Why is the sculpture 'Wawona' so mystifying?

The story of the historic ship is lost in the art's display -- at a history museum.
Crosscut archive image.

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

The story of the historic ship is lost in the art's display -- at a history museum.

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.


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