Fire stations in and around Spokane – and, frankly, in other cities, as well – not only serve their communities with fire suppression services and responses to medical emergencies, but they are community centers of a sort, with various groups using their meeting rooms to gather. And a number of them are also home to large works of public art.
Back in 1981 the city of Spokane passed the Percent for Art Ordinance mandating that 1 percent of certain capital construction costs be set aside for artwork to enhance the building or open space being funded. Fire stations and other public projects then began having public artworks associated with their construction (check out examples at www.spokanearts.org).
“One of the most popular artworks at a fire station is ‘Velocity,’ done in 1992 at Fire Station No. 3,” said Karen Mobley, director of the Spokane Arts Commission, which coordinates the public art program. “The imagery is clever and striking.” Total cost was about $20,000.
Velocity is the brainchild of Tom Askman, a professor of studio art at Eastern Washington University, who has done public art projects all across the nation, from Alaska to Florida – including the striking sculptures lining the Ballard Bridge in Seattle, a project he completed with artist Lea Anne Lake in 2003.
Among the things that excited Askman about the fire station project was that he was going to have the opportunity to work on the building as it was being constructed at 1713 W. Indiana Ave., rather than applying his artwork after it was built. And so, he took some of the brick that would be used on the exterior of the building and bulged, cracked and broke it before sending it off to be fired.
Looking closely at the sculpture on the front of the fire station, it appears as if the bronze hoses with crossing-over streams of water actually break out of the brick – those bricks being the special ones Askman crafted for that effect.
“I looked at the function of the building as an ingredient in what I proposed to do there,” he said, “and I also wanted to be as original as possible. I thought the hoses coming through the brick were quite symbolic.”
First the brass hose sculpture – about 30 feet from side to side and 16 feet tall – was erected and the brick applied afterward. “It was something of a challenge to get the brick to fit around the bronze hoses,” Askman said.
The artist noted that the originality of this piece has led to many other public art projects for him, the first one after Fire Station No. 3 being at a trade school in Connecticut in which he portrayed sculptures of students jumping through the wall. He has completed art pieces at five fire stations in the nation, the most recent a 45-foot tall structure installed this year in Albuquerque.
“It’s important to have art appropriate to a specific site, and I’m pleased that this one has been so well received,” he said. “It’s certainly one of my favorites.”
Mobley said it is very much in the spirit of public art to put it where the people are – in neighborhood libraries, pools, fire stations.
“We are always pleased to bring art to the people of our community,” she said.