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Originally published Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Plant Life

New Lake City Fire Station and sculpture work in harmony

California artist Stephen Glassman named his sculpture at Fire Station No. 39 "Thornton Creek" in honor of the community's effort to reclaim its concrete-enclosed waterway. The working piece reveals the process of water making its way from rooftop to earth. The sculpture serves as monument to a creek long obscured from public view.

photographed by Alan Berner

AN UNUSUAL new artwork stands on a formerly nondescript corner a few blocks off Lake City Way. The 28-foot-tall, free-standing sculpture at Fire Station No. 39 is surprisingly organic, swathes of native creek grasses spilling from its arms. Its steel pipe peels open to catch the rain and carry it to an underground cistern that waters the surrounding native-plant garden.

California artist Stephen Glassman named his work "Thornton Creek" in honor of the community's effort to reclaim its concrete-enclosed waterway. The working piece of sculpture elegantly reveals the process of water making its way from rooftop to earth. By exposing this natural flow, the sculpture serves as monument to a creek long obscured from public view.

Glassman started the project by searching for a sense of place in Lake City. Although he works all over the U.S. and Canada, Glassman lives in Venice, Calif. Can you imagine anywhere with a more pronounced sense of place than this buzzy, beach-side town?

He was influenced by the natural beauty of the tree-covered hills above the site. "Then I looked down on all the paved area and mini-malls, and it was as if the land stopped breathing there," says Glassman.

As he learned more about how the Thornton Creek watershed was buried in concrete, he drew inspiration from the neighborhood's efforts to uncover its local creek. The city of Seattle was looking for an artist inspired by issues of sustainability, which is one reason why, out of five semifinalists, Glassman was awarded the job of creating a piece for the new fire station designed by the Miller Hull Partnership.

Glassman's goals for his sculpture were as ambitious as its height. "I wanted to connect the Lake City commercial zone to the quality of the residential area," he says, and give the fire station on its modest corner a real sense of place. "I hoped to create a beacon, a landmark, a community destination," says Glassman. The fire station's strong modernist design and partly red facade helped.

"Sculpture is a private, intuitive act, a human gesture on a public scale," says Glassman. He worked closely with Miller Hull and the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs to conceive and develop the piece, and an obvious harmony between building, site and sculpture is the result.

Glassman credits the architects' boldness and generosity for the great relationship between building and art. "They were willing for my piece to give identity to the building's facade," he says. The strongly vertical lines and organic quality of Glassman's massive sculpture complement the fire station's lines and mostly metal facade.

The native-plant garden, designed by Outdoor Studio, wraps the corner site in the softness of native grasses, little willows and Nootka roses. A deep, stone-lined trench is a dry creek bed in summer and runs with water in winter.

Against this backdrop, the sculpture really stands out: a hunk of steel balancing on a single point. Turns out Glassman was influenced by more than the neighborhood and issues of sustainability. "I have a circus background," he admits. "Structurally speaking, the sculpture is quite acrobatic, which makes it an exciting experience."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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