John Grade, the Man Who’ll Make MOHAI Soar

The Seattle sculptor famous for work that’s made to fall apart is building a towering wooden sculpture that will last a lifetime.

By Matthew Halverson September 19, 2012 Published in the October 2012 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Young Lee

John Grade doesn’t build sculptures to last. They’re made to be consumed by nature or weathered by the elements and transformed irrevocably. For Grade (pronounced GRAH-day) the process of creation—and destruction—is as important as the creation itself. His latest work, a 64-foot wooden spire that he and a team of 15 artists and engineers have built from the salvaged planks of a century-old schooner, may be as close to permanence as he’s willing to get: Commissioned for the new Museum of History and Industry that will open in November in South Lake Union, the piece was designed to last 100 years. But go ahead and touch it. Get it dirty. It’d be a shame if it never changed at all. 

I know I’ve done well if something isn’t really done.

There are going to be people who go into this piece at MOHAI, who actually served on that ship 40 or 50 years ago. Think of what that might mean to them, to see this ship that they tried to restore in this new shape. It’s going to mean more to them, on certain levels, than it ever could to me.

You might not realize you’re letting go when you create something and put it out into the world, but you are because everybody who looks at a piece of art projects their story onto it. Now, there are ideas I have in my head of what I want a piece to convey, but that’s like an actor adding a backstory to their character—they need to believe in the role they’re portraying. But I’m so grateful that there are enough people who care to look at it that I don’t need to make sure that they see what I’m hoping they see. 

I have had extreme situations where somebody responds to what I’ve made and it has to do with something like the Holocaust, and you’re like, “Oh…no. I mean, great. Okay. This must be meaningful to you. But no.” 

Usually there’ll be 10 or 15 projects dancing around in my head, and they’re all developed in fragments. Other times there’s a little moment in my mind where I picture something. With one piece, I started thinking about a dress form underwater and having the dress break up into particles. How do I make that happen? What material would that be? I still haven’t gotten to see that, but then on the other side of that, I still have that perfect image in my head.

I made a piece that was designed to be picked apart by birds, and it took about a month for that to play out. Now I’ve got a piece that we buried and is designed to be eaten by termites, and it will be about 10 years before we exhume that to see what they’ve done. And I really love the idea that something will change outside of my lifespan, too—as long we embrace the fact that it is changing and it’s not me trying to make some kind of altar to permanence somewhere, like so many sculptures tend to be.

My choice to build things that incorporate environmental changes, in all honesty, is an elaborate excuse to spend time in those environments. I like climbing as much as I do sculpture. 

A couple years ago I was in the north of France, and I’d chosen a spot in the forest to build a sculpture I was inspired to make. But these wild boar would come through periodically and break it up. Maybe it was on a travel route of theirs. But they would root up my little wood sections, smash them, and then move on. Then I’d repair what they did—there’d be all of these little seams—and then they’d smash it again. And in the end it was really quite beautiful because you see this little visual dialog between us. What are their desires? Why are they doing this? That’s a frustrating thing, but the frustration becomes interesting.

This idea that people shouldn’t touch sculpture is preposterous. I would hate to make something that nobody was allowed to touch.

When I was about 24 or 25, I had a professor visiting from New York. I was in my studio that I’d set up, and I was making my work, but I wasn’t having any success getting my first show or any of those outward things. I said to him, “Is it too late? I’m 25. Is it over for me?” And he just started laughing. It’s so hard to see past the stage that you’re at, you know? 

More than a sense of it’s okay that my art won’t last, I’m driven by the idea that it’s interesting that it won’t last. Because we have to let go of this notion that we’re supposed to fix things. There’s a place for that with certain things, but it’s way more interesting to watch that process of change, whether it’s decay or growth or whatever. And the other thing, too, is that letting go of some control opens up so much more. You develop a certain skill, a level of metier and craft with your work, but it can get really dead. A lot of fine furniture, to me, feels so dead. It’s so perfected. And life is not like that. You want some mess.

I just want to get my hands on something and make things.

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