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Cataract has eye on love, if visitors look closely

Thu., Dec. 24, 2009

A view from the top of the escalator of the sculpture/waterfall in the STA plaza. Ken Spiering created the piece for the bus plaza in 1995. (File)
A view from the top of the escalator of the sculpture/waterfall in the STA plaza. Ken Spiering created the piece for the bus plaza in 1995. (File)

As pieces of public art go, this one really moves.

There is nothing static about Cataract, the 50-foot-long, 10-foot-wide water and bronze artwork that rises 20 feet between the escalators at the Spokane Transit Authority plaza in downtown Spokane. According to Karen Mobley, director of the Spokane Arts Commission, it is one of the most popular pieces of art within a public building in Spokane.

Created by regional artist Ken Spiering for the opening of the new bus plaza in 1995, Cataract brings a feeling of nature into the urban environment of the city, which is exactly what Spiering had in mind.

“Everything in downtown is so man-made, so I wanted to reintroduce something natural into the area, complete with the musical sounds of water cascading down several tiers,” he said.

But this landmark at the STA Plaza may not get to stay there.

It is quite an intricate work. Although the water descends down faux rock, created from glass- fiber-reinforced concrete sprayed into molds modeled from real rock cliffs, it is made all the more intriguing by the two bronze lions – identified as cougars by most people, though Spiering is a bit vague as to whether that was his intention – at the bottom and the top.

The lower lion, the male, is leaping over the water, on his way to the female waiting above. It is in these lions that Spiering incorporated his intentional double entendre in the title of the work. A cataract is both a cloudy lens on the eye that impairs vision and a large and strong waterfall. Looking carefully at the male cat, one eye shows some opaqueness.

“That is intentional,” said the artist, “as we often leap into love with one eye blind. The lion is symbolizing that blind leap as he springs over the water with an eye on the lion waiting above.”

Not many people have noticed that, Spiering said, though once a maintenance worker at the plaza expressed concern that perhaps something had eroded from the eye of the lower cat and that it might need repair. Another woman expressed to Mobley that the cats’ eyes look so shiny, they certainly couldn’t have cataracts.

It was quite a project to complete, the artist said: “The reality of public projects is that the paperwork to finalize the contract took one and a half years. Then I was told they wanted it done in four months. I finished it in six months, but it was really a one-year project.”

Recently, when the STA conducted a study to determine the future use of the Plaza – including whether to close off the second floor to the public and remove both the escalators and the sculpture, “I got a flurry of calls about Cataract,” Mobley said. “That sculpture has a strong connection for bus riders and residents of downtown Spokane.”

Susan Meyer, STA’s chief executive officer, said no decision has been made about the fate of the escalators and the waterfall sculpture. There will be further discussion, and hearings, in 2010, and nothing will be done without conferring with Spiering, she said. There is some interest, she added, in having the sculpture relocated.

Spiering has many works located throughout Spokane, the best known of which is surely the steel and concrete Childhood Express, also known as the big red wagon in Riverfront Park, installed in 1991. The artist, who resides in Valleyford just south of Spokane, is currently doing some oil painting.

“Ken Spiering is among just two or three people with a large body of public artwork in Spokane,” Mobley said. “And he works in so many mediums. We always look forward to what he will be doing next.”

But like Cataract, the red wagon, the carved wood pieces above the Chase Gallery in City Hall, the artwork on the new convention center in downtown Spokane and all the rest, they are likely to become landmarks for the public, as well.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@

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