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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Opening act’ art installment shines at Spokane’s First Interstate Center for the Arts

Bill and Karma Simmons know how to dazzle a crowd.

Not the ones seated in the auditorium of the newly renovated First Interstate Center for the Arts, formerly known as the INB Performing Arts Center and, in the beginning, as the Spokane Opera House – they leave that to the dancers, actors and musicians. They’re more interested in wowing the crowd gathered in the lobby before shows.

“I’ve been waiting for a piece of art like this since it was the Opera House,” said Michael Gaffaney, the director of event operations, as he stared up at the lobby ceiling the morning before Thanksgiving. “I think it’s great to look at.”

His gaze was focused on a bundle of sculptures collectively known as “Opening Act” – three large aluminum hands, each forged together with small pieces of aluminum meticulously cut, bent and welded into shape. Each disembodied hand acts as a puppeteer, a 10-foot-tall metal marionette dancer made of bent aluminum rod suspended underneath.

While the center has hosted only a limited run of shows since it underwent a six-month-long expansive update that ended in late September, the staff love the new display. Especially the lights trained on the dancers, which reflect and refract beams of intense color. And they think the public will, too.

“Especially with the lighting, the way it’s lit at night. It’s amazing,” said Stephanie Curran, the Spokane Public Facilities District chief executive officer. “It really changes that whole lobby.”

The $150,000 sculpture display is the largest and perhaps first piece of commissioned art to grace the performance center lobby. There is a small marble sculpture that showed up around the time the facility was built for Expo ’74, but nobody interviewed for this article seemed to know much about it.

“It’s very small and it’s actually under the stairway,” Curran said. “I have no idea how it got there.”

The new display is also the largest single piece the Simmonses have ever created. And large public art is kind of their thing. In addition to a moose statue and fence they created for the Spokane Convention Center near the Centennial Trail on the northeast side of the complex, the two have also created giant crabs, giant snails, giant owls, regular-sized bikes, staircases and even the furniture and cabinets adorning their loft apartment.

Metal is the common theme linking all their projects.

“When it comes to sculpture, we’re entirely metal,” Bill Simmons said as he sat last week, drawing in his workshop. “We work in just about everything metal. But we’re metal sculptors.”

A trip to their barn/studio/home is all that’s needed to see his point. While it looks like nothing more than an ordinary outbuilding on the exterior, on the inside sits evidence of years of planning and execution.

Beyond the large bay doors is a massive shop, complete with metal tools, clamps, a personal gym and a guest bathroom. Scraps of aluminum litter the large waste bins, and a fine layer of metallic and wooden dust coats just about everything.

It’s here that the Center for the Arts installation was created. With the help of a few artistic friends, the couple toiled away from about February to September, when it was finally hung in the lobby. For hours a day, they would scrupulously bend and form the aluminum until a hand, then fingers, took shape.

“It was all day, every day,” Bill Simmons said. “It was a great challenge. It was a lot of fun. But it was a challenge.”

“I think it exceeded expectations,” he added. “It was a great site, a great opportunity to do a piece that we could really sink our teeth into.”

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