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The Whirlygigs of Columbia City

The Whirlygigs of Columbia city

Lining the streets of Columbia City’s Landmark District are more than colorful art brightening the streets. Created by area high school students under the direction of local artist Carl Smool, the sculptures also tell the story of the neighborhood’s multi-cultural landscape. Carl Smool’s work also shows up in Rainier Vista in the Wirlygigs lining the center planting strip of Columbia Way east of MLK. Click to read more about their creation and inspiration.

In 1993, Carl selected 12 students each from Franklin, Rainier Beach and Cleveland High Schools to assist him in visually depicting the neighborhood’s diversity. Each student researched a culture, their own or another, studying its myths, traditions, and history. Upon choosing a story that best reflected the richness of the culture they chose, they set about drawing designs to illustrate it.

“The project took about four months,” says Carl. “Before fabrication, we mocked up small scale models using straws as the poles. It was a truly exceptional experience from start to finish — I even kept all of the scale models as mementos.”

Once the students were satisfied with their designs, they drew full-size patterns that were cut out of metal and assembled at the nearby Pratt School of Fine Arts. Carl returned to the high schools, paints and brushes in hand, and helped the students finish their pieces.

To explain the inspiration for the art, Carl and the students edited the stories they had chosen and mounted them beneath each one. “Story telling is such a large part of the cultures represented by the whirligigs. It was only fitting that we included those narratives in the display.”

In total, there are 39 whirligigs — four by Carl, himself. The first can be found at the intersection of Rainier Avenue South and Martin Luther King; the last at Rainier and Rose Street. The largest concentration is at Rainier and Alaska Way, what Carl considers the heart of the Rainier Valley.

To celebrate the opening of Phase 1 of the Rainier Vista redevelopment the homebuilders and SHA commissioned a new set of whirlygigs to be installed along Columbia Way.

You can read more about these new creations in this special booklet.