street.

She also has her "lessons learned."

One lesson is that Bellevue residents like Northwest art. "Everything we have that people seem to take to the best was done by Northwest artists," says Byrne.

On two occasions, the city considered proposals by highly regarded New York artists; one met with apathy, the other with antipathy, and neither was selected.

She learned another lesson from the proposal for art for the Lake Hills Greenbelt, which would have involved willow furniture and arches in the lawn areas and brightly colored flags marking the sometimes hidden waterway that connects Phantom and Larsen lakes.

"The community rose up against us putting any art in their natural areas," she says. "They saw it as a desecration. . . . And the magenta flagpoles - I don't think I've ever really lived those down."

Byrne thinks the ultimate purpose of public art is to build community.

"Art helps to develop and express a community's identity," she says. "Done right, it expresses what's important to a community, it honors its heroes, it creates places where it's fun to be."

She notes that "people even get possessive about their community's art work - they take their friends from out of town to see it."

And she does not regret giving up theater to become a shepherd of the arts.

"I was really focused on theater from the time I was 7 years old," she says. "I couldn't imagine doing anything else. But sitting here today, I am not at all disappointed."

Eastside Profile is an occasional feature of The Seattle Times Eastside edition. Have a suggestion on someone we should write about? Contact us via the address or phone numbers at the top of this page.

-------------- Mary Pat Byrne --------------

Position: Bellevue art specialist.

Responsibilities: Administering city's public-art program and nurturing its arts community.

Her view of public art: It helps to develop and express a community's identity.

Lessons learned: Bellevue residents like Northwest art, and they don't want man-made objects desecrating natural spaces.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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