Despite the aches and pains that come with time, at age 82 celebrated artist Harold Balazs still works each day in his studio/workshop on the grounds of his home in Mead, Washington, just north of Spokane. In the barn he calls Mead Art Works he draws, paints, fabricates metal, produces vivid enamels, builds boats, and fashions massive sculptures.
“I work every day,” he says, “because making stuff is easier than not making stuff.”
Balazs has been described as “the people’s artist of the Northwest” and as the Bernini of Spokane. He is perhaps best known for his large public art projects in five northwest states including Alaska, but he has made everything from jewelry, prints, and paintings to altars, fountains, stained glass windows, and wooden boats.
On July 2, an exhibit of the eclectic work of Balazs will open at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner. The show is excerpted from last year’s popular Balazs retrospective at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, and offers an overview of the artist’s six-decade career with a survey of his wildly unfettered imagination.
The Spokane show coincided with the publication of Harold Balazs (UW Press), a lavishly illustrated book of his art and thought.
Balazs's large public works in Seattle represent a range of his techniques, with colorful large enamels that decorated the Kingdome (now displayed at the County Administration Building) and the Washington Mutual Building, an ingenious totem that stood at the base of the Norton Building, a welded copper sculpture that still enhances the First Avenue entrance of the Federal Building, a wood panel relief at the UW Tubby Graves building, and a concrete torii light and panel at UW Intramural Activities building.
In Spokane, his work graces everything from the opera house to banks and the façade of a mortuary.
Voracious reading and deep knowledge of history, architecture, archeology, anthropology, and mythology feed the art of Balazs. His lodge-style house is decorated with masks from Africa and Asia, works by artists from Käthe Kollwitz to Montana muralist Rudy Autio, and piles of books on natural marvels as well as on philosophy and aesthetics, plus the occasional Swedish mystery novel.
Much of his art teems with mystifying symbols and intriguing shapes that beg for explanation. He responds, “I’m not concerned what people call it as long as it provokes wonder.” He adds, “What artists make isn’t important, but they need to decorate the world and cause surprise.”
The artist was born in Ohio in 1928 and grew up on a farm in a small community during the Depression. His mother encouraged his interest in art, and he learned metal fabrication and design by working in his father's sheet-metal and air-conditioning business.
Balazs followed his parents to Spokane and majored in art at Washington State University, where he met his wife, Rosemary. They celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary last September.
In 1951, he and artist Patrick Flammia produced a mural for the Ridpath Hotel in Spokane, the first of dozens of Balazs’s collaborations with artists, architects, and builders for commissioned work in public spaces. He also became a leading liturgical artist, with sculpture, painting, stained glass, and reliefs for more than 200 churches and synagogues in the Northwest. He served three terms as a Washington State Arts Commissioner and helped draft the state's percent for art legislation.
Seattle architect and collaborator Fred Bassetti said of Balazs, “He is unique. He reaches to the heart of the matter. Whether his medium is bronze or porcelain enamel, wood, stone or concrete, it evokes clearly his personal view of the precarious, ironic, tumultuous, absurd, incredible journey we are all taking together. He may be the only one who understands where we are going” (quoted in Judy Laddon's Harold Balazs: Art is an Art Form).
Balazs interrupted his work schedule to talk with me by phone and then, with his wife Rosemary, he generously showed me around his home and workshop.
Robin Lindley: You’re a dynamo. You still work every day.
Harold Balazs: I don’t get as many hours in. But what the hell — I’m still on this side of the grass.
Lindley: Did you want to be an artist when you were a little boy in rural Ohio?
Balazs: I was always making stuff. I have never thought of myself as an artist. In working with architects, I found that you never call what you’re making “art.”
During the war, I was really interested in airplanes. I grew up near the Cleveland airport. I always drew pictures of airplanes. One time an art teacher said we had to draw a pet store, and I had so many pets, I didn’t want to draw them. So I drew a picture of a model shop and told the teacher it was conceptual art and the pet store was around the corner. She didn’t buy it.
My father was in the sheet metal and air-conditioning business. I learned from him how to form metal and how to be a craftsman. My father was probably the most self-sufficient person I’ve ever encountered [and] a demanding craftsman. He didn’t do sloppy work.
Lindley: You must have been very mechanical too.
Balazs: In the Depression, on a farm, you learned all that. If things broke on the farm, you had to fix it yourself. I built half of our house and half of our shop. My biggest thrill was building a 25-foot ketch. I love building boats, and I’ve built six or seven. It’s also a nice way to get kindling wood.
Lindley: And your mom encouraged you in the arts?
Balazs: Yes. When I was about 12 or 13, my mother took three of us kids to Saturday classes at the art museum in Cleveland. In an entrance way there were [floral designs on] panels of enamel by one of the pioneers of large enamels, which until then were very precious and small. I’d look at those and say someday I’m going to do that.
I did a big floral piece for the Kingdome that’s now hanging near the courthouse. It cost more to move it than I was paid for it. Then I did a piece at the Renton Fire Station, and on Fifth there’s a piece with wildflowers for a bank.
Roger Shimomura, Fay Jones, and Gene Gentry McMahon did big pieces. I gave them technical assistance for those murals in the bus tunnel…. The biggest one was in Alaska, nine by ninety feet. It [depicts] a river full of spawning salmon at a fish hatchery in Seward. A moose standing there [watched] this river, and that was a little wild.
Lindley: It’s impressive that your wife Rosemary and your children have been involved closely in your art, even the heavy metal work.
Balazs: Over the years they were Mead Art Works elves and my life support. Rosemary gave up a lot so I could pursue my thing. The house wasn’t much more than a lake cabin, but we lived well. The [children] all worked during their high school and college years. Our son’s house is next door. He’s in structural steel, and has a lot of equipment that I use for my bigger work. He’s a very fine craftsman. Then one daughter is a lawyer and the other daughter is in health care, so I’ve got it all covered.
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