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The Memorial Sculpture

Ron Petty, Sculptor

Early in 1986, an announcement of an open competition was made to all artists by the Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial Committee inviting a submission of proposals to create a memorial honoring those from the area who lost their lives in the commercial fishing industry. A “Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial”. The guidelines stated it should be “a representation that reflects positively upon fishermen, the fishing industry and the community at large. Provision must be made to allow placing up to 1000 permanent names on or near the piece of art.” The commission provided $50,000 for the conception, execution and installation of the work on site.

As a result 92 artists responded and submitted their materials to the Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial Selection Committee. An open house was held where proposals and models were viewed by the greater fishing community. Through a process of elimination four finalists were chosen by the Selection Committee. I (Ron Petty) was one of the four. My submission was a 20″ high bronze model of the Memorial with related materials describing my vision. During the final selection process each artist was assigned an advocate to help promote the work of the artist. My advocate was Ruth Desrosier and her support and faith in my work helped me to win the competition.

I decided early in the process that the memorial sculpture should be presented in a classical style. I felt this approach would lend itself best to the solemnity of its purpose. The design came to me as a series of natural and practical steps. My concept began with a substantial solid granite footprint for a base, approximately 9 feet in circumference. A bronze bas-relief bell-shaped piece, depicting life-sized fish, and representing the spectrum of varieties that are pursued from this port, is mounted on top of this base. A granite plinth sits atop this bronze section, and is the transitional support for the elongated column. At the top, mounted on the column, is a larger than life heroic figure in bronze of a fisherman landing a mythical fish in the shape of a halibut, but is actually a composite of many different species of fish: black cod, salmon, herring, various rock fish and others. The gaze of the fisherman is back over his left shoulder to the central draw span of the Ballard Bridge, and sees all departing vessels. This is a gesture of safe journey to all.

The Memorial is monumental in scope, and the elongated column combined with the raised arm of the fisherman tops out at an overall height of thirty feet. I felt that an elongated version would be more appropriate as the background in the terminal is very vertical with the masts, trolling poles, spars and other vertical pieces of equipment used on vessels in the fleet.

The Memorial is flanked by two solidly placed granite walls, 4′H x 8′L x 2′W. Attached to the walls are bronze plates inscribed with the names of those who have lost their lives while pursuing the industry of commercial fishing, and hailing from this port or region.

The sculpture project was executed in the standard, old-fashioned way in that I sculpted from clay over forty figurative marine species as well as the larger than life fisherman; made latex and plaster molds, cast wax impressions from the molds, then presented all the wax models to the Robert Mortenson Fine Art Foundry where the pieces were transformed into bronze.

While the bronze casting was taking place, I began the process of fabricating the molds for the cast stone portions of the monument. This included the four pieces of the circular base, the transition column plinth, the top column, the two “name plate” side walls and the identification block. On the original monument, the parts which are now granite were made of cast stone. This cast stone was replaced ten years after the original installation with the granite you see on the monument today.

The molds for the cast stone parts were fabricated from wood, plaster, fiber glass, latex and aluminum, and were designed to be taken apart and reassembled in case any section needed to be recast due to possible damage or failure.

A recipe for the cast stone was formulated using white cement, silica sand, black blast sand, rose sand, green blast sand, marble chips and other aggregates. I made several recipes using various combinations before I found one that was suitable. Ten aggregates were used in total to obtain a granite-like appearance after polishing. Water was added to complete the mix. A total of three hundred cubic feet was mixed and poured into all molds over two days by a volunteer crew consisting of my wife Marjan Petty, our sons Brent and Scott Petty, and friends Norman Hawkins, Dave West and Fernando Torres. Their efforts made this a successful casting project.

The cast parts were allowed to cure for one week. Then the grinding and polishing began. Norman Hawkins and I brought all the cast stone parts to a high, smooth polish. The grinding and polishing process required five weeks in total for the two of us. In the end we were rewarded by a product that had the look of polished natural granite.

At this point all was ready for the preparation of the site to assemble the memorial sculpture. At the same time, the contractors for the Port of Seattle were finishing the construction of the memorial dock as part of a larger renovation of that area.

The first requirement was the installation of a heavy steel column to anchor the entire assembly of the Memorial. This internal steel column rises to the level of the bronze plate on which the fisherman stands at the top. The strength requirement for this heavy steel support was its ability to withstand a windstorm of 100 mph, and also resist the shock of earthquakes. (The memorial withstood the 6.8 magnitude earthquake in 2001, while the surrounding wharf was severally damaged and needed to be replaced.) All engineering drawings and calculations for the Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial were generously provided by Tom Brewick, whose business was located at the port.

The steel column was fabricated by Norman Hawkins and following its installation the 2 foot square rose-colored granite pavers were laid around its base. Once this was complete the assembly of the actual sculpture began. All of the parts and pieces were now finished and assembled. The forklift normally used to move fishing nets transported the cast stone parts from behind the east net sheds (where they were cast) to the site. The bronzes arrived by truck from the foundry and assembly began with the help of a crane. First placed was the four 2 foot cast stone pieces that make up the 9 foot circular solid footprint base. Upon this the 6 foot high bronze bell-shaped bas-relief sculpture depicting a variety of fish was added; next the 2 foot high caste stone plinth for the upper column was set. Finally the 12 foot high elongated cast stone column was mounted. Topping off this assembly was the sculpture of the bronze fisherman. His upraised arm brings the overall height to thirty feet.

On October 8, 1988, the Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial was dedicated with a large crowd in attendance. The total time required to complete the work was two years and four months. My relationship with the Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial Committee and the greater fishing community could not have been better. I was given support and encouragement throughout the entire project.

In 1998 the Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial was completely dissembled so that new permanent granite parts could replace all the original cast stone parts. The Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial Committee commissioned me to carry out this task. I made drawings indicating the required dimensions for the chiseled and polished granite pieces. The granite selected was western granite from a quarry in the foothills east of Sacramento, and matched the color of the cast stone parts. The slabs were shipped to the Featherstone Stone Works in Minnesota. When the cutting and polishing was completed, the parts were shipped west to Seattle and the Memorial was reassembled with the beautiful granite you see today.

In February 2001 a severe 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit Seattle and the 85 year old wharf at Fishermen’s Terminal was severely damaged. The Memorial itself sustained no harm as the new dock on which it sits was designed to withstand earthquakes. The Port of Seattle determined that the entire wharf area around the Memorial should be renovated, so in 2004 reconstruction began. Since it was possible that cranes, pile drivers or other heavy equipment could cause harm to the sculpture, I was commissioned again to protect the Memorial from possible construction damage. First the fisherman at the top was removed; then a tall protective structure was built around the remaining sculpture. The building was draped with billboard-sized images of the Memorial. The name plate walls and bronze fisherman sculpture were temporarily relocated to the west end of the terminal near Chinooks Restaurant. The fisherman was placed on a fabricated column base along with the name plate walls to provide a provisional memorial site.

One year later the wharf project was completed, and the entire sculpture was cleaned, polished and remounted on its original site. It remains a place of community, remembrance and solace.

Ron Petty, Sculptor 
Elected Member, National Sculpture Society* 
August 2013 

*In 1991, following the completion of the Seattle Fishermen's Memorial, I was elected into the National Sculpture Society, the oldest sculpture society in the United States. This was a great honor for me, as at the time of my acceptance, I was only the third person from Washington State to be inducted.