On a chilly November day, rods of steel arose from the ground at Ridgefield High School.
When completed, the metal will resemble grass blowing in the wind, and if the sculpture’s designer has his desire fulfilled, it will bring life to the outdoors of the high school.
On Nov. 16, Battle Ground-based artist Curtis Pittman began the installation of the “Tree of Life,” his latest public artwork. The sculpture is part of a statewide program, which aims to install public art at construction projects that use state funds.
Although the poles are currently a steely gray, they will begin to rust in the rain due to the surface’s treatment, Pittman said. This is ideal as it will form a sort of patina on the surface while also turning the piece orange.
“It’s pretty much a maintenance-free kind of deal,” Pittman said.
He estimated the color change will be complete within a few months.
Pittman said the Tree of Life is one of the smaller installations he’s completed, and his seventh overall. He’s done work across the country, which has included sculptures at Louisiana Tech University and Michigan State University.
Because of the addition of a new building at Ridgefield High School that utilized state funds, a result of a 2017 construction bond, the state alloted a percentage of its budget to public art, Pittman said. He is one of the artists on the roster of ArtsWA, the state agency that facilitates the art projects.
Washington is one of 35 states with the public art requirement, Pittman said
Pittman went to school for architecture and worked for firms after graduating from Penn State University in 2004. He started working as a public artist in 2011, completing his first commissioned piece for Scottsdale Public Art in Arizona in 2015.
“It felt like a lot of environments are missing some key elements to turn an urban environment into something active,” Pittman said.He took into account the location of the city next to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge when designing the sculpture.
“It’s kind of like wavering grasses,” Pittman said, with the peaks of the sculpture pointing toward the center of campus and toward the refuge.
Pittman said the Tree of Life fit themes of nature and learning, “the idea of growth and resiliency, and then that metaphor and how it parallels education and how we grow as individuals.”
He intends to work with a class taught by RHS art teacher Tamara Hoodenpyl to design the overall plaza space with the students.
Pittman said he’s become known for making “iconic, placemaking art projects” through his cross-country work. He jumped at the opportunity to complete something in Clark County.
“I don’t have to truck everything across the country, I don’t have to fly my crew out there,” Pittman said. “This is my community, and I get to showcase to them how awesome art can be and how it can transform an urban space.”
Pittman said it took about one year after he got the contract to get to the point of installation. He began fabricating in August. His right-hand man on his projects is his father-in-law, Harold Combs.
With extensive experience in metal fabrication and other building skills, Combs has proven himself as a solid working partner for the projects.
“I’ve been around a lot of fabricators. (Harold) is one of the best,” Pittman said.
Being able to work closely with someone who has a general idea of one’s vision helps greatly when trying to complete a complex job, Pittman said.
“When you do these jobs, there’s just not very much room for error,” Pittman said. “Quality control is at its best when the two of us are working together.”
Though Pittman came up with the design, it was a committee of high school teachers, students, a parent and a member from the larger community who alongside RHS Principal Christen Palmer approved the project.
Palmer was struck by the collaborative effort of the committee who looked through artists’ portfolios and envisioned what represented the school and community the best.
“It was really cool to hear from all the different stakeholders of the committee what that was, and where there were overlapping themes,” Palmer said.
Palmer said it was serendipity that the committee selected Pittman.
“We did not know where Curtis is from, but we chose somebody who is right here in the Pacific Northwest,” Palmer said.
Palmer hopes the Tree of Life will become a symbol for the school once the poles have changed color and the sculpture is complete.
“This sculpture on our campus becomes part of our story and our history as a school and as a community,” Palmer said.