The crisp, clear autumn days of the Pacific Northwest draw you outdoors to garden, hike or just take a walk, as I did one recent Sunday. I borrowed my neighbor’s dog, Tuppie, and together we strolled down the hill and onto the campus of Western Washington University (WWU). WWU is a beautiful setting this time of year for a leisurely walk. It’s a long campus that stretches across 220 acres and backs up against the 620-foot hill of Sehome Arboretum this time of year, the deciduous trees of the arboretum turn a golden yellow and are stunning against the deep color of the towering evergreens.
The campus is full of color too as the trees there, set against the red brick and brown stone buildings, are vibrant reds, oranges and yellows and shed their leaves to carpet the walkways through the commons.
I’m fortunate to live close to campus so that on weekends, when the campus is quiet and crowd free, I can take a relaxing walk through it. The university is home to one of the finest college contemporary outdoor sculpture collections in the United States. Founded in 1960, the collection has grown to include at least 37 public sculptures in large part due to funding from the state’s one percent for art program the National Endowment for the Arts and through the generosity of the Virginia Wright Fund.
Scattered throughout the campus are monumental works by such renown sculptors as Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero, Isamu Noguchi, Beverly Pepper, Nancy Holt and Tom Otterness. It’s amazing to be able to amble through at one’s leisure, stopping along the way to study and view these public art pieces. Autumn is an especially wonderful time to admire and photograph them because the rich colors of the season seemed to bring out the weathered patinas of the works.
On this particular autumn day, I decided to photograph some of them even though I had only the camera on phone with which to do it. (Poor planning on my part.) Seeing them against the autumn palette of the campus trees and vegetation painted vivid images. Tuppie, my black and white canine companion on this day, was patient as I squatted, knelt down, backed up and moved in and out searching for the best angle that would convey what I was seeing. Fortunately, she was happy enough to sniff out the surrounding territory as I was angling about.
I have personal favorites in the collection: Tom Otterness’ goonie-like figures of his “Feats of Strength,” Nancy Holt’s beautiful Celtic-like brown stone “Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings,” Richard Serra’s massive iron wedges of his “Wright’s Triangle,” and Alice Aycock‘s archeological influenced “The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling.” But the one I go back to time and again is unquestionably Noguchi’s “Skyviewing Sculpture” that’s prominently positioned in the northeastern corner of what is known as “Red Square” on campus.
Red Square is an expansive red brick plaza surrounded on three sides by classroom buildings on three sides and the university’s library on one. Near the center is a big circular pool with a fountain that sprays jets of water high overhead. Noguchi’s big iron block sculpture sits diagonally from the fountain. It’s balanced on three corners with huge holes punched through its three upward-facing sides so that when standing beneath it your gaze is directed skyward. There’s something very hopeful to me about this sculpture because it raises you up, just by unconsciously forcing you to look upward. I love standing inside, watching the clouds above shift and change. And when you’re within the sculpture, it’s as if you’re observing everything outside of it unseen as people pass by.
The newest addition to the collection is a split boulder, polished on its two faces and dotted with subtle pastel dots that remind me of the colors I saw at Arizona’s Grand Canyon. “Split Stone, Northwest,” by Sarah Sze was installed in May, 2019. It sits on the grassy lawn with the university’s Old Main Administration building rising in the background. At one time, another sculpture, Donald Judd‘s “Untitled” stood near here but was removed five years ago to be restored after the welded seams that held together the structure’s steel slabs began to deteriorate. The sculpture has just recently been resited on campus, on the grassy area next to the university’s Flag Plaza at the south end of the campus. I have yet to see it in its new spot as this autumn walk took place before the piece was replaced.
One hour after I had set out with Tuppie for a 30-minute dog walk, I was back home, refreshed by having taken the time to not only stop at some of the sculptures but to capture them in the morning autumn light and color. Even though I have taken that same path many times over, today’s was like a new adventure. It’s the impact that public art, like this university’s incredible collection, can have on a person.