Do you know the family story behind Seattle's beloved baseball mitt? | KUOW News and Information

Do you know the family story behind Seattle's beloved baseball mitt?

Dec 4, 2017

If you’re a Seattle Mariners fan, you’ve probably been to Safeco Field. And if you’ve been to the Safe, you’ve probably seen the large bronze sculpture near the north entrance.

It’s a nine-foot baseball glove with a circle cut out of its middle, fittingly titled "The Mitt." The sculpture has become a beloved spot for selfies, family portraits and meet ups.

The artist, Gerard — Gerry — Tsutakawa, submitted his design for the sculpture 19 years ago, when Safeco Field was still in the planning stages.

“I’d seen so much art that was ‘do not touch’ — very beautiful but just to look at,” Gerry says. “I wanted something people could embrace and enjoy and be part of.”

Seattleites have indeed embraced this sculpture; its surface is worn away in the spots where people climb on it to have their pictures taken. "The Mitt" has become a city icon, like the Fremont Troll or the Pike Place Market pig.

The sculpture's success helped propel Gerry Tsutakawa into the public eye, earning him more art commissions. But it also helped establish him on an equal artistic footing with another Tsutakawa: his late father George.

It also revealed the differences between Gerry’s often whimsical world view and his father’s more contemplative artwork.

The Tsutakawas

In mid-20th-century Seattle, George Tsutakawa was a local art star.

He taught art at the University of Washington, but he was also was part of the group of artists whom New York art critics dubbed "the Northwest Mystics" — painters like Guy Anderson, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. They were at the heart of Seattle’s burgeoning art community, and the Tsutakawa home was their de facto salon.

George's wife, Ayame, discovered the large Craftsman house overlooking Lake Washington in the Mt. Baker neighborhood. It was roomy enough to raise four children and for frequent entertaining. She fell in love with the house and made an offer on the spot. 

The Tsutakawa home is shown on Wednesday, November 15, 2017, in Seattle.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

“My mother would serve a beautiful sukiyaki dinner, and they’d have sake and other drinks,” says Gerry, the eldest of the Tsutakawa children. He remembers being drafted to tend bar in the foyer when the art crowd came over. “Then the brushes would come out, the rice paper, and this table was the scene of just…paintings.”

Gerry gently slaps a large, low coffee table in the center of the living room. His father built this table, along with some of the other furnishings in the room. A sumi ink drawing of a fish hangs over the fireplace. One of George’s artworks.

All four of the Tsutakawa children remember these gatherings, when they’d paint alongside the big-name artists. For them, making art at home was standard operating procedure. None thought it was anything out of the ordinary.

George and Ayame Tsutakawa in the kitchen with Gerry Tsutakawa's daughters in about 1985.
Credit Courtesy of Gerry Tsutakawa

George started as a painter, but he’s best known for the bronze sculptures and fountains he created later in his career. He designed the first one in 1960 the downtown Seattle Public Library building. He called it “The Fountain of Wisdom,” and based the design on shrines called "obos" that he’d seen while hiking in the Himalaya mountains.

Obos are pyramids of rocks, often placed near trails, streams or mountain passes.

George took the obos idea and crafted graceful fountains of bronze orbs and arched forms. In the 1980’s, he told documentary filmmaker Jean Walkinshaw that water was the most important part of the designs, because it tied this Himalayan-inspired work to the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. He wanted water to flow naturally over his bronze sculpture, not to spurt or spray or do any “tricky tricks.”

Between 1960 and his death in 1997, George created more than 70 of these fountains. More than a dozen are still in public plazas in Seattle, including the original Fountain of Wisdom; it sits outside the new downtown Seattle Public Library entrance.

Explore the map: Click on the magenta markers to see pictures of George Tsutakawa's fountains. You can help us fill out this map by sending pictures with addresses to pictures@kuow.org. What we found when we went looking is that construction has overtaken a few of these locations. Isn't that just like Seattle?

Working under a legacy

George Tsutakawa designed and fabricated his first fountain in his Mt. Baker home. He had studios in the basement and in the wooden garage. Now, his son Gerry has taken over the studios. An airy bronze ellipse sits on a table top; smaller sculptures are stored on shelves next to a photograph of Gerry and his Mitt sculpture in progress. If you look up to the ceiling rafters, you’ll see dozens of paper scrolls.

“These are mechanical drawings,” Gerry says. They’re designs for his father’s many public commissions, dating back more than 60 years.

Gerry literally works under his father’s artistic legacy.

Gerard Tsutakawa poses for a portrait in front of a selection of his sculptures on Wednesday, November 15, 2017, at his home in Seattle. Rolled up in the ceiling are his father George Tsutakawa's drawings.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

This studio is also where Gerry began his career, working for his father after dropping out of college.

“He was very busy with all these large commissions, and I was this unemployed hippie dude,” he says.

George and his technical advisor, a former Boeing engineer named Jack Uchida, taught Gerry how to shape and weld bronze, as well as the hydro-mechanics involved in transforming a sculpture into a fountain. But it’s one thing to learn a craft, and quite another to develop your own artistic voice.

Gerry acknowledges that his father cast a very large shadow, and early in his art career he made a conscious effort to distinguish his work.

“I wanted to create some sort of strong design style that wasn’t immediately copying my father’s,” he says. “It was all straight lines and hard edges, where most of my father’s things were soft and circular.”

A family portrait on the porch of the Tsutakawa home on George Tsutakawa’s 80th birthday party, in 1990. George and Ayame in the center with extended relatives. children, family and friends.
Credit Courtesy of Gerry Tsutakawa

Many offspring of famous artists face the challenge of establishing a distinctive creative identity, according to Seattle Art Museum Deputy Director Chiyo Ishikawa. She says descendants of the artists Camille Pissarro and Pablo Picasso struggled to make their marks. But Ishikawa thinks that Gerry has successfully distinguished himself from his father George.

“I would say there’s a family resemblance in the use of metals,” says Ishikawa. “But I can’t see George doing the baseball mitt. Gerry has a more playful sense of humor.”

All three of Gerry's siblings are also involved in the arts, although none so directly as Gerry. Mayumi Tsutakawa, the only daughter, began as a features writer at the Seattle Times, but she spent most of her career as an arts administrator, most recently working with the Washington State Arts Commission, and as an advocate for artists of color.

Listen: Mayumi Tsutakawa talks about her new passion: chronicling and preserving her family and cultural legacy

Deems Tsutakawa, the third child, is a well-known Northwest jazz pianist. He calls himself a 'blue-collar musician,' working as many as 200 gigs a year. 40 years ago he started his own company, J-Town Records, to record and distribute his  music. 

Listen: Deems Tsutakawa talks about his mother influenced his art

The youngest child, Marcus Tsutakawa, may have had the biggest impact on Seattle's arts scene. He spent more than 30 years as the head of the Garfield High School orchestra program, building it from 10-15 students into a nationally acclaimed powerhouse that attracts more than 100 students every year. Like Deems and Mayumi, Marcus Tsutakawa credits his artistic aspirations to his parents, but says he felt no pressure to follow in their exact footsteps.

Listen: Marcus Tsutakawa talks about why he chooses to stay in Seattle after retirement

Gerard Tsutakawa's sculpture assistant Laura Pavola forms a bronze sheet in the wood shop on Wednesday, November 15, 2017, at the Tsutakawa home in Seattle.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer
Coming Home

In 2016, Gerry and his wife Judy moved back into his childhood house. His mother, Ayame, had moved into assisted living, leaving a house filled with 60 years of art and memories for the Tsutakawa children to sift through.

“The problem is, we don’t own the house,” says Gerry. “The house owns us.”

When he’s not working on his art, he’s sorting through hundreds of his father’s slides and talking with his three siblings about what to do with their family home. His late father had definite thoughts on that subject.

“He wanted the house kept in the family and kept intact,” Gerry says. “He actually wrote that into the will.”

A replica of George Tsutakawa's Fountain of Wisdom sculpture sits in the yard of the Tsutakawa home on Wednesday, November 15, 2017, in Seattle.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

The Tsutakawa kids are exploring the possibility of creating a family foundation or transforming their family home into a museum. But for now, the legacy of George and Ayame Tsutakawa lives on in his artwork, and the lives of his four children. 

"In the old days, you learned from your father a skill or a trade," says Gerry. "It could be handicrafts, or farming or winemaking. I really feel that's how all of us learned in this family. We were exposed, then we continued those traditions."