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Tuesday, March 7, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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ERIK LACITIS

Corny or not, Beyer's art appeals to the masses

Seattle Times staff columnist

I hadn't talked to Rich Beyer for a while, and so this time I asked about something I always had wondered about. Just how fantastic a bargain did Seattle get when acquiring its best-known work of public art?

"Oh, I think it was about $2,700," Beyer said about his artist's fee for "Waiting for the Interurban" - those seven aluminum figures standing on a traffic triangle by the Fremont Bridge. And even to get that money, a benefit party had to be held.

Twenty-seven-hundred, that's a pretty good investment for what's become one of the most photographed landmarks in this town. You've driven by it, the five life-size adults, a baby in arms and a dog, all supposed to be waiting for the electric trolley, the Interurban, which until the '30s ran from Seattle to Everett.

If it's somebody's birthday, the figures get draped with ribbons and have balloons tied to them. If it's freezing, somebody inevitably puts scarfs around them. If you're an advertising director looking for graphics that connect with the locals, you know where to send the photo crew.

Actually, in a number of cities in this state, probably the best-known public sculpture is one by Rich Beyer, now 74, with 77 sculptures to his credit.

Yet you're not going to see his name on any art-school seminars, nor see him invited to gallery doings. As one critic sniffed many years ago about that famous Fremont sculpture, which was dedicated in 1978, ". . . some people in the art community find the piece corny and maudlin. . ."

In reality, corny and maudlin are descriptions you could apply to Beyer's work. But then, "Les Miserables" also is corny and maudlin. That is the problem when producing art for the masses. They just go for the simple stuff.

Fred Bassetti, an acclaimed Seattle architect, has been an admirer of Beyer since seeing his first works. Beyer did not have an art background. He's self-taught, having abandoned in 1964 a career as Boeing economist to make his sculptures.

"Rich's stuff was never accepted by the gurus of art in Seattle," Bassetti told me. "But he had something else. He had a thoughtfulness about the human condition."

Those stoic sculptures in Fremont have become part of the neighborhood's daily routine, permanently waiting for a trolley that never comes. You can relate to that, can't you, as you go about your own daily routine?

You would think that the art community would embrace Rich Beyer. But he certainly has been through plenty of controversy because of his art.

His controversies, however, aren't about desecrating religious art. No, his controversies are more in the order of one he did for the City of Ellensburg. It shows a bull sitting on a bench, a cowboy hat on his lap, a serene look on his bovine face.

The bull greatly upset the president of the local rodeo association. "I've been a cowboy all my life and I can recognize Western art when I see it," he fumed, "and this ain't it. The ranchers are really uptight about it."

The Ellensburg bull, however, has become on Ellensburg's most photographed attractions.

Then there was the 1993 controversy about "The Big Catch," a bronze sculpture you can see displayed on Marine View Drive in Des Moines. It shows a fisherman apparently kissing a giant salmon. If you squat and look up, kind of look between the fins, you notice the salmon has two breasts. That's about as sexy as Beyer's work ever gets. A few folks made some phone calls. But then the flurry of media coverage went away and the sculpture became another landmark.

I was talking to Beyer because, as always, Margaret, his wife of 51 years, had done something to tell the world about her husband. She's been by his side all these years, so proud of his work, in the early years working as a legal assistant to pay the bills. With a grant, there now is a printing of 2,500 copies of a book called, "The Art People Love," with the stories behind every one of Beyer's sculptures.

In Olympia, for example, you can see a cast aluminum sculpture of a statuesque woman, kissing a much shorter man in a business suit. "It's a legislator and his secretary," Beyer explained. "At least that's my reading of it."

Right in front of King Broadcasting in Seattle, after somebody drove a car into the lobby, the company wanted to install a barrier. Wanting something friendly, the company commissioned Beyer to do a sculpture. He produced a dad, mom, two kids and pets in front of a TV set. Originally, the dad was holding a beer can and Mom has her nylons rolled down to her ankles, details which Beyer omitted after company executives yelped.

This is what they call very accessible art. You can walk up to it, you can touch it, you can pose with it, you can walk away feeling a little better because of the whimsiness of it all.

These days, Beyer charges $10,000 a sculpture; he and Margaret live in the little town of Pateros in Eastern Washington, near one of their daughters and a bunch of grandchildren. Beyer is currently working on four commissions, still first carving them out of styrofoam, then hollowing out the pieces, putting the styrofoam in sand and pouring the melted metal.

Beyer said he knows the rap against him. "They say, `He just makes animals and is cutesy.' "

But how many times have you ever seen anybody hug one of those abstract art pieces in some corporate office plaza?

In Fremont, those sculptures have become part of the family. You can do lots worse as an artist.

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 206-464-2237. His e-mail address is: elacitis@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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