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Originally published March 22, 2012 at 7:53 PM | Page modified March 23, 2012 at 9:57 AM

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'70s George Tsutakawa fountain finds its way back to Seattle

A Seattle art dealer has brought home a large "obos" fountain by the acclaimed artist George Tsutakawa. He is having it refurbished and hopes to find a place where it can be installed and enjoyed by the public.

Seattle Times staff reporter

George Tsutakawa's legacy

ONE OF SEATTLE'S most acclaimed and beloved artists, George Tsutakawa was a printmaker, sumi artist and oil painter who became best known for his metal fountains in public places in Seattle and other cities.

Born in Seattle to immigrant parents, Tsutakawa lived from ages 7 to 17 in Japan, where his grandfather taught him Japanese artistic traditions.

He created a series of wood sculptures in the 1950s he called "obos," after the rock cairns that Himalayan travelers build along mountain passes.

Tsutakawa's career took a turn in 1958, when the Seattle Public Library invited him to design a fountain for the downtown library. That sculpture, "Fountain of Wisdom," is still on display at Seattle's new downtown library. It was followed by at least 74 more fountains in the United States, Canada and Japan. Other Tsutakawa fountains in Seattle include "Naramore Fountain" at Sixth Avenue and Seneca Street, "Heaven, Man & Earth" at Maynard Avenue South and South Jackson Street, "Joshua Green Fountain" at the Colman Ferry Terminal and the "Safeco Fountain" at UW Tower at Brooklyn Avenue Northeast and Northeast 45th Street.

Tsutakawa was a professor at the University of Washington.

He died in 1997 at age 87.

Sources: Seattle Times archives, HistoryLink.org and Safeco Insurance

Most Popular Comments
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That's an amazing piece. Many kudos to the dealer who brought it back to Seattle. MORE
Thank you for returning this piece to Seattle. Tsutakawa's works should be maintained. ... MORE
Thank you so much for doing this. I hope to see it sometime soon. His art is wonderful... MORE

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When Seattle art dealer John Braseth saw an iconic George Tsutakawa fountain sculpture listed for sale for $1 million on eBay — and then mysteriously removed from the site — he set to work trying to find the seller.

He eventually bought the damaged work for a much lower price, retrieved it from an Indiana farm where it lay in the dirt and brought it back to Seattle, where Tsutakawa had created it.

After 17 months of work, the 16-foot-tall sculpture has been restored to pristine condition, and Braseth is figuring out how best to put it on permanent public display in its hometown. He announced his acquisition and restoration of the work Tuesday on his Facebook page.

"I'm so excited I can't see straight," he said.

Originally titled the "Jefferson Plaza Fountain" after the Indianapolis office plaza where it was displayed for more than 35 years, the sculpture will be renamed. Like many of Tsutakawa's sculptures, it was inspired by "obos" formations, or stacks of rocks made by trekkers in the Himalayas.

It was a twisting road that led from Tsutakawa's backyard garage workshop in Seattle's Mount Baker neighborhood to the Midwest and back again.

The day Braseth saw the eBay listing with a photograph of the sculpture, he talked to the artist's son, Gerard Tsutakawa.

Gerard, like his father an acclaimed sculptor, recognized the piece. It was one of the first fountains he worked on in the family's two-car garage when he apprenticed to his father in 1971. The work had been commissioned by an insurance company in Indianapolis.

When Braseth responded to the eBay sellers, he didn't hear back. The listing was quickly pulled, but Braseth soon tracked down the seller, who was renovating the office building. The two talked off and on for nine months about a possible sale.

After making an offer and not receiving an answer, Braseth had just about given up. Then, while he was fly-fishing on the Yakima River, the seller called his cellphone and said he would accept Braseth's offer if he wired the full amount the following day.

Swallowing hard and using a line of credit against his house, he sent the money even though he hadn't seen the sculpture or a recent picture of it. "That's something you don't do as an art dealer," Braseth said.

"It's probably the craziest thing I've done in my life. It was a Hail Mary pass. I could have been totally scammed." Braseth said the price was less than $500,000.

But, like some single-minded collectors, he was bitten by the bug and had become obsessed with bringing the sculpture back to Seattle.

When he finally saw it, "My heart completely sank." The metal had been dented in the move to a farm 60 miles outside Indianapolis. The bronze was covered with a quarter- to half-inch of calcification and the plumbing was shot.

Braseth had the 3-ton sculpture lifted onto an eighteen-wheeler and trucked to Seattle, where Fabrication Specialties of Seattle's South Park neighborhood sandblasted it and replaced the plumbing. Gerard Tsutakawa will advise him on what patina, or bronze finish, to apply.

The work was commissioned by the chief executive of Jefferson National Life Insurance, C. Kirk McKinney, after he'd seen Tsutakawa's "Joshua Green Fountain" at the Colman Ferry Dock while on a business trip to Seattle.

"I called him when I saw that and I said, 'I'm running an insurance company in Indianapolis and would be interested in getting you to design a fountain for me,' " McKinney recalled.

When Jefferson National was bought by another company in 1990, McKinney said, he was assured the sculpture would remain at the site or would be donated to the Art Museum of Indianapolis. But the property changed hands again, and the sculpture was put up for sale.

It was one of many Tsutakawa sculptures patterned after the "obos," which he had learned about from a book written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas. Tsutakawa went to Nepal to see obos examples, Gerard said.

Tsutakawa's obos sculptures combined natural and human elements, and the one commissioned by McKinney was one of the largest. "This will be a unique piece," Gerard said, "because there are very few of the obos that are more naturalistic-looking than this one is."

Braseth, who mounted a father-son exhibit of the Tsutakawas' art in 2010, said he was "visually seduced" by his acquisition. "It has almost a totemic Northwest Indian form to it mixed with a Japanese feeling and a modern, almost [Georges] Braque cubism," he said

Braseth doesn't have a concrete plan for exhibiting the work.

His preferred location is outside the Seattle Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park; his second choice is the Olympic Sculpture Park. He hasn't spoken with Seattle Art Museum staff, who run both venues, about it since Derrick Cartwright resigned as director last year.

Several well-heeled arts patrons have said they are willing to contribute to the cost of giving the sculpture a new, public home, Braseth said. Although it will take time to find the right spot, finance a plan and install it in a pool, he said, there is no question that will happen.

"The city will fall in love with this sculpture. It's that great," he said.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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