Elephant sculpture among Sound Transit’s proposed public artwork designs

Designed by Donald Lipski, the concept reflects Federal Way’s rich diversity.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Or perhaps, the proposed elephant art installation that could be on display near the incoming Sound Transit Federal Way Link Extension plaza.

The sculpture concept features a strong tree as a base, drawing inspiration from Federal Way’s logging town heritage. A spritely elephant balances on top of the tree on two front legs as a native great blue heron bird sits atop the elephant’s trunk, looking at one another.

This sculpture would be three-and-a-half stories tall, about the height of passengers on the future light rail platform.

Sound Transit Art program (STArt) officials presented the design concepts for the project’s station, parking garage and pedestrian plaza Oct. 20 at the Federal Way City Council meeting.

Ashley Long, public art project manager for STArt, said that in 2018, a panel of community members, artists, officials and Arts Commission members met to create site-specific works for the new light rail project’s areas.

The concepts were recently presented to the Federal Way Arts Commission and received very positive feedback, Long said.

Station artwork is being designed by Catherine Widgery, with the garage artwork created by Christine Nguyen and plaza artwork by Donald Lipski.

Artists of Sound Transit’s STArt program create public artworks specifically for each city, capturing the essence of character of the area. STart utilizes 1 percent of construction budgets “to bring a human scale and thoughtful detail into the large transportation infrastructure that Sound Transit builds,” according to their website.

Station artist Widgery, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been creating public art displays for over 30 years.

With the light rail station, her goal is to fill the space with subtle color and reflections to accentuate the height and rhythms of the architecture, Long said.

A “cathedral-like feeling” is created by dichroic glass fins attached to window mullions and arch over the three-story canopy. The installation will change throughout the day and night depending on the light conditions, Long said.

Christine Nguyen, from Denver, Colorado, is designing screening concepts for the parking garage on the west side of the building facing Town Square Park. Her design is centered on Federal Way’s views of Mount Rainier and highlights the area’s natural elements.

Donald Lipski, from New York, was selected to create a landmark sculpture for the pedestrian plaza. His over 30-year career is noted for “whimsical” sculptures. Lipski developed a concept that he hopes will “contribute to way-finding, bring viewers a sense of joy, and become a focal point to what will surely become a new town center,” Long said.

Through research, Lipski found Federal Way is one of the most diverse cities in Washington and said the relationship between the heron and the elephant is symbolic of a “lighthearted, yet evocative representation of the richness, community and diversity of Federal Way,” Long said of the proposed sculpture.

Lipski is working with a studio that has made exhibits for the Smithsonian and New York’s Museum of Natural History for the creation of the Federal Way sculpture.

Elephants are commonly considered as symbols of good luck, wisdom, and protection. Elephants may also be representative as showering positive energy out of the trunk and into all surrounding spaces.

While there may be some minor changes to the artworks, the aforementioned designs are the approved concepts, Long said.

For the public artwork, funding is calculated at 1% of construction, and individual artwork budgets based on projects themselves, Long said. The station art by Widgery has a budget of $500,000 which includes design, fabrication and installation. Lipski’s plaza art and Nguyen’s garage art have a budget of $300,000 each.

‘Heartburn over the elephant’

After the presentation, some city council members raised concerns about the elephant sculpture and its representation of the city.

Council member Linda Kochmar questioned why the council was not included in the artwork’s decision process, to which Long explained Sound Transit primarily works with the Federal Way Arts Commission, the culture entity designated by the city, as the designs develop.

“I feel like Sound Transit is coming in here and doing what they have chosen without having any input from the elected representatives of the city,” Kochmar said, adding that she has “heartburn over the elephant” sculpture.

Barbara Luecke, Sound Transit Art Program manager, said Sound Transit is working with at least 13 jurisdictions across the region. In each new city, the organization creates an approval and advocacy process that is compatible with the city, she said. Oftentimes, she said, it’s not typical for a city council to be involved.

Luecke said the art program members are working hard to provide these amenities to the people of Federal Way, but also want to hit the right notes by creating landmarks and artworks that are positive additions.

Council President Susan Honda, also a former Arts Commissioner, raised concern over the appearance of the sculpture’s tree, noting that the tree looks dead and doesn’t reflect the life within Federal Way.

“Federal Way’s not dead. We’re alive, we’re vibrant, we’re full of energy,” she said.

Long said these concepts, while approved, are still very early renderings and designs will change in small ways prior to installation and the station opening in 2024.

The 7.8-mile extension will bring light rail into South King County, serving three stations in Kent/Des Moines, South 272nd Street and the Federal Way Transit Center. Services is expected to begin in 2024.