The official dedication of Russell Jaqua’s metal sculpture in the new Visitor Center Plaza of Port Townsend Nov. 2 marked the culmination of the city’s plans for the intersection dating back three years. Jaqua’s widow, Willene Jaqua McRae, touted it as a stylistic thread tying the Port Townsend community to its history.
Jaqua, a Port Townsend resident from 1974 until his 2006 death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” had named the sculpture “For Willene,” and drew its inspiration from the same source as the spiral motif he designed for the city hall annex railings, which later became the basis for the city of Port Townsend’s logo.
“There was this detail of ornamentation on the city hall building, a swirl that had no reason to be there, except to be beautiful,” McRae said. “He wanted a subtle echo of the old within the new. He imagined how satisfying it would be for a person to discover that repetition a hundred years from now, because it would tell them, ‘The people of Port Townsend are still here, and we still care about beauty.’”
According to McRae, Jaqua held as essential truths that beauty is a valid concept in its own right, and therefore any community which claims to care about the arts “must be in a relationship with the mystery of beauty.”
McRae recalled how Jaqua’s ALS progressed to the point that he was unable to build the railings he’d designed for the city, so to celebrate what they both knew would be their last birthday together — the couple shared the same birthdate of Feb. 17 — he invited 30 of his closest friends, including his fellow artists and blacksmiths from across the country, to assemble the sculpture “For Willene” in a single weekend.
“I called it the ‘blacksmith boondoggle’ because I was convinced it wasn’t possible to complete in just one weekend,” McRae said, noting that the nickname became the title of a documentary film by Jane Champion on that weekend’s working party. “But they showed me what an artist’s community actually is, and many of them have returned today.”
In particular, McRae singled out Jim Garrett for 13 years of “always being there to help, and knowing what to do,” before leading the ceremony’s attendees in a chorus of, “Thank you, Jim.”
McRae noted that Jaqua’s three-dimensional sculpture additionally took inspiration from Messier 51, the “Whirlpool Galaxy” that can be found in the night sky by following the easternmost star of the Big Dipper to the southwest.
“He told me it was a portal, and if I looked up through it into the sky, he would be there,” said McRae, who donated the sculpture to the city so that they would have a portal of their own, not only to their community’s history, but also to “the beauty that lies beyond our planet.”
McRae was especially appreciative of the sculpture’s placement, since its spiraling metal bars are difficult to distinguish by motorists in approaching cars, until they’re directly beside the sculpture.
“You’re driving down the road, and it’s a mystery, until you reach it and it becomes a circle,” McRae said. “Then you pass it and it gets lost, so you’ve got to go back to see it again. It’s not a kinetic sculpture, but it requires a kinetic viewer to appreciate it.”
Because the spiral motif also appears in the sign welcoming people to Port Townsend, as well as in the city hall annex railings and the ornamentation on the original city hall, McRae likened it to a “secret handshake, all the way into town.”
Kris Morris, public art chair for the city’s arts commission, credited artwork such as Jaqua’s sculpture with imparting “authenticity” to the cultural fabric of Port Townsend, in addition to heightening its economic viability, its civic engagement and its overall quality of life, while Nhatt Nichols, who chairs the ove arts commission, pointed those interested in Jaqua’s further works to the Northwind Arts Center and the Grover Gallery.
Mayor Deborah Stinson thanked McRae for her generosity, and characterized the sculpture as an artistic connection, not only of the city’s commercial district to its centers of tourism and business, but also of the community to the whole continuum of its past, present and future.
And new City Manager John Mauro, making his first official public appearance, praised both the donation of the sculpture and the community’s reaction to it as emblematic of the giving and welcoming spirit which drew him back to the Pacific Northwest.
“Art is a critical piece of public infrastructure,” said Mauro, who pledged to do what he could to foster the further development of similar installations of public artwork citing how ‘For Willene’ complemented the rest of the plaza as a “functional, beautiful space.”