World-class art meets the great outdoors at the Olympic Sculpture Park

Online bonus: Take aphoto tour through the sculpture park

It's hard to overstate the effect Alexander Calder's Eagle has had since landing in Seattle.

The Eagle, a 39-foot-tall, bright red steel stabile, is one of21 monumental sculptures gracing the city's sparkling new OlympicSculpture Park, which officially opened to the public in Januaryafter eight years and $85 million in the making. But as youapproach the park's nine grassy acres, stretched along the downtownwaterfront, the Calder is the first thing you see. (Is that redswerve of steel a beak? Are those wings?) Whatever it is, it'swonderful ― and somehow exuberant, whether you catch itagainst a sea of gray clouds or a rare blue Seattle sky.

With the sun making more frequent appearances, temps warming,and thousands of landscaped native plants budding for their veryfirst season, now is the perfect time to visit. Especially with thepark's founder, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), reopening this monthafter an $86 million expansion and facelift of its own.

Not your ordinary urban park

Already, locals like me have woven the sculpture park into oureveryday lives. On an early spring afternoon, two women loungeoutside in bright red cafe chairs, sipping lattes, faces turnedtoward the sun. Young couples stroll hand in hand or push strollersalong gravel paths. Small dogs on leashes prance about, asawestruck as their human companions taking in the scene that hastruly transformed their city.

Situated on a former fuel storage and transfer site for theUnion Oil Company, the sculpture park was a generous gift, paid formostly by private donations and designed by Weiss/ManfrediArchitects of New York. The tricky topography includes a zigzagseries of open meadows, incorporating valleys, forest groves, traintracks, a major street, a bike path, and the curving shore ofElliott Bay. It all connects downtown Seattle to the waterfront,visually linking the Space Needle to Puget Sound.

There are few more spectacular settings in which to stroll amongmajor sculptures by some of the top names in 20th-century art.(Free of charge, no less.) Most sculptures of this quality are inremote destinations or enclosed within monolithic, windowlessbuildings. "We took art outside the museum walls," says MimiGardner Gates, director of SAM.

Outside, indeed. Wandering around the sculpture park, which sitsat the waterfront's north end, you see a 360° panorama of theSound, the Olympic Mountains, and, when the weather cooperates,snow white Mt. Rainier presiding over the surrounding city.

The sculptures are so well placed here, it's a shame to thinkthat anyone should ever settle for experiencing art like thisindoors.

YOUR PERFECT DAY IN THE PARK

Pick up a map (and a latte) at the sleek steel-and-glasspavilion; take in the views, and be sure to admire EllsworthKelly's Curve XXIV on your way out. The rusted-steel fan shape ismounted on a raw concrete wall just outside the pavilion entranceand is a masterpiece of understated precision.

Linger in the valley, bushy with waxberry and westernhemlock, at Richard Serra's Wake sculptures ― five towering, curved-steel formsundulate in inverted relation to one another. Although thesculptures are massive and heavy, they're also fluid, suggestingrusty ships' hulls. Wander through and around them, and you'll findit hard to resist tapping your knuckles lightly against them (as Iobserved one delinquent do, listening for reverberations).

Stop in your tracks where Mark di Suvero's Bunyon's Chess, an iconoclastic, kinetic work constructed oflogs and thick chain, seems at home overlooking the railroad.

Detour down a bark-strewn path that winds through a grove ofquaking aspen and lush fern, to Claes Oldenburg and Coosje vanBruggen's zany Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, a colossal pop-art rendition ofa completely retro office tool, sitting slightly askew on anembankment.

Don't miss Tony Smith's Wandering Rocks, and, at the park's southernmost entrance, aspiritual fountain designed for the park by 95-year-old sculptorLouise Bourgeois.

At the trail's end you'll be walking right alongside thewater. Stop and sit by Seattle artist Roy McMakin's cheeky Love & Loss installation with its nod to Seattle'svintage neon, or continue to the small driftwood-strewn beach onElliott Bay. Remarkably, there is sand. Big flat boulders to situpon. Even small flat stones to skip. A perfect place to ponderwhere the boundaries between art and nature lie.

GETTING THERE

The Olympic Sculpture Park is at the north end of the downtownwaterfront. Pair your visit with a tour of the newly expandedSeattle Art Museum (SAM), which reopens on May 5. INFO: Free; 2901Western Ave.; Seattle Art Museum;206/654-3100.

WHERE TO EAT

SAM Taste Café Panini and fresh-squeezed lemonade, toenjoy indoors or out. INFO: $;2901 Western; 206/654-3100.

Macrina Bakery & Cafe A short stroll from the park.House-baked breads and pizzettas. INFO: $;2408 First Ave.; 206/448-4032.

WHERE TO STAY

WHERE TO STAY

The Edgewater Seattle's only waterfront hotel, steps fromthe park. INFO: From $259; The Edgewater;800/624-0670.

Hotel 1000 High-tech new digs with 40-inch LCD screens thatdouble as digital art galleries. INFO: From $300; Hotel 1000;206/957-1000.

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