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Originally published May 28, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified May 29, 2011 at 8:28 AM

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The Wrap / Ron Judd

Art of decay: John Grade's fascinating sculptures crave disintegration

Seattle artist John Grade creates his work so that it will erode or be otherwise disassembled by Mother Nature.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Information

See John Grade's photo archive of previous projects, plus other articles about the artist and a schedule of upcoming exhibits at

www.johngrade.com/archive

quotes I like and admire most of Grade's work. As an added bonus, I've had the chance to meet... Read more
quotes I saw his exhibition at the new Whatcom Museum. Wonderful work!!! I hope he stays local. Read more
quotes John Grade is on his way toward the forefront of American art. Last year the... Read more

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John Grade really might want to think about charging admission.

Couple reasons. One, an afternoon spent watching the Seattle artist sawing, gluing, scheming and dreaming in his clandestine laboratory — spread throughout various basement spaces of the old Publix Hotel in the Chinatown International District — is better than any conceivable reality TV.

It's like putting "Monster Garage," "Iron Chef" and "American Masters" together in a supercollider, throwing the switch and pulling up a lawn chair with a cold one to appreciate the splendid wreckage: Lots of big chunks of big, cool stuff, interspersed with great ideas, everywhere you look.

Gleefully in the center of it all is Grade, 41, a Minnesota-born, Ravenna-raised artist who somehow fits in comfortably on an alpine glacier, in a white lab coat, or on lists of notable contemporary landscape sculptors — although Grade (pronounced "Grah-day") is stretching the bounds of that term.

Two: This is a see-it-while-you-can situation. Most of the brilliant stuff that gets created here won't be around forever. Much of it is built to erode or be disassembled by something.

Most often, that thing is Mother Nature, who, as many a floating-bridge designer might attest, can be a cruel rival when it comes to making things last, but a handy ally when designing them to fall apart.

This is especially true in the Northwest, where the north side of anything left outside for more than 35 minutes will promptly begin to moss up, and shortly thereafter begin oozing into the surrounding landscape — if it is not first entombed in blackberry vines.

This alarming, but sometimes useful, phenomenon of Grade's homeland did not become a moving force in his work until about five years ago.

His earlier sculptures easily earned gallery and museum space. But simply leaving it at that quickly became too pedestrian for Grade, a Shoreline High School and Pratt Institute (New York) grad whose recent works not only reflect earthscapes, but become, for a while, part of them.

"It grew out of a feeling I had that my stuff was too controlled," he says. "I simply had too much control. Something had to give."

Control — a good thing, to the stevedores and engineers among us — is anathema to people like Grade, who crave the rush of freshly broken ground, the thrill of serendipity.

His recent works combine old-world natural products — wood, stone, leather, metals, animal hides, clay — with space-age materials to form structures designed to spend as much as a decade outdoors, being eaten by bugs, pecked by birds, bashed by the tides or baked by the sun. Such was the case with one of Grade's best-known works, the award-winning "Fold," a large wood/resin structure displayed at the Bellevue Arts Museum in 2008, and now, by design, being slowly consumed by termites somewhere underground in Idaho. Once the bugs have had their fill, it will be exhumed for display.

A companion piece, just completed, will be displayed in its pristine state at a Portland Art Museum show beginning June 11. It then will be halved, with one portion buried in Arizona, the other displayed in a new King County Library in Duvall. Ten years hence, the two pieces will be rejoined at the library.

Here is what the artist made, these works say. And here is how our world changed it. The process is as artistic as the product; the lines in between blur. It is Grade's vision of art in its purest form.

"The element of losing control ultimately gets me involved in the process of how it's going to break down," Grade says. "Because it's gonna break down. If I can sort of be there, and nudge it, and push it in a direction and get to see it happen ... that's more interesting to me."

It is this nexus of art and engineering that makes the works of Grade, whose drive to be a full-time artist was fueled by Centrum art workshops he attended as a teen in Port Townsend, so intriguing: Each piece is designed with a general plan not only for the degree to which its chosen materials ultimately will degrade, but to what they will succumb, and even when.

Grade describes all these stops along a sculpture's evolutionary cycle as "moments." As each work evolves, the moments add up to hours, years, and ultimately, a life.

The sculptor, bless him, is able to summarize his intent in terms that make equal sense in art circles and in the chowder line at Ivar's.

His current pieces, he says, are "kind of like an interesting conversation" between what he has built, and the natural world's response to it.

Grade at that moment is standing next to "Fold," Part II, if you will — at this point a Styrofoam blob with undulating surface contours, some modeled after shapes of his own body. (Grade, who has viewed many landscapes around the globe for inspiration, professes a fascination with funerary practices, or how cultures present bodies back to the earth.) On its surface, Grade is affixing row after row of tiny hollowed-out cubes of African heartwood, with a mix of dark and light grains.

He already knows, from testing, that this wood will be consumed by termites, and that they prefer the dark wood over the light. So he has at least a notion of how the sculpture will look when it is unearthed: Most of the structure then will be the resin now holding together the wood.

But it's just an idea. The unknowns are driving the bus. He can predict how the termites will dine, but can't account for a change in appetite, other diners, or other environmental conditions, such as drainage or lack of it.

"I have a little bit of say in terms of where and when they're going to eat," he says, his eyes lighting up. "But it's really more anarchy than that."

Anarchy also intrudes in less poetic forms; the "moments" of his works sometimes are frozen in time by human interference.

A planned 5-ton ceramic sculpture that was to be carted in pieces by an army of backpacking volunteers and reassembled atop a Cascade mountaintop near Roslyn this winter was put on hold when the peak was pulled into a federal land swap.

And last year, another major Grade work, "Bloom: The Elephant Bed," met an untimely end in Bellingham. The installation's two-story biodegradable cones were being removed from Whatcom Museum, on their way to what Grade hoped would be a spectacular slow dissolve in Bellingham Bay. Literally at the last moment, the mayor got cold feet and pulled the plug.

With a moving truck loaded with art that had to go somewhere, the city sheepishly lent a hand — a firetruck. The cones were dumped in a nearby field and blasted apart by fire hoses, the runoff oozing — where else? — into the bay.

Different means, same end. No problem.

All this disintegration makes Grade's current major work — likely to be his most visible yet — rather ironic, because it also will be his most enduring to date.

It is a massive, 60-foot-tall wooden sculpture that will hang suspended from the high ceiling in the new Museum of History & Industry at South Lake Union Park. The wood is Douglas fir — gruffly beautiful, saltwater-seasoned old-growth planks and beams salvaged from the Wawona, the 1897 schooner that spent its later years waiting in Seattle for a restoration that never came.

Grade and helpers armed with long-bar chain saws and other heavy tools spent weeks this winter removing beams and planking from the skeleton of the old schooner, which was being stored in pieces at Magnuson Park. Today, the timber is tidily stacked, floor to ceiling, in Grade's studio, drying.

The wood will be cut into smaller pieces, the surface of each mechanically sculpted to emit light through concave or convex holes — not unlike the worm holes that sent rotted portions of Wawona, one of the largest three-masted schooners built in North America, to a landfill.

The pieces then will be assembled into a massive, vertical structure, which, from the rear, evokes the shape of a ship's spine. From the front, it will look more like a hollowed-out old-growth tree — perhaps a Douglas fir, whence all this wood came before it was forged into a ship that hauled other trees, fish and other goods up and down the West Coast.

This hanging, Jenga-on-steroids piece will be held together largely by unseen climbing webbing — tethered to the floor, but not resting on it. Visitors who push on it will see the wood subtly move, like a wave on a water bed.

"It will animate," Grade says. "I want to give a sense of it being a living, breathing thing."

Assuming necessary permits come through, the sculpture when finished in summer 2012 will appear to project through the building's roof, and below its floor.

Clear acrylic panels will separate the piece, and viewers, from the sky above and Lake Union below.

Those outer pieces will be left, in true Grade fashion, exposed to the elements, to slowly wither away, while the larger piece inside will be preserved indefinitely.

This was Grade's inventive solution to the puzzle of how to build a piece for permanent static display — something his current work rebels against — yet stay true to his artistic vision. He is, after all, trying in this instance to preserve material that already was well along a path to disintegration all on its own.

He's giving this old wood credit for time served.

"There's a commentary there," he says: "This isn't necessarily (the wood's) natural course of life. This is just an artifice that we apply because we care about this more than the other, for whatever reason."

A value judgment, in other words.

He doesn't know if most viewers who walk up to, and into, the Wawona project will appreciate that. And honestly? It doesn't matter.

It is what it is: chunks of art and history and biology and engineering, all held together by various inventive strands of John Grade.

"Hopefully, they just look at it, and they believe it. Because I did."

Ron Judd, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, scours the Northwest for stories about its people, places, traditions and endangered icons. He can be reached at Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

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