Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Retired dentist documents symbolism in his church’s Balazs artworks

A retired north Spokane dentist doesn’t want to lose the historical significance of the prominent artwork in the church he has attended for more than a half century.

Otto Stevens, 84, is an avid photographer and devoted member of Messiah Lutheran Church at 4202 N. Belt St.

He is capturing images of the artwork and matching them to descriptions of their meanings.

Completed in 1961, the church was designed in the midcentury modern style and adorned with a series of cast concrete panels by renowned Spokane artist Harold Balazs.

The panels use historic Christian symbolism to tell the story of the life of Jesus.

Stevens said he is concerned that the meanings found in the panels are in danger of being lost to the congregation.

The original descriptions and notes from Balazs have apparently been lost, Stevens said.

“The project I am working on is renewing the members’ knowledge of what these symbols mean,” Stevens said.

“Many of the members don’t have the faintest idea of what those symbols stand for.”

“We kind of need to re-energize the congregation and get their attention,” Stevens said.

Four art panels are stacked from floor to ceiling and face the congregation from the far wall of the sanctuary, behind the altar.

The piece is known as a reredos and is widely used in Christian churches, especially cathedrals.

In the top panel, Balazs fashioned a winged bird, a lily, a star and four turtledoves.

The winged bird symbolizes the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. The lily and star represent the Messianic prophecy. The turtledoves represent the sacrifice offered at the temple in Jerusalem for purification of the baby Jesus.

Moving downward, each panel continues the story of Jesus through his crucifixion and resurrection.

The melding of midcentury modern architecture with Balazs’ abstract forms creates harmony between the art and design, Stevens said.

Balazs has done artwork for a dozen or more churches in the Spokane region, including St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and St. Charles Catholic Church, which also was completed in 1961.

The artist also worked on other church projects in the Northwest.

The midcentury design movement was rooted in the post-World War II shift toward simplicity, functionality and the use of new construction materials and techniques.

Balazs said he pioneered a process in which he formed the molds for the concrete panels from styrofoam. “The designs we created were one of a kind,” he said.

A Unitarian, Balazs said he studied Christian symbolism from available sources to develop his art for Messiah Lutheran and other churches.

Balazs was affiliated with an emerging group of modern architects who worked to remake the face of Spokane. Many of their buildings stand today, including the Parkade, Avista’s corporate headquarters, Spokane International Airport and Deaconess Hospital.

“We all knew each other. We skied together,” Balazs said.

Messiah Lutheran Church was designed by William Trogdon, one of the practitioners of the midcentury modern movement.

Trogdon was partners with Bruce Walker and John McGough.

Trogdon teamed up with architect Warren Heylman on the airport project.

In addition to the towering reredos, Balazs created other pieces that decorate the church, including a cast concrete messiah in the entryway and colorful enameled door handles.

The baptismal font, pulpit and lectern are also Balazs creations.

To get a glimpse of the artist’s personality, there is a hand-inscribed note on the wooden frame underneath the font.

It reads, “Manufactured by the Baptismal Font Division of the Mead Artworks - Harold Balazs, Proprietor since 1951. We do good work.”

The church also has two art glass walls that bathe parts of the church with mixed colored light.

Stevens was born in Fort Benton, Montana, and graduated from Montana State University and later the Northwestern University Dental School in 1954.

He served in the Navy for two years and then came to Spokane.

He practiced dentistry on the North Side from 1956 to 1995.

Stevens and his wife raised five children.

During his career, Stevens served in the dental association and as a member of the Pacific Lutheran University board of regents. He was on the architecture committee when the church was designed.

In retirement, Stevens has been active in the Spokane Camera Club, leading field trips for the group, and the Inland Empire Chapter of the Photographic Society of America. He served on the board of Riverview Retirement Community.

“I haven’t had a dull day,” he said about retirement.

The Rev. Laura Olsen said, “Otto is very passionate about this place.”

The church is going to recognize Balazs during a lunch after the 10 a.m. church service Jan. 31. Members of the public may attend.

Also, the church is inviting the public to stop by to see the artwork.