Story and photos by Christopher Boffoli
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
A small but passionate group of West Seattle citizens met at the High Point Library Tuesday night to discuss ongoing issues with the maintenance and upkeep of what has become an icon at the gateway of West Seattle, the Walking on Logs sculptures.
The meeting was organized by Nancy Driver (2nd from right), who helped to orchestrate a community cleanup at (and beyond) the sculptures’ site two years ago. Driver is seeking to establish a plan for ongoing maintenance and upkeep of the site and to relieve the burden on 89-year-old Earl Cruzen (2nd from left), who has been a steward of the site and its sculptures since before their creation.
According to Cruzen, the sculptures had their genesis in the West Seattle Murals project two decades ago. Original plans called for the site to feature a standing billboard on which one of twelve West Seattle murals would be painted. But a public movement against the propagation of billboards on Seattle’s rights of way forced the murals committee to reconsider. Eleven murals were eventually completed around West Seattle. But the group had to formulate a different plan for the roadside site, so they subsequently organized a design competition. A range of artists submitted entries, with Seattle sculptor Phillip Levine’s concept for Walking on Logs selected as the ultimate winner. After a long iterative process of approvals and negotiations between the mural committee, the artist, and various City agencies involved, the current sculpture was put in place about twelve years ago.
Through an arrangement with SDOT, which owns the right of way, the group was granted permission to install the sculpture, providing that the City did not have to maintain the site. Some funding was put in place which subsidized the maintenance and upkeep of the sculptures and the immediate site for about a decade. But in recent years the site around the sculptures, and the land which surrounds it, has suffered from a lack of upkeep, the encroachment of invasive blackberry bushes, and a deluge of trash from passing vehicles.
“When I first moved to West Seattle in 1983, that entire right of way was actually beautifully planted and landscaped,” said meeting attendee Sharonn Meeks of the Fairmount Community Association. “There were cherry trees and I think it even had an irrigation system,” she added. At some point, the city’s priorities changed. Though some of the old plantings are still in place along the large of the right of way, most of those plants are overwhelmed by blackberries, litter and neglect. Driver says that the city has recently secured a commitment from the Department of Corrections to make twice-yearly visits to the area to clear the blackberries by hand.
She was careful to make the distinction that the group was focused on the site immediately surrounding the sculptures and not the entire right of way which is a much bigger piece of land. The sculpture site itself has its own separate issues, say Driver and Cruzen. Even during the height of summer, natural springs in the hillside at the top of the site keep the ground saturated. French drains were installed at some point in the past, but apparently have not been maintained properly and have failed to provide a permanent drainage solution.
In recent years, Cruzen engaged in a dialogue with the City to see if the sculptures could be relocated to a plot of land along Alki which is maintained by the Parks Department. But apparently a suitable site could not be agreed upon. “The City had concerns that the sculptures would be vandalized if they were moved to Alki,” said Cruzen. So at this point discussion of plans to move he sculptures has been tabled and supporters of the site are now focused on what needs to be done to protect and maintain the artwork, in a more permanent capacity, where it currently stands.
Though the sculptures are popular with many in the community, a larger issue has always been that there had been no official committee tasked with the job of regularly maintaining the sculptures. Community groups seeking to dress up the sculptures as a tool for promotion have turned to the Chamber of Commerce, which has become the de facto traffic cop for managing site access. But even then there has been some conflict with various groups competing for time on the statues. At some points the statues have been abused, occasionally even painted.
And volunteer efforts to provide maintenance, while generous, sometimes have pitfalls of their own. Driver was very successful with organizing the community cleanup in 2008. But she said it took an overwhelming amount of organization. Volunteers also cannot be wholly relied upon to maintain the site either, as advocates fear that they may be undiscerning in removing native plantings along with the weeds.
With all of the history and challenges on the table, the assembled group began to focus on needs and a plan for moving ahead. They agreed that a committee should indeed be formed to organize in support of the needs of maintaining the sculptures and improving the state of the site with low-maintenance, native species.
Charles Warsinske, a landscape architect and principal at SB Associates, offered his time and expertise to do an assessment of the present state of the site, including a closer look at some of the issues surrounding the site’s unique hydrology. He also suggested that the natural water sources at the site could perhaps be used to implement plantings that spoke to a “shoreline” theme referenced by the sculptures themselves.
Clay Swidler of the West Seattle Garden Tour offered to work with his organization to find potential areas of cooperation between the two groups, including the possibility of funding.
Likewise, Serena Wastman from the West Seattle Junction Association board proposed seeking estimates to look at both site redesign and improvement. The group brainstormed the possibilities for involvement with the Chamber and potential business organizations that might be approached for cash and in-kind gifts, as well as the potential for neighborhood matching grants. Earl Cruzen offered the nascent group $1,000 for seed money.
The committee will reconvene in April for another meeting. If you’re interested in helping but couldn’t be at last night’s meeting, you can contact Nancy Driver at email@example.com.