Art installation aims to illuminate Tacoma’s Theater District

When property owner and commercial real estate broker Eric Cederstrand arrived in Tacoma 16 years ago, he found a two-block stretch of Broadway—between South Ninth Street and South 11th Street—in need of attention.

“Broadway was dead space,” he recently recalled. “Once a vibrant pedestrian corridor, it had become dark and vacant.”

Cederstrand and his uncle, Ken, began to purchase property in the two-block area—the former Woolworth, Kress, and Payless buildings—with an eye toward redevelopment and an appreciation for public art.

“My uncle introduced me to the arts when I was around ten years old,” Cederstrand added. “Art is Awesome. It has shaped me into the person I have become. It has impacted me as an individual, in my business and in my projects.”

That interest continues today with a major art installation proposed for that same two-block stretch of Broadway in downtown Tacoma’s Theater District. The work is being created by Seattle-based sculptor and painter Jonathan Clarren. It consists of a trio of three-dimensional metal, laser-cut half-spheres that range in diameter between three feet, five feet, and eight feet, and feature an intricate design pattern. The pieces will be bolted to a blank facade situated between the historic Kress Building, located at 934-936 Broadway, and the historic C. N. Gardner Building, located at 928-930 Broadway.

The Kress Building was designed by architect E. J. T. Hoffman, built in 1925, and added to Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places in 2006 (see “Council adds buildings to register of historic places,” Tacoma Daily Index, March 30, 2006; “Resolution would add buildings to register of historic places,” Tacoma Daily Index, March 27, 2006; and “Kress Building gets historic nod from City,” Tacoma Daily Index, Feb. 23, 2006). The C. N. Gardner Building was designed by architect George W. Bullard, built in 1907, and added to Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places in 2001.

Current building tenants include the United States Geological Survey Washington Water Science Center, Kompan, and Swenson Say Faget.

Once installed, the art is expected to “cast unique shadow patterns on the wall enhancing the display and always changing,” according to a proposal prepared by the Cederstrands. The project is estimated to cost approximately $20,000 to $25,000.

Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the proposal during a public meeting in May (see “Art installation proposed for downtown Tacoma Theater District facade,” Tacoma Daily Index, May 11, 2015; and “Art installation approved for downtown Tacoma Theater District facade,” Tacoma Daily Index, May 29, 2015). City staff noted the historic facades of the Kress Building and the Gardner Building would be retained and preserved, the installation would be sited on the non-historic facade between the two buildings, and no historic material would be removed or destroyed.

“The blank wall where Jonathan’s installation will be placed has always bothered our family,” said Cederstrand. “It is dull during the day and dark at night. We are extremely pleased with the artist’s three-dimensional creation. It will definitely add life and a focal point to the Theater District. It will have a sense of constant movement with the shadowing created by the sun throughout the day and with soft illumination at night. The more we concentrate on the experience pedestrians, visitors, and customers have when they visit Tacoma, the more successful we will be as a city.

“Our hope is that this installation motivates others to make investments, in sometimes intangible assets, for the sake of the community,” he added. “We are excited about this opportunity to enhance the neighborhood and hopefully it will help attract more business to the vibrant Broadway district.”

Last month, contractors blocked off a small section of Broadway to make room for a mechanical lift that allowed workers to paint the building facade and drill holes for three mounting rings that will support the spheres (see “Preparations under way for Theater District art installation,” Tacoma Daily Index, Sept. 29, 2015). The artwork is still being fabricated in Seattle, and Clarren hopes the project will be completed and installed by the end of this year.

“I think Jonathan brings a unique perspective to his work that captures the eye of the beholder,” said Cederstrand. “His installations combine diverse materials, unorthodox symmetry, and three-dimensional effects that seem to create a sense of movement and activity. Personally, I just think its edgy, vibrant, and fresh.”

This isn’t the first time the Cederstrands have commissioned Clarren, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2002. He created an original painting for Ken Cederstrand ten years ago, and some of his sculptures have been on display for several years in the Kress Building foyer.

The Tacoma Daily Index recently met Clarren, 35, at his Seattle home and studio to discuss the art installation. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and abridged for publication.

“Jonathan, we want a painting for this building.”

Ken [Cederstrand] has a house up on Lopez Island and in 2005 he wanted a painting [for the house]. I was [doing] really big paintings at that time. [Ken] bought this big painting that was probably eight feet by ten feet or twenty feet in size. I went up there with a truck and a friend and we spent a day or two on the property getting this thing on the wall.

Two winters ago, Ken called me and I thought, “Oh, no. The painting fell off the wall. I’m going to have to go up there and fix the painting.” I hadn’t talked to him in a long time. He said, “Jonathan, we want a painting for this building.” I said, “Great, come on over.” I had some paintings, and [Eric and Ken] came here expecting to just buy a big painting from me.

I call my paintings abstract expressionistic figurative paintings. They reference cliches of sexuality and violence and culture. I wouldn’t say they are great for foyers [laughing].

“Let’s make a sphere and a half-sphere and put it on the side of the building.”

They had this big, ugly brown facade between these two historic buildings. That brown facade was not historic, so it was perfect for an art installation. They said, “Jonathan, do some drawings.” I had no idea. How do you keep the costs down for a space that is twenty-four feet by thirty-eight feet? It’s got to be something that’s going to be exteriorly sound. It’s got to hold up to the elements. I was thinking about possibly working with these meshes that you print on. I was also working on punching die metal [at the time]. Then it was like, “Let’s make a sphere and a half-sphere and put it on the side of the building.”

I’m really into the golden mean, or the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, which is a proportion that you find in nature and you also find it in a lot of things that are man-made—one plus one equals two; two plus one equals three; two plus three equals five; three plus five equals eight; eight plus five equals thirteen. It keeps growing. It’s very elegant when you put those proportions together. So the sphere[s I created were] three [feet], five [feet], and eight [feet].

“You will get this kind of a luminary floating vibe at night.”

Thinking bout how to light these things—they are going to cast cool shadows, as well—and thinking about how it’s going to work twenty-four hours a day, what we are going to do is have these three mounting rings that I have built. We are going to have some type of LED—a rope light or an organic LED product—basically around the ring so they will glow and you will get this kind of a luminary floating vibe at night. Another idea that could happen is working with a product called El Wire. Some of the guys who trick out their Hondas, they drop their cars on the ground and have these little glowing lights on the bottom. That’s a pretty cool product. It’s rather inexpensive and lasts a long time. We could do the whole periphery of the frame, in a sense, and then that would glow, as well. Some of these products you can change the color. You could do a lighting sequence.

“I would hope it would be [something] that anybody can interact with.”

I think what I’m trying to do is aesthetically improve the space. I have all sorts of themes and ideas that I bring to my work, but I would be lying if I said this has to do with the spirit of Tacoma. That’s not true. But I’ve been spending more time in that little park, and there are all these cool sculptures in there that are kind of their little pieces on their own.

What I try and do with my work and the ideas is not really tell people, “This is art.” What I’m more interested in doing is having people look at it and see things on their own—I see a bird in that. I see this dog barking at me. I see this human being. I see hands. There are hands, actually, holding the spheres, if you look hard enough. If people can look at something and kind of make it their own in a sense by seeing their own perception of it, then I think that’s successful. So in that way, I would hope it would be kind of a personal thing for the environment that anybody can interact with.

“It’s a unique experience. It’s kind of a different vibe.”

Graciously, in a sense, the building owners are not making any money off of it. They are doing it to improve the environment. I think they are aesthetically improving the building. They have put in a great deal of energy to make it a better place for the people that are tenants in that space. It’s few and far between that you find a developer or a building owner that actually is trying to make something [like that]. It’s a unique experience. It’s kind of a different vibe than your run-of-the-mill public art.

Ken and Eric have been great. To make this happen, it’s kind of a group thing. I think they like my work because I try to keep things on budget for them and work with them. I don’t just do whatever and then send them an invoice. They are participants as much as I am. It’s my concept, but for them it’s their thing at the end of the day, so I want them to be happy. I think that’s why they enjoy working with me. It’s fun. These guys are great customers.

UPDATE | MON., NOV. 2 @ 3:20 P.M. – Artist Jonathan Clarren e-mailed the Tacoma Daily Index over the weekend with an update on the art installation he is creating for downtown Tacoma’s Theater District, as well as several new photographs of the progress:

I now have the three-foot sphere in the shop. We are revising the process slightly for the [five-foot sphere], which will begin next week. I am also waiting on the light elements to come in so we can finalize that. We are getting there. The [eight-foot sphere] is going to be big. Anyway, It’s all very exciting for me. Here are some images of the progress. The machine is up and running since we spoke. Things are moving along. The metal will look much nicer when it is coated and finalized.

To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of Jonathan Clarren’s downtown Tacoma Theater District art installation, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and the author of several books. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.