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A8  Tuesday, October 17, 1978
The Seattle Times


Earthworks are good economics
by DELORIS TARZAN
Times art critic

The hottest idea to come along in public art in years has been announced by King County Arts Commision.

An abandoned gravel pit will become a part and a work of art.
It will serve as a pilot for more such projects in future.

The K.C.A.C. will sponsor an International Earthwork Sculpture Symposium August 1-21, 1979, on the theme "Land and the Elements," focusing on earthwork sculpture as a land reclamation tool.

In other words, rather than public money being used to dot existing parks with sculpture, that money will create parks which in themselves are works of art. That makes art more than decoration, more than object. It becomes an experience.

What is an earthwork?

The late Robert Smithson, who created some of the world's most outstanding earthworks, put it succinctly:

"Instead of putting a work of art on some land, some land is put into a work of art."

Smithson delighted in making designs for slag heaps, strip mines and polluted rivers, not because they were ugly, but because he could transform them in esthetic arrangements.

An earthwork is not something to be looked at and left. It is something to have fun with, like climbing around the waterfall in Freeway Park. It is a spatial as well as a visual experience.


THE SYMPOSIUM will encompass two projects: a major earthwork commission near Kent by one or two American artists of international reputation, and a second project in which artists of regional and national reputation will prepare designs for other abused parcels of public land.

Craig Langager, former Chairman of Fine Arts at Cornish Institute, is symposium coordinator for the K.C.A.C.

The symposium will include discussions of esthetic and public policy issues involved in land reclamation, and will feature earthwork artists at construction sites and in public discussions.

King County, in its 2,206 square miles, owns 104 gravel pits, some active, some not. King County Code 21.42.120 calls for reclamation by "topography in substantial conformity to the land area immediately surrounding" a played-out quarry. Ironically, the regulation doesn't apply to publicly-owned land.

The site to be used for Project I is a 3.7-acre gravel pit in which has been surplus for 10 years. It was offered for sale, but no one wanted it.

The cost of recontouring the site was estimated at $190,000, which would cover only filling, no landscaping, no greenery. Earthworks there are budgeted at 149,000, only part of which will come from county coffers.

The site, Pit 30 — Johnson, is located at South 216th Street, at 40th Place South, just outside the Kent city limits. It is about 10 miles south of Seattle and a half mile east of Interstate 5 — readily accessible to the public. It is a triangle about a third of a mile long on an east-west axis, which rises 60 feet from end to end.

THE KING COUNTY Department of Public Works, which owns the site, is said to be "willing to explore the idea" of maintaining the part as a showcase of their commitment to the land they have used. Alternately, it has been suggested that the city of Kent might maintain it as a part.

Probably the willingness of either or both to provide maintainence [[maintenance]] will depend on the popularity of the piece created.

Charles Cowles, curator of contemporary art for the Seattle Art Museum, will be a juror for the project, along with Betsy Baker, editor of Art in America, and Ian Baxter, Vancouver, B.C. sculptor, who is knowledgeable about earthworks.

Although the three are called a jury, Langager emphasizes the Kent Valley project is not a competition. Leading earthwork artists are being send information on the site and the budget, and asked to submit letters of interest. No proposal is required.

A competition would be eligible for money from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The county is donating the land, valued at $30,000, plus $50,000 in one-per-cent money. The N.E.A. is being asked for $50,000.

That leaves Langager still with $100,000 to raise. The Department of the Interior is being asked for $30,000, to match the land value. Asking that department for money for art is a first, justified by the environmental aspect of the piece. Langager also is approaching industries, particularly those with environmental concerns such as Weyerhaeuser. He also will ask the Washington Department of Natural Resources, and the Washington State Arts Commission for money. 

The artist or artists for Project I will be selected December 15. Work is slated to begin July 10 and be done by September 20.


FOR PROJECT II, artists of regional and national reputation will be invited to submit drawings, designs, and maquettes proposing pieces for additional sits in the county. Selections will be made February 1, 1979. Four to six artists' desgins will be purchased and used in the symposium.

Artists should submit a letter of interest, a resume and five slides of recent work to Eartworks, King County Arts Commission, 300 King County Administration Building. Previous experience in exterior environmental work is essential.

It long has been an article of concern that the Kent Valley, which contains some of the state's most fertile farmland, is being paved with concrete for industrial use. 

An earthwork park could provide relief in the landscape, and mark the Northwest as an arts innovator. Nothing is more probable than that this idea, if it is half as successful financially and esthetically as it deserves to be, will be copied in other parts of the country.

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