Books and Art

Balazsing His Own Trail

The Bernini of Spokane gets some overdue exposure in three shows and a lavish new retrospective book.

By Eric Scigliano August 29, 2010


It may sound presumptuous (not to mention ridiculous) to call any artist the Bernini of Spokane, but it’s somehow apropos for the sculptor Harold Balaz. A quick review of the evidence—UW Press’s splendid new retrospective of his work (his first ever), Harold Balazs —shows that the artist has done at least as much for the Spokane cityscape as Bernini’s fountains and monuments did for Rome; the weekly Inlander even called him “Spokane’s Exterior Decorator.” On this side of the Cascade Curtain, we know Balazs’s public works, even if we don’t recognize his name: the monumental Seattle Project—a dancing dinosaur skeleton as imagined by a mushroom-amped Mayan carver—at First and Marion by the federal tower; the deep woods reimagined in a wall-wide jigsaw frieze of wood at UW’s Graves Building; and, in an entirely different naturalistic mode, the three huge but jewel-like enamel Rhododendron panels, pretty as Tiffany glass, hung first in the Kingdome and now at the King County administration building.

Balazs (pronounced "blaze") matches Bellini’s exuberance, but in style(s) and spirit he harks back to Picasso, an acknowledged inspiration—minus Picasso’s raw minotaur sexuality. Like Picasso, he’s a master draughtsman, explosively prolific, and unafraid to experiment and to fail (most often be falling into the Valley of Kitsch). As a craftsman he’s incomparably versatile—a jeweler and woodworker, a major innovator in the exacting art of enamel, a heroic metal bender executing his own monumental commissions. And, in every medium, he’s irrepressible. Commissioned to produce a 30-foot stainless steel Centennial Sculpture for the Spokane River, he made it float like an unmoored bridge. When anxious UW regents demanded a “shop drawing” of what he planned for the Graves wall, he fobbed them off with a detailed sketch of his workshop, down to the last shavings on the floor—an inspiration to client-harried artists and architects everywhere. There’s much delight to be found in these pages—and doubtless in the retrospective show of his work at Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (2316 W. First Avenue, 509-456-3931), continuing through October 9.

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