Rich Beyer, Art Hero of Seattle

June 23, 2012
Rich Beyer had a stroke on March 27th and didn’t recover. He died April 9th and I just learned of it today. I wept involuntarily, coming on it in a search for his contact info. After thinking it over, some recent “flashes” suddenly made sense to me. One, a common experience for me, a sense of serendipity came on the heels of this discovery. It arrived in the form of a eulogy on Facebook’s Richard S. Beyer Memorial page, posted on the same day Margaret Beyer’s excellent book about her husband’s life and work appeared in my mailbox. The eulogy was written by their son, Charlie. It reminded me the extent such lives are for celebrating, even at their end, for the extraordinary humanity they represent to and for those whose lives they touch, however closely or for short a time.

The main thing I shared with Rich and countless others in those days, was a mind in twisted torment over the events of the day. It was 1966. I had been drafted and given a date to report. I was desolate, and only escaped thanks to a sympathetic student health services doctor. He took me at my word when I explained that it would be unwise for the US Army to set me up to kill strangers who, I had learned from reading the foreign press, were fighting in their back yards for their own country. I didn’t know until Doc told me, but I was “asthmatic” and that it would be very risky for me to undergo basic training. I was reclassified 1Y and my call-up was rescinded by the same “friends and neighbors” of the Cedar City Selective Service Committee. The Boeing Airplane company ended up getting me instead. As Barry Holloway, then my closest amigo, quipped on his way to a Peace Corps assignment in remotest India, I had gone to work on the left-wing assembly.

Arriving in Seattle from Pocatello at the end of February struck me as miraculous. I had left behind ice everywhere, accompanied by screech and scream of cold steel from the breaking of trains in Union Pacific’s longitudinal bisection of Pocatello. That was all replaced by soft, warm light and gentle rain on falling on verdant hills of emerald green grass, rhododendron everywhere, heavy with fat buds. Great god a-mighty, I was free at last! Landing at Boeing field, it was only a short ride to Capitol Hill and the environs of Seattle University, where Jack Kaper and a small coterie of former classmates had transferred from Idaho not long before.

Within a week one of them, John Greenfield, insisted we visit Pike Place Market, his and most others’ favorite spot in a city more than usually blessed with them. I didn’t know then it would become my personal spiritual cornucopia. A sensitive man even in youth, Greeno detected a match between my nascent Bohemian tendency and the redolence of the Market. We walked most of it that day. After an hour or so, winding our way among the stalls and passages and shops and ramps and go-downs chockablock with all manner of delightful food items, arcane cultural enticements and unique specimens of humanity least familiar to a green Idaho lad, we emerged into a magical courtyard.

It nestled on the lower level, on the downhill side from the bustle of Pike Place, no more than fifty paces away, an oasis of quiet amidst a throbbing, magical bazaar. It overlooked Elliott Bay at Pier 59, where the Alaskan Way Viaduct squatted like braces in a mouthful of beautiful teeth and ran parallel along the waterfront. I felt reborn there, and in many other spots in the city. It was an agnostic’s Heaven.

The feature first to capture my attention there where we stood admiring the view of the Olympic Mountains to the distant west, was so close beside me I could, did reach out and touch it. It was a shoulder-high cedar carving called the Peace Wolf. The name of its creator, if not quite yet a household word, was nonetheless well known downtown. Among denizens of Seattle’s “underground” culture, he and this earliest example of his public works today numbering in the dozens were already iconic in the community. He was Rich Beyer, and he was already fast becoming the Art Hero of the People. It was never a status he sought; it fit him as naturally as scales on a Market red snapper.

By the time I arrived, Rich had already captured the attention and imagination of anyone who took pride in their city, one of the most beautiful anywhere. Stories of his encounters with what he considered the “art establishment” were told and retold in the small groups of artists and hipsters of every type who met daily for lunch and digestifs at The Athenian. One story has always held pride of place in my memory, apocryphal though I suspect it to be. Only now, at last, do I feel there may be a chance to learn whether, or to what degree, the story may be true, as the friends, admirers and loved ones gather online to exchange and compare these narratives.

This is the story as I remember it. The telephone company, or “Ma Bell” in the days before anti-trust action broke her up into the “baby Bells”, like much of corporate America, was coming under growing critical scrutiny for her oligarchic monopoly as a proto-fascist corporate entity. This was happening in a time when all such established forces were regarded as being in lockstep together, on an inexorable crusade for greater US military involvement in Vietnam. Seattle, like so many other US population centers with several fine universities and a tradition of resistance to autocratic social, political and religious forces, was increasingly sorting itself into three groups: pro-war, anti-war and clueless.

Young people, intellectuals and such radicalized labor unions as the longshoremen and industrial trades fell into the middle group. The pressure their collective unrest exerted on the city establishment was growing more palpable daily. It took the form of spontaneous public gatherings, the appearance of a free underground newspaper, The Helix, and The Free University of Seattle, among others.

Early in this process of ferment, beleaguered Ma Bell threw a bone to the arts community in the form of an offer to commission an expensive work of public art, intended for a place of prominence near the entrance to their local skyscraper. His heightening public profile as an outspoken critic on issues of art and free society, ensured that Rich Beyer’s name would appear on the short list of candidates. His proposal was offered in the form of a model. In the center of a structure that of a stylized atom, appeared the figure of a centaur, the mythical half-horse, half man figure with its origin in classical Greece.

The Centaurs, as a class, were not particularly admirable, being noted mostly for unbridled devotion to wine, women and general debauchery. The one exception to the stereotype was Chiron, kind and wise, and mentor to the Greek heroes, Jason and Achilles. Rich was ejected from the meeting with Ma Bell’s art selection honchos. His model portrayed Chiron writhing grotesquely, distorted by entanglement in a fly fisherman’s rat’s nest of filaments starkly emblematic of telephone wires.

RIP Rich Beyer. Thanks for caring about us, Man!


One response to “Rich Beyer, Art Hero of Seattle

  1. Marilyn Large.

    I love reading stories of your past, it fills in a lot of blanks for me and helps to explain the man you have become. Well done.

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