Harold Balazs says he has a keen interest in everything except creamed carrots and Lawrence Welk’s music. Be sure to keep that in mind as you stroll through the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture’s newest exhibit highlighting the remarkable career of Balazs, a man born in the same year that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.
It’s a project that was two and a half years in the making. “Rather than a refined art exhibition, it’s an overview of a man’s life,” says Ben Mitchell, MAC senior curator of art. The capstone showcase spans a whopping 60 years’ worth of Balazs’s works. “What we’re doing,” Mitchell says, “is celebrating not just his art, but his spirit.”
Balazs has enough public commissions to rival Gonzaga’s hoard of Bing Crosby memorabilia. You’ve likely darted through the Rotary Fountain in Riverfront Park, ogled the shiny Centennial Sculpture glimmering in the Spokane River, or else climbed up (and perhaps fell off) the Opera Tower located between the INB Center and the river — or, as many people know it by the inscription on top, the “Transcend the Bullshit” tower.
The MAC’s latest exhibit is stunning and interactive, an intimate testimony to Balazs’s ravenous pursuit of artistic excellence in multiple mediums. Objects range from enamel works to shrines, from a rocking horse to a handmade wooden boat, from jewelry to a Labrador retriever-sized nutcracker.
“Harold is just as much a craftsperson as he is an artist,” says Mitchell. “This is key to Harold. Those who grew up in the heart of his generation, during the Great Depression, learned to save, to be frugal. One learned to be careful, and one learned to make.”
A focal point of the show is a carefully reconstructed replica of one of Balazs’s workshops. (Which is not to be confused with a “studio,” Balazs says — a studio has a skylight and a naked woman.) Colorful, scattered, personal and accurate, it’s a lively way of exposing the public to the artist’s think tank.
Some of the stuff is new, like a pair of vivid black and white enamel pieces resembling photographs of silhouettes. Others have come out of hiding — like the totem structure Mitchell happened upon while browsing the eccentric Carr’s Museum in Hillyard, and a massive floral mural, made from enamel on steel, which sat lost in a Montana barn for more than 20 years.
“They even took some of our furniture for the show,” says Balazs’s wife Rosemary during a home interview, as she shuffles around the kitchen making bacon.
Numerous household furnishings in the Balazs residence are functioning masterpieces: a mirror framed by gold lips, cabinets lined with intricate collages, chests with Hungarianlike carvings. In conjunction with the opening, Balazs and fellow artist Ken Spiering will also lead the Young Artist Symposium, an open discussion about the role of art and the artist in the public arena on Saturday, July 24.
“I’m supposed to say something next week, and I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to say,” said Balazs, smiling. “The bureaucratic red tape thing, the little symposium is going to be directed toward that — getting involved with public art, the little hoops you have to jump through, all that stuff.”
He says the process has gotten more complex as more people want to put in their two cents’ worth. “But life is too precious to put up with that anymore,” he says.
He mentions a proposal in Petersburg, Alaska, for which he was recently turned down.
“They were afraid to do it,” he says.
“They wanted something that inspires the people in the village to all cooperate with one another, and to give children hope for the future … what the hell is that? I wrote them and said there’s no set of criteria that can guarantee you’re going get a perfect statue. You have to take a gamble on somebody to do something that causes wonder, so those who visit us in the future can say, ‘Wow, that must have been a nice culture to have the courage to make something so utterly useless.’”
When asked about his legacy, Balazs quoted a friend, who once said, “The world will never starve for lack of wonders. Only the lack of wonder.”
Balazs says wonder is all he’s dealt with.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve been somewhere, spending a fortune on lattes, and people will come up and say, ‘Thank you for being in our town, you’ve left it better than it was.’ And that’s all you can do — leave the place better than you found it. What else is there?”
Harold Balazs exhibit, through Oct. 9 at the MAC, 2316 W. First Ave. Museum hours: Wednesdays-Saturdays from 10 am-6 pm. Tickets: $7; $5, seniors and students. Visit northwestmuseum.org or call 456-3931.