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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Coincidence gave flight to Expo butterflies

In fall 1973, Eric Grohe was a young graphic artist working in New York City when he returned home for a visit to Seattle.

“I ran into Brent Blake, literally on the street in downtown Seattle,” Grohe said. “He said, ‘Hey, I need a graphic designer.’ ”

Blake was a friend and graphic designer in Seattle whose firm had been awarded the contract for designing the signposts, waymarkers and other graphic elements for Expo ’74. Grohe, a 29-year-old Vietnam veteran who was then designing book covers in the Big Apple, didn’t hesitate.

“It’s an extremely rare privilege to get your hands on such a project,” he said.

That chance meeting formed the chrysalis from which the Expo ’74 butterflies flew to life. Grohe moved back to Seattle and designed the towering, fluttering sculptures that marked the “regions” of the World’s Fair that would have such an impact on Spokane. Grohe went on to become an internationally known graphic artist, specializing in the design of murals and large public works.

Almost a half-century later, two Expo butterflies seem poised to fly again after years of neglect, as a community effort to save them has drawn support from the officials overseeing the renovations in Riverfront Park.

“Everybody’s behind it,” said Leroy Eadie, director of parks and recreation for the city. “We all want to see them fly again.”

What’s shaping up among butterfly supporters and the city is a twofold plan. Eadie said the city likely will take on the expense of redesigning and replacing the sole standing butterfly that sits at the park’s north entrance, if it can do so at a reasonable cost. A fundraising campaign to cover the cost and effort of raising a second butterfly, which is now in pieces on a city lot, would be led by Jennifer Leinberger, the founder of the Save the Expo Butterflies – with the potential of some city support.

Leinberger has been working on saving the butterflies since she discovered they weren’t included as a priority in the planning for the multimillion levy to renovate Riverfront Park. While the plans must clear final approvals from the board overseeing park renovations, she thinks that it’s starting to take shape as a reality.

“I would love to say with 100 percent certainty that the butterfly is going to be in place by the end of summer,” she said, “but until it’s drilled in the basalt … ”

Test flight

Among other projects, Grohe was tasked with designing large pieces that would mark the different regions of the park. He said he took his inspiration from the main Expo ’74 logo itself – the hexagon that represented a Mobius strip.

Grohe said he recognized that a portion of that logo resembled a pair of wings spread for flight.

“It was one of those afternoons with just the right amount of coffee, just the right amount of boredom and just the right amount of incentive,” said Grohe. “It was one of those things you just knew was right.”

Designing the sculptures combined a series of unique challenges. They needed to be light and strong, responsive to the wind but safe enough not to blow over. The fabric wings needed to catch just enough wind to allow them to lift and flutter, but not tear them or pull down the structure.

So Grohe put the prototype into the back of a pickup truck and drove around Seattle, watching to see how the sailcloth wings on the test model worked. Eventually, the design was turned over to civil engineers who did the final work.

Grohe is now retired from a long and storied career as an artist of large-scale public works. His firm, Eric Grohe Murals, has done commissioned works for cities and corporations around the world. He said his goal is to produce “dignified, ennobling public art work.” Though he’s done all kinds of projects, the butterflies remain a unique part of his career.

“When you get projects like that, you almost start hearing, in the background, the ‘Indiana Jones’ theme music,” he said with a laugh. “There’s such potential to have a long-term impact on people.”

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