by Jesse Marinoff Reyes:
1962 World’s Fair “Century 21 Exposition”
United States Commemorative Medal
Sculptor: George Tsutakawa (1910-1997)
Fifty years ago today, the 1962 World’s Fair opened in Seattle.
This little item is probably my favorite that I’ve collected over the years from that turning point event in the history of my hometown (it was only a couple of years ago that I learned of this medallion’s existence!). All manner of goo-gahs and gee-gahs were produced to commemorate the Fair, as you might imagine. Tea towels. Tapestries. Ash trays. Decorative plates. Space Needle-shaped candles and figurines. Snow Globes. Place mats. All you have to do is Google the Fair on eBay and you discover “brand-new” (so to speak) items that were made officially or unofficially (same difference). “They made a (fill-in the blank) for the Fair???” I tend to gravitate towards the “graphic” items first—the magazine covers, the printed ephemera (there are literally tons of it), booklets, guides and maps. Posters. I’ve never been a serious collector, just a discerning one—I have enough krap as it is, ask anyone. There’s a set of matchbooks that I wanna get. Even a postcard album “Scenes of the Fair” that’s really cool.
Not to mention anything tied into the Elvis Presley movie, It Happened at the World’s Fair: Soundtrack LP, movie poster and lobby cards, press kits, publicity photos (you get the idea). Not what I collect but I know people who do! Though if I stumble across something at the flea market…
However, this is quite a little gem. Probably more significant than what the object in itself actually is (a commemorative coin or medallion) but that it’s a medallion that’s a remarkable bit of Modern sculpture that can fit in your pocket (just don’t accidentally try to spend it thinking it’s a half-dollar). There were other coins or medallions “minted” for the Fair, but as commercial tie ins. This is, as far as I know, the only “official” medallion. It’s got a nice weight to it, if you drop it it makes a solid clanking noise—y’know, the sound actual coin money used to make when dropped, back when coins were made of real metals and not these hybrid alloys that feel and sound like tinny aluminum casino chips. It’s also extraordinarily beautiful—you wish money looked this good. Sculptor George Tsutakawa should be better known, but because he was a Seattle kid, and made his home there, he doesn’t quite register with the artistic elite who get written up in most of the history books because he’s not in New York City. Don’t get me wrong. Professor Tsutakawa is respected and documented (only to a point and mostly as regards Seattle’s art history only), but—in this man’s opinion—should be better documented, better known, and more deserving of recognition than I believe him to be. Yes, he was that good.
Growing up in Seattle, Tsutakawa’s work was part of my everyday experience. He was an accomplished painter—both in oils and in traditional Japanese Sumi-e, but it is his sculpture that most know him from and in particular, his sculpted fountains—75 bronzes in the U.S., Canada, and Japan—that speak to the man’s elegance, and mastery of, so to speak, the “mixed media” of metal and water. Many of these sculpture-fountains are in Seattle and I saw them nearly every day. So much of even brilliant sculpture is static, but like Alexander Calder’s mobiles, Tsutakawa’s fountains had the joy of movement (and sound!) in their capacity which for me took them to another level. When you look at the drawings of an animator, they seem to want to move on the page, or like they are about to move, to burst forth in all directions. When I see Tstakawa’s Modernist masterpieces, they too “move.” All fountains have this characteristic, but Tsutakawa’s work was more organically defined, as the flow of water was yet another sculpted shape of the greater form. I’m sure there are other Modernist fountains that share this quality, but Tsutakawa’s were all masterfully done. Not a dud in the bunch.
I lived in an apartment building in Seattle’s International District (aka “Chinatown”) while I was in my early-20s. There was a Tsutakawa bronze literally outside of my entry way right on the sidewalk (it was not a fountain). I remember commenting to Tsutakawa’s daughter Mayumi, who was heading the King County Arts Commission at the time, that I wasn’t wild about the piece. No fault of the professor’s work—I just wanted it to have that extra dimension and it seemed “unfinished” without it. Hey, I was simply spoiled by Tsutakawa’s masterworks. It was a fine bronze, and I was lucky to have one literally at my doorstep. And I was a dumbass, cocky, 20-something know-it all designer! Sorry Mayumi, my bad.
Looking at this in my hand, it evokes my analogy of an animator’s drawings. Even as its weight gives the piece gravitas—the typography is also sculpted instead of merely “stamped”—the illusion of ethereal movement remind me of his fountains. The swirl of the b
round seem to want to propel the object into the cosmos (the backside of the medallion is like looking at a Richard Powers sci-fi cover painting brought into three dimensions). A “Space Age World’s Fair” indeed!
A masterpiece in miniature. A slice of home that fits in my pocket. I can almost hear the roar of cascading water.