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Museum spotlight shines on Harold Balazs

Thu., July 15, 2010

Harold Balazs, 81, stands behind his rusted steel “New Moon” sculpture, part of a major Balazs exhibit opening at the MAC.  (Colin Mulvany)
Harold Balazs, 81, stands behind his rusted steel “New Moon” sculpture, part of a major Balazs exhibit opening at the MAC. (Colin Mulvany)

Artist’s sculptures, enamels, drawings and crafts have dazzled for decades

Harold Balazs, at age 81, is about to open the biggest, most comprehensive and most spectacular solo art show of his life.

The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) is filling its largest exhibit space with more than 125 enamels, welded sculptures, wood sculptures, drawings, paintings and crafts pieces.

Oh, and the show will also include a replica of Balazs’ workbench, exactly like the one in his Mead studio – cluttered with sketches, tools, half-finished sculptures, small masterpieces and, well, junk.

“People are fascinated by the detritus,” said Balazs. “In some places, they call it ‘archival material.’ ”

Balazs admits to being “dumbfounded” by all of this attention. He calls it “numbing and humbling,” almost like something from the alien world of Big Time Art.

“That million-dollar art world is a very strange animal,” he said. “I chose to not even enter. I would have made a lousy celebrity.”

But whether he wanted to or not, Balazs has become the closest thing the Inland Northwest has to an art celebrity. No other artist approaches his status in the region.

“He’s certainly our best-known artist,” said Ben Mitchell, the senior curator of art at the MAC. “And certainly our most beloved artist.”

In fact, said Mitchell, Balazs is “for his generation, certainly one of the most important artists in the entire Pacific Northwest.”

His work, particularly his public art pieces, is on display in Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Anchorage, Eugene, Bellevue, Missoula and many other cities, including Valley Forge, Pa.

Yet Mitchell said the last thing he wanted to do was make this exhibit into a stodgy “fine art show.”

“I think of this show like an extremely elegant scrapbook – because scrapbooks are just a little bit messy,” said Mitchell. “And what better way to represent the life and spirit of Harold Balazs?”

So the exhibit includes his workbench.

“My shop is such a mess,” admitted Balazs. “We live in this place that is total chaos.”

Balazs, at one point, suggested titling the exhibit “Warts and All.”

The show also includes a full-size wooden skiff. In between making more than 10,000 works of art (by his own estimation), Balazs has managed to build seven boats by hand in that chaotic studio by Peone Creek.

Mostly, the exhibit gathers together some of the best and most significant pieces in all of his major genres, which Balazs lists as “enamels, watercolors, wood sculpture, metal sculpture and a lot of crafts things.”

It ranges from 1949 student drawings to little welded items that Balazs cooked up a week before the opening.

Sometimes, he Mitchell had a hard time pinning down dates or even titles for some of the works.

“It never occurred to me that I would ever become ‘important’ or whatever the hell that means,” said Balazs. “So I never kept track of where things were, or where it went, or what its name was.”

Balazs grew up in Ohio and came to the Northwest as an art student at Washington State College (now University) in 1948. He has been in the region ever since.

He had plenty of early success as a jewelry maker, enamelist and sculptor. Mitchell said Balazs is considered an “utter pioneer” in the world of enamels.

Then Balazs began winning commissions to do public art all over the region. For instance, in 1976, he made three enormous enamel panels of rhododendrons, displayed on a massive concrete pillar at Seattle’s Kingdome. (They were moved to the King County Administration Building before the Kingdome was imploded.)

“By the early ’80s, he was one of the two or three best-known public artists of the region,” said Mitchell.

You’ll have to take a walk through either downtown Spokane or downtown Seattle to see a lot of those monumental pieces.

The MAC exhibit includes two outdoor sculptures – specially installed on the grounds for this show – along with, indoors, a dizzying array of what you might call Balazs’ greatest hits.

Mitchell said he considers two objects to be “lost masterworks.” One is a 25-foot-tall sculpture titled “Totem” that once graced the long-defunct Crescent department store at University City.

The other is a three-part enamel panel of mountain wildflowers titled “Idaho Triptych” which was originally made for a bank which was swallowed up by another bank – which apparently decided it didn’t fit their decorating scheme.

Balazs picked a few of his all-time favorites for the exhibit.

“One piece that I just desperately wanted in is an enamel called ‘Knight and Day,’ ” he said of one work with a medieval-like theme. “It was one my very first enamels. I got it into a very important show.

“I tried something new, and it was successful, and some very important critic back East liked it. And I thought, ‘Maybe that’s a good one.’ ”

He also loves a series of three enamels simply titled “Triptych,” depicting (in an abstract Balazs way) the stone cairns used by the Inuits across the Arctic.

Balazs is incredibly prolific. Each day he strolls to his studio and makes something.

“I’ve never met an artist with so much studio discipline,” said Mitchell.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of homes and businesses in the Inland Northwest have a beloved piece by Balazs on the wall. Undoubtedly, people will be calling the MAC after the opening to say, “Why didn’t you call me? I have the best Balazs piece ever.”

Balazs admits it was difficult even for him to pick favorites.

“The next day, I’ll see one and go, ‘Oh, that’s a good one. I like that one, too,’ ” he says.

The exhibit features a few surprises, including a rocking horse he made for his grandchildren. It also includes a large, cluttered activity table where kids and adults can make something in the Balazs spirit.

The exhibit opening coincides with another landmark in the Balazs career, the publication of a handsome, full-color hardback volume titled “Harold Balazs” (University of Washington Press/Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture).

It includes a foreword by local architect Tom Kundig and dozens of images of Balazs’ finest works, many of which are in this exhibit.

Over six decades, Balazs has earned all of this attention. And he’s not finished yet. He’s working on several new commissions.

However, he has been slowed somewhat by some physical problems. His grandson now does most of the heavy work of welding.

Yet Balazs feels only gratitude for being able to do what he loves for so long.

“I want to thank the city of Spokane,” he said. “I’m so … lucky. There are so damn few who can support themselves entirely with art.”

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