As a student in the University of Washington’s Library and Information Science Program, I have been helping digitize photos from the Library’s Seattle Historical Photograph Collection. I’ve discovered a lot of interesting photos, but one of my favorites is a photo of the library’s Fountain of Wisdom with the artist just peeking out from behind it. The fountain, created by George Tsutakawa, is tucked against the low ferns and foliage at the 4th Avenue entrance of the Central Library. Even though it is dry and quiet during the winter, it still makes a warm welcome to the library.
The Seattle Public Library commissioned the fountain for its new Central Library in 1960. Although Tsutakawa was already an accomplished Northwest artist, this would be his first fountain. He struggled greatly with the challenge, and after much thought designed a much different fountain than the architectural team imagined. The designers had allotted Tsutakawa a small corner of the entrance courtyard and expected a traditional ‘figure on a pedestal’ type of fountain. However, he presented them with a larger and more modern abstract piece that would reside in the center of the courtyard. Fortunately, the team liked his idea and he set about constructing it. These days, of course, the fountain resides at the 4th Avenue entrance. It was moved when the current library was constructed in 2004.
The fountain is composed of graceful ovals and curving shapes inspired by obos, small vertical arrangements of rocks found in the Himalayas and Nepal. They are left by travelers at a sacred spot, a source of water, or a particularly beautiful vista as a sign of respect or gratitude to nature. As Tsutakawa discusses in a 1983 interview, these shapes are a constant theme in his fountains. The curving shapes and dynamic flow of the Fountain of Wisdom are, according to a 1962 Central Library art guide, a representation of the “endless gushing forth of the knowledge stored in this library.”
Find more photos of the fountain, and other historical photographs, in the Seattle Historical Photograph Collection online.
~ Ashley Fejeran, University of Washington Information School