There’s a trick to finding the artist.
It involves a trek down a private drive at the back of a nondescript neighborhood north of Spokane. A patch of pavement gives way to dirt and winds to a tree-shrouded valley. Just as worry sets in that this is the wrong way, a peculiar wooden sculpture pops into view. Then two more towering abstract monuments pose by a bridge into this magical place where art sprouts from the lawn.
Harold Balazs is on the porch of his rustic house, a retreat lovingly furnished with art and photographs of family and friends. He invites me in, where his wife Rosemary is clearing away breakfast.
These days Balazs (pronounced Blaze) fills his mornings with paint. The 86-year-old perches at a massive wood table, which he built years ago, and holds court over acrylics, brushes, and papers. A degenerative disorder has compromised his balance, played havoc with his movements, and affected his ability to find the right words and fully express himself. He is frustrated he cannot always do the welding and sculpting he loves, but it is not keeping him from creating more art.
Today, though, he pushes his paints aside, and with his words and gestures renders his story.
He stepped onto the Northwest art scene in the 1950s with his painting, welding, enameling, and concrete artwork. Known for his collaboration with architects, particularly on liturgical commissions, he easily shifts shapes and styles to suit his projects. But with 65 highly productive years as a professional artist, there is still much more to tell.
And, as with Balazs himself, there is a trick to finding his creations. Though he is one of the most prolific public artists in the Northwest, we have lived with his works for so long, we may not even recognize them.
His touch is in the molded brickwork of a bank tower on Spokane’s Second Street. It is in the doors and altars of churches all around the Northwest. And his art is in, yes IN, the Spokane River, a rippling stainless steel sculpture floating on the water. Once you start looking, you find Balazs everywhere.
In Pullman, a dense tangle of concrete puzzle pieces borders the courtyard of the Museum of Art at Washington State University. A short walk away, an up-pointing arrow perches in the entryway of the Terrell Library. A few minutes east, a colorful abstract mural enlivens the alumni center. And you can find more, if you look. Even the curators at the art museum missed the massive, undulating bas relief panels between the first and second floors of Streit-Perham Hall and had not realized or remembered that the three-sided wood and concrete tower in front of the Presbyterian church on Stadium Way was classic Balazs.
Pick any sizeable city in the Northwest. It likely holds the artist’s paintings, abstract metal monuments, gravity-defying concrete works, rippling walls of wood, and shiny enamel murals glowing with forms and flowers and birds.
“I remember him storming out of Spokane in the fifties or sixties, a volcano of energy spewing fresh Balazian sculpture in every direction,” noted Fred Bassetti, one of Seattle’s most influential architects.
“He is unique,” Bassetti says in a small museum book. “He reaches into the heart of the matter. Whether his medium is bronze or porcelain enamel, wood, stone, or concrete, it evokes clearly his personal view of the precarious, ironic, tumultuous, absurd, incredible journey we are all making together.”
A CREATIVE FORCE
Balazs first bent a piece of metal to his whim in Westlake, Ohio, a village about 12 miles outside of Cleveland. His father Harold was a sheet-metal worker and air-conditioning repairman. In a shop at the back of the farmhouse, he taught his son the skills of bricolage and metalwork that would serve as scaffolding for a career in the arts.
A consummate craftsman, Harold senior honed in his son a meticulous attention to detail as well as the habit of making do with the materials on hand.
When Balazs was 11 or 12, his mother enrolled him in Saturday morning art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art. There his explorations drew him to pair of two-foot-square enamel panels by Ohio artist H. Edward Winter. “I was enamored with them,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m going to do that one day.’ And I did.”
After high school, Balazs strayed into mathematics and engineering at a junior college in Chicago, thinking, because he liked drawing airplanes as a child, he might go into aeronautics. But “I wasted a year,” he says, though the time in Chicago gave him a taste of life drawing and anatomy classes. When his family moved to Spokane in the late 1940s, he happily moved, too, and enrolled as an arts major at Washington State College.
“Harold led the pack,” said classmate Rudy Autio in an interview for a 1988 museum book on Balazs. He threw himself into his art classes, but he was also into drama, fencing, skiing, wooden shoes, and, “all kinds of weird things that no one could keep track of.”
“It was incredible to watch Harold work,” said Autio, a world-famous Montana-based sculptor who died in 2007. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, build, or invent.”
“I was always in trouble down there,” says Balazs, a smile curling under his trademark mustache. He once discovered a room in the art building that no one was using. He used the space to clean ducks he had shot in a creek, and he and his friends would sneak up there and work at night, he says, “Until we got caught by the janitor.”
In the early fifties, fine art undergraduates were prohibited from entering in juried shows. But prohibitions didn’t suit Balazs, who sent some works to a show in San Francisco. “These were pieces I did totally on my own,” he says, explaining that his teachers had not had any influence on what he produced. “I got in, and the whole rest of the faculty was rejected.”
Kicked out of the ROTC because of his independent spirit, Balazs was also nearly expelled from the fine arts program. He owes his survival to teacher George Laisner. A Czechoslovakian immigrant who painted, sculpted, etched, made jewelry, and worked with glass, Laisner taught Balazs about Bauhaus design and encouraged him to follow his multimedia impulses. In return, Balazs taught Laisner to do precise metalwork. “He loved Harold and saw his potential,” says Anna-Maria Shannon, associate director of WSU’s Museum of Art. Laisner convinced his colleagues to keep Balazs. “He told them, he will do us credit.”
Somehow among his myriad activities and classes, the art student from Ohio found time for love. He met a sparkling 17-year-old Rosemary Schneider at a Spokane swimming pool one summer day in 1947. She was nice looking, he says, smiling across the room at her. She rolls her eyes before heading out to the garden to leave us to our interview.
He is a “friendly, innovative, craggily handsome, sometimes self-deprecating man,” wrote biographer Judy Laddon. “Stunningly handsome,” says Karen Mobley, a friend of the Balazs’s and former director of the Spokane Arts Commission, “and charismatic. How could Rose not fall for him?”
Harold and Rosemary married in September of 1950 and moved into a $12-a-month shack in Pullman. It had a little wood stove and old-fashioned ice box, which Balazs would chill with icicles he plucked from the eaves of fraternity houses. “Here I am this young jerk with a beautiful wife and then next thing you know, we’re waiting for a child.” Kurt arrived just a week after graduation.
The young family moved in with Rosemary’s parents in Spokane and set up a workshop in the basement. Rosemary would help with the metal and enamel jewelry, cut stencils, stock supplies, and make deliveries. They sold pieces through shops in Spokane, Seattle, and Portland. The smaller items, which today command as much as $400 on Etsy and eBay, then wholesaled for just $8 or $9.
The late Joel E. Ferris II, owner of the Spokane home furnishings store JOEL was thrilled to stock Balazs’s handiwork. “He showed up in wooden clogs,” noted Ferris in the book Harold Balazs: Art is an Art Form. Balazs brought in fixtures, tables, stools, jewelry, and pictures. “He is and was the true artist-craftsman, lifting the taste of the community.”
At the same time, Balazs was entering juried competitions and developing a following. A Spokane newspaper covered his one-man exhibit in 1954. “Balazs’ work is characterized generally by a gay sense of color and lively humor,” wrote Gladys E. Guilbert for The Spokesman-Review. The article notes that his paintings had been accepted for exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum and the Henry Gallery Invitational, and had won a major Henry award. The one-man show in Spokane included paintings, mobiles, enamel plaques, lithographs, earrings, cigarette boxes, and pictures done in lacquer and metal.
Balazs never understood how some people could pursue only one form or style in art. “There were just too many things I wanted to try,” he says. He liked to have 10 or 12 projects going at once, “that way I would never get bored.”
Twins Erika and Andrea were born in 1959 and the Balazs family moved to their own little Eden, a home with seven acres on Peone Creek in the suburb of Mead. It provided room to play and the privacy and the proximity to nature they craved. “I always worried I’d bother people with my noise,” says Balazs. “And this place is just crawling with wildlife.”
In spite of his critical acclaim, Balazs was repulsed by the business of “Art.” He found the gallery scene of cultivating collectors and schmoozing with dealers distasteful. “I found the more money, the more scoundrels show up,” he says.
So he focused on creating pieces more people could afford, working directly with clients, and producing major works for mere dollars. In 1965 the Spokane Airport Board, for example, paid him just $800 for a sculpture he suspended from the ceiling.
Across a wide lawn and opposite their house, the Balazs family built a barn to serve as a studio. They named it Mead Art Works and welcomed the helping hands of many “Mead Workshop Elves.” Rosemary was the most essential collaborator, “without her none of this would happen,” says Balazs. But his father would also do metal work, his friends would assist on the larger pieces, and younger artists who lovingly called him “Uncle Harold” would trade their labor for his mentoring. The children would take part, too. Lately Balazs’s grandson Keegan has picked up the welding torch when the artist’s physical state cannot keep pace with his imagination.
Seattle architect Tom Kundig, who visited Balazs’s workshop as a child in the 1960s, started helping as a teen. “Harold had unstoppable energy,” says Kundig. “He was always thinking about the world, what was around us in culture, in nature. He would take all of that and then turn it into art. A flood of art.
“Even when his family was watching TV, or if he had a book, he would be sketching, imagining, developing an idea,” he says.
Assisting Balazs with projects—including the Kingdome’s “Rhododendrons,” enamel panels now adorning the King County administration building in Seattle—gave the budding architect a notion of “making things that make our life better.”
“I knew intuitively I would not be an artist,” says Kundig, winner of the National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. But as an architecture student he drew on his experiences with Balazs, learning from his use of organic forms, his experimentation with materials, and his boundless energy for creating beauty. “I was lucky to be around that creative force of nature.”
ONE CORNER OF THE UNIVERSE, or GOD BOXES AND ARCHITECTS
“I was once known as the Madman of Mount Spokane,” says Balazs, who counts skiing, along with fishing and hunting, among his favorite pursuits. “I can’t ski anymore, but I once had a controlled ricochet technique that was really something.” The younger architects in town skied as well. “And we shared a liking for modernism,” says Balazs. Those mountaintop encounters led to friendships, which lead to commissions. Willing to create in nearly any medium, and being affordable and a willing collaborator, Balazs became an artist for the architects.
The late fifties and sixties brought a boom of church construction. And Balazs had developed a technique with cast concrete that suited it well. He could create baptismal fonts and candle sticks. He used it to build walls at Spokane Unitarian and window grills at Bethlehem Lutheran depicting Christ’s life. Always seeking new challenges, he changed media at St. Charles Parish in Spokane and built brightly hued baked enamel on copper doors, torch-cut iron baptistery gates, a torch-cut crucifix, and a torch-cut grillwork altar depicting saints.
With affection, Balazs calls these houses of worship “god boxes.” A secular humanist, he nonetheless researched each commission to create works that would suit and serve each congregation’s values.
One memorable night in the 1960s, Balazs and an assistant spent hours toiling 40 feet off the ground to install a wood altarpiece at the Temple Beth El in Tacoma. He had included inscriptions and figures memorializing victims of the Holocaust. “We were up and down a ladder working on it way into the night,” he says. When he and his helper finally descended and turned around, they found they had an audience, some of whom were crying. “They were Holocaust survivors, and they were building this temple,” says Balazs, a tear in his own eye. “We have the capacity to touch people to such a degree. That’s something that’s very sacred. You have to guard that.”
In the midst of his church commissions, the Puget Sound-area architects discovered Balazs. In Seattle, his first major public work was a 21-foot copper Totem to stand in the plaza of the 1959 Norton Building downtown. Then Fred Bassetti commissioned a copper sculpture for the front of the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building. And Tacoma’s Robert Price called, as well as more than 20 others. Balazs liked being in on it from the start. Whether it was a gate, a sculpture, or a simple embellishment on a wall, he sought to craft the things that would elevate the projects.
By the 1970s, more than 80 percent of the Balazs’s income came from architectural commissions. Playing with brick, metal, and concrete, developing new techniques, it was all part of the fun, he says. He could carve enormous polystyrene forms for walls, gates, and sculpture, fill the crannies with concrete, and reinforce the pieces with rebar. The results were ornate forms, both abstract and representational, but always intriguing.
“My business is trying to make one corner of the universe a nicer place to be,” he once told the Oregonian. “That’s really what it’s all about.”
Balazs’s role as a public artist intensified when Spokane was named the site of Expo ’74. He became the primary artist of the world’s fair. From glass etched bowls for the key dignitaries to a large concrete internally illuminated “lantern” in Riverfront Park, he was everywhere. He even managed to sneak in some Balazs-style irreverence, with a small (now stolen) historical marker that stated, “On 27 July 1973 Nothing Happened Here.”
But his greatest challenge was the 32-foot “lantern” made with 20 concrete panels. It was the largest object of art planned for the fair.
Creating the design and building the form went well, but assembling the piece onsite, which Balazs always did himself, and without safety equipment, turned treacherous. “It was a very windy day and I was right up at the top,” he says. “The wind caught a piece and I tried to restrain it, pushing it away from the building.” He was pinned and crushed three vertebrae, the worst injury of his career.
The incident laid him up for several frustrating months. But he turned his convalescence into an opportunity to focus on watercolor landscapes. Once recovered, he was all the more driven.
“His mind and his artistic inclinations are just bubbling all the time,” says Ivar Nelson, the production editor of the 2010 book Harold Balazs and Friends. He feeds his creativity with literature, poetry, and philosophy, says Nelson. “He is very receptive to the world.”
Balazs likes to paraphrase philosopher Alan Watts: “You’ve got to be part rascal.” Watts believed the secret of life was to be completely engaged with the task at hand, and to realize that it’s not work, but play. That suits Balazs who is driven to play every day. “It beats honest work,” he says.
Mobley, the former Spokane arts director, conjures up a classic Balazs moment from the installation of the giant Rotary Fountain in Riverfront Park. Water shoots from sprinklers and spouts around a ring supported by five 24-foot steel columns on the sculpture Balazs co-created in 2006. The project is nearly complete, the security fence still around it, and the group decides to turn on the water and see it in action. Suddenly Balazs, who had disappeared into the back of a truck, “rips off all his clothes and runs down the ramp and into the fountain,” says Mobley. “Right in front of those poor Rotarians.”
As our morning draws to a close, Balazs invites me to see the works he has collected from his friends. Every wall of the home is covered, and sculptures linger in the corners. He points out a large, and now quite valuable, Autio piece, proud of his classmate’s success. And then he brings out a stack of his own paintings that he has completed for a summer show at The Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene.
It’s not the aging that upsets him, he says. But the evolving physical problems are curbing his ability to bring his work to life. His paintings are, as ever, fanciful and colorful. But a tremor is evident in the black lines dividing the paper into characters and shapes. “I don’t care if it’s neat.” He points to the ripples in the brush strokes. “I don’t care about them.”
What he does care about is the color, the surprise, the response his bright creations of shapes and signs might provoke.
Balazs doesn’t know how many works he has created, or where they might be. He has produced many thousands of things and never kept a catalog. A number have surrendered to the weather. Others were vandalized or simply removed because of changes to a site. The Norton Building Totem vanished during a site renovation. “I fear it was sold for scrap,” says Balazs. A bronze lady on a bicycle was stolen from Coeur d’Alene. A Sacajawea sculpture disappeared from Cheney.
In Sitka, Alaska, a copper sculpture in front of the city-state building simply went missing. Someone found it at the dump. “A lot of public art ends up that way,” says Balazs, with a shrug. The person who found the piece gave it to a neighbor. When it was rediscovered, the city asked for its return. The neighbor refused. Balazs backed her up.
“He doesn’t see his art as permanent,” says Nelson. “He has an enormous ego about his work while he’s doing it. But once it’s done, it’s done. People may get tired of it and want a change. He’s OK with that.”
Posterity is not his priority, says architect Tom Kundig. “He taught me that the real value comes in the making of it. Do good work and hopefully that has good effect.”
Balazs eschewed the commercial art world, opting instead to work with architects, a few small galleries, and friends. And he has kept himself somewhat cloistered near Spokane, instead of out in a bigger city where, say collectors and curators alike, he would be famous. For him, the purpose of his work is simply wonder, both following his own and creating it for others, he says. “Even if the wonder is nothing more than, ‘why in the hell did he make a thing like that?’”