Why is the sculpture 'Wawona' so mystifying?

The story of the historic ship is lost in the art's display -- at a history museum.
The "Wawona" sculpture rises vertically at MOHAI.

The "Wawona" sculpture rises vertically at MOHAI. Joe Follansbee

A close-up view of the "Wawona" sculpture

A close-up view of the "Wawona" sculpture Joe Follansbee

The schooner <i>Wawona</i> was on the endangered list, but was demolished.

The schooner Wawona was on the endangered list, but was demolished. Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons

I visited the new Museum of History & Industry at Lake Union Park recently to see one thing and one thing only: the sculpture titled “Wawona.” I am utterly baffled by it.

Allow me a bit of ego: I know more about the story behind this sculpture than just about anyone. Wawona was made from the wood left over from the schooner Wawona, an historic 1897 wooden ship steeped in Northwest history and demolished in 2009 because it could not be preserved in a conventional way. It was too big and too far gone; more than a hundred years of weather and neglect had taken their toll. In 2006, I published a 230-page history of her using original documents and photos from captains and crews.

Lake Union was the schooner’s home beginning in the 1920s. MOHAI, as it prepared to move into the Naval Reserve Building next to Wawona’s old berth, wanted to honor the ship and four decades of effort to preserve her. The museum hit on the idea of making a monumental sculpture out of the ship’s salvaged wood and install the piece in the new facility as part of its ongoing plans to preserve local maritime history. Created by artist John Grade, the work debuted on MOHAI’s opening day, Dec. 29, 2012.

I’m a philistine when it comes to modern art; I rarely “get it,” and when it’s in a public place, I basically ignore it, because it’s the only way I know to cope. But "Wawona" is different for me because of my emotional investment as a writer. The 65-foot, five-and-a-half ton sculpture dominates the main gallery of the museum. It’s pockmarked, honey-colored, decay-stained form rises from beneath the floor and punches through the ceiling. The object appears to be a cross between an abandoned piling and a decorative column in the McMansion of a nature-loving tech billionaire. And the verticality is confusing. I overheard one observer ask if it were one of the ship’s masts. The explanatory panel says the shape is supposed to evoke the ship’s hull. But the only time I’ve ever seen a ship’s hull vertical is when it’s sinking. Not terribly comforting to her fans.

More important for me is what it says about the history of the schooner Wawona and her legacy. The answer: nada. There’s nothing in this piece that tells the stories of the people who built her, who carried lumber in her from the Northwest to California, who fished for food in her that would eventually go in Northwest larders, who tried and failed to preserve her intact, and a few who died in her. The absence of these tales is mystifying in a heritage museum, and I’m not the only befuddled one. A number of my friends in the heritage community feel a similar bewilderment, though one colleague admitted that the sculpture is growing on him, perhaps like a barnacle.

MOHAI has always had an impossible task: to tell the amazing story of Seattle with larger-than-life artifacts shoehorned into a tiny space. The great hall of MOHAI at South Lake Union is orders of magnitude better than the old Montlake attic. But the Wawona sculpture is an odd duck in its context.

By recycling an industrial-era masterpiece into a paean to a natural world mowed down by industry looks too much like a sop to Seattle’s eco-literati and cultural progressives who dominate the city’s social and political landscape, particularly in the facility’s new neighborhood. I’m going to hope for something more. I choose to see Wawona the sculpture as unfinished, a start to a story that’s yet to be properly told by the museum. There’s still time to do it.

Joe Follansbee is a Seattle writer who has independently published "Shipbuilders, Sea Captains and Fisherman: The Story of the Schooner Wawona," and a historical novel for young adults. He's currently working on two science fiction novels. He blogs at joefollansbee.com.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

I completely agree with Joe Follansbee's reaction to this sculpture in MOHAI. It doesn't represent anything insightful or instructive in its current form; actually introducing confusion to the interpretation of this important example from Seattle's history.

I stood on the dock as Wawona the ship was pulled from her berth for the last time, realizing with many others there that a massively important piece of Seattle's history had slipped away, never to be seen again.

So I'll adopt Mr. Follansbee's suggestion to "...choose to see Wawona the sculpture as unfinished, a start to a story that’s yet to be properly told by the museum." MOHAI is such an important part of our community and they work so hard to bring inspiration and strong connection to our history. This exhibit can become what it needs to be.

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 12:36 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree the sculpture doesn't tell the Wawona story, but I think it's a marvelous piece of sculpture and a fascinating object. I had two kids with me at the opening and they loved it--and gravitated immediately to it, going inside, making sounds--I could hardly get them out. It's sad that the Wawona is not restored and visible in a berth right outside the Museum as are other vessels, but it is at least partially re-incarnated as art and that's good, though as Joe suggests, not the last word.

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 7:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Knowing the story "behind the sculpture" obviously doesn't automatically provide insight into the sculpture itself. You called it "a paean to a natural world mowed down by industry." I call it a big ol' tree, with the intent being not to tell the story of the Wawona, but to celebrate the life of the wood, which began as old-growth. Other interpretations will vary, and such is the nature of art. Bravo to John Grade and MOHAI for resisting any urge to dumb it down.

rjudd

Posted Wed, Feb 12, 9:53 p.m. Inappropriate


A blasphemy to anyone who ever lived and worked on... a working waterfront.

Follansbee sums this up succinctly with "... a sop to Seattle’s eco-literati and cultural progressives who dominate the city’s social and political landscape"

A better solution would have been to remove a portion of the Wawona's hull. Like those who saved a section of the clipper ship Snow Squall then a wreck in the Falklands, and returned the clipper section for display in Maine.

Another solution would have been to take Wawona out into Lake Washington and scuttled it. A decent burial.

Too late for either.

And now this embarrassment. This "art."

Take it out in the parking lot. Burn it.

Best to bury the body.

Before putrification sets in.

---SWL

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »