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The wildly unfettered imagination of NW artist Harold Balazs

Harold Balazs with two of his sculptures Credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Northwest Art, La Conner, Washington

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.

Lindley: In your art, you’ve created your own symbolic language.

Balazs: It’s all tongue in cheek. All of that work alludes to something it’s not, and thereby seems more important than it is. I’ve always loved Japanese and Chinese neon signs, and I’m sure they look at our neon and say “Isn’t that beautiful,” because they don’t know what it says. It may be just “toilet.” If you knew what is said it wouldn’t be as magical.

Lindley: Some say that you’re the leading liturgical artist in America.

Balazs: I think they’re uninformed, but I’ve done a lot of church work. I just see that it’s my job to arrange visual material, and I can take anybody’s icons and create the visual world that accompanies them. I’m a secular humanist, but who am I to say the world should operate this way?

Lindley: And you are always trying new approaches and media.

Balazs: I got attacked at a show once when I had changed direction from highly abstract, nonobjective work. I had surgery that took about six months to recover from, and I started painting watercolor landscapes and plant forms. And this [collector] was outraged, and said he’d never collect another thing from me because he was collecting me on the basis of what I had produced. Producing something new threatened him and the value of his collection.

I’ve never had a résumé. A résumé always means you’re being chosen for what you’ve done, not what you can become.

Every curator I’ve dealt with says this isn’t a time for eclectics, yet I see so much eclecticism. I’m too interested in everything. The only things I’m not interested in are creamed carrots and Lawrence Welk music.

I was given a gold medal by the American Institute of Architects in about 1967. Ben Shahn was also receiving an award and he talked for the preservation of chaos. Like Gilgamesh, a disrupter, and Coyote, the Indian trickster — they mix it up. It’s not about filth and squalor, but chance meetings and funny surprises [with] this spontaneity reflected in the culture.

To me, one of the greatest things in Seattle is the troll under the bridge. And when someone put that ball and chain on Hammering Man, anybody who’s thinking would have left it there. When they put that ball and chain on, it made a poignant social comment. What’s wrong with adding to existing works of art? They’re not sacred.

Lindley: What are some of your influences?

Balazs: I do like some art of antiquity. I like the Inuit and some of the African work. The realistic school of Renaissance painting doesn’t interest me now. It did at one time from a craft perspective. The Inuit people don’t violate that flat surface, [and] that’s what I emulate in my two-dimensional work—keeping it very flat. And I like Picasso, but it’s more Henry Moore, Paul Klee, Brancusi, and Kandinsky.

Lindley: Will the site of a public art piece dictate your conception?

Balazs: I never work that way. Somewhere I read that Islamic people don’t use representative images. They can’t represent people, and the idea is that God expects more of us than simply replicating the visual work. I’m only attempting to create wonder.

I have no big mission in life. To me, it’s like a lot of art babble. With ArtNews and Art in America, all the people I know don’t understand any of it — the continuous metaphorsis of metalogical shapes that are intingent in certain coherent factors that are undulated through the atmosphere and create a rapport with the spiritual mind that enhances the mechanics of his work…. Look up artspeak, and you can compose your artist statement.

This business of being a great artist doesn’t happen for me. I work every day, but when I get [artist’s] block, I make a picture frame or something like that. If somebody wants some house numbers or something that most artists would consider too mundane or beneath their dignity, I’ll do it. I never think of myself as an artist. That’s something only time takes care of. Somebody told me I couldn’t make any money in art, and I said I just won’t call it art. I make a necklace and it will be a necklace.

Lindley: After college, you sold jewelry and small works in Spokane, but within a few years you were getting commissions for large public art projects with architects and builders. How did that come about?

Balazs: It was very serendipitous. I took up skiing. There were a bunch of architects who were beginning skiers like me. They started about the same time I moved here, and they’d ask if I’d ever made a door or an altar or whatever. That big Norton Building piece [a metal totem in Seattle] was a very early work. Someone saw my work and commissioned me to do [that] piece, which has since been stolen.

Lindley: You’re renowned for your collaborations.

Balazs: You have to find people that trust you. That’s the one thing I’ve found with the architects I work with: Fred Bassetti, Tom Atkinson, Bruce Walker, Tom Kundig, and his dad Morris. It’s the old Gothic idea that two people who respect each other’s work can do something better together than each can do individually. It works for me, but an awful lot of people are anxious to impose their point of view on the world. 

Lindley: I love the UW story. They asked you for a “shop drawing” or fabrication plan and you sent a literal drawing of your shop. And you got the job.

Balazs: I guess the college president thought, “Oh shit, why fight it.”

Part of my show deals with the fact that I’m a craftsman. To demonstrate that they use a little 11-foot skiff I made for a fishing boat. My grandson and I just drug it out of the van, and the museum people said, “Oh Jesus,” and they had on their white gloves and they were getting foam to pad it. I dragged this in and out of a gravel beach, for Christ’s sake. Here’s a thing I knock around in, and they put it in a museum and suddenly it’s sacred and precious. I have a carousel horse I made for our first grandchild and I just let the kids ride it.

Lindley: Many of your friends say that if Harold lived in New York City or Los Angeles he’d be an international star like sculptor David Smith or Picasso. Did you consider moving to bigger art centers?

Balazs: It never occurred to me otherwise than to bloom where I was planted. There was a newspaper column question of the day that asked “What makes Spokane Spokane?” I wrote them that there’s a raft of people who are outstanding artists and musicians and architects who live in this community. It’s a special group. That big art scene in New York is a den of thieves and I don’t want any part of that.

Lindley: Do you have a favorite work that you’ve made?

Balazs: I guess the fountain has to be my crowning glory. It’s mostly getting a kick out of the kids enjoying themselves there. And that big tower downtown [in Spokane].  There’s a club at Whitworth called the Transcendence Club for anyone who’s climbed that tower. It has the motto “Transcend the Bullshit” [inscribed] at the very top.

If you go: “Solo Survey: Harold Balazs,” July 2 – October 2, 2011, Museum of Northwest Art, 121 South First Street, La Conner, Wash. Hours: Sunday & Monday noon-5 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: adults $5, seniors $4, students $2, members & children under 12 free. Saturday, July 9, 2011: Artist’s Talk 1 p.m.; reception 2-5 p.m.

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