Rescued by Birds

Olympia Sculptor and falconer Ross Matteson

Ross Matteson with his scultpure, Northern Flicker Monument, 2005,
as it is being installed on the North Seattle Community College Campus

Ross Matteson, a soft-voiced man in his fifties with deep smile lines around his eyes, holds up a hollow metal sculpture of an owl. The object is almost as big as his torso. "A Seattle artist would probably throw up if they saw this," he jokes.

The owl is his own creation, and I guess it's a piece that has lost its luster for him - he plunks it back down on his workbench as if it were a sack of fertilizer.

There's a lot of stuff like this in Matteson's barn-size studio, which he built in his backyard in Olympia. Having made his living as a sculptor for over twenty years, Matteson works primarily in bronze, but he also experiments with glass and marble. (Several slabs and stones rest just outside under a tent.) You can tell he tests a lot of ideas inside this place. There's a rack of shelves holding dozens of wax mock-ups for sculptures: a loon, a lamb, a surfer. There's a butterfly the size of a garage door traced onto butcher paper. In one corner, a tiny metal Creeper rests on its side among an array of grinding tools. A keyhole has been cut into its belly for easy mounting on a wall.

When asked about his work, he might take a few moments before answering - sitting in complete silence with his hand cupped over his mouth. Other times, he will talk almost without stopping for breath. For the most part, his sculpture depicts wildlife in a metaphorical physical vocabulary; over the years he has frequently felt it is misunderstood.

"In defense of the study of species and of textures," Matteson says, pointing to the contrast between the bird's rough metal feathers and the smooth, reflective support form, "I would say this sculpture is more than just a portrait of an owl."

Jane Harradine, an instructor at North Seattle Community College (NSCC), introduced me to Matteson's work. She discovered it when he was selected by the Washington State Arts Commission to create a site-specific work at the school. Completed a few years ago, the piece is a six-foot-long bronze woodpecker clinging to a cement pillar in the school's central courtyard. It's titled The Northern Flicker Monument.

Harradine feels a deep reverence for the monument. "He, the Flicker, reassures me that just outside our concrete structure, wild creatures persevere. But he also reminds me that his way of life grows more precarious every day."

Matteson as a teenager with a Kestrel Falcon

Before there was sculpture in Matteson's life, there was falconry. He trained his first falcon as a teenager and, in the forty years since, has worked with over twenty hawks and falcons. Many of these birds were just passing through his life - injured things released back into the wild after being rehabilitated. Others stayed with him for years.

Matteson is careful to distinguish between the idea of owning a bird and being a steward of one. "When you're flying a bird free on a regular basis, it has the freedom to fly over the horizon every day - and sometimes they do."

He laughs, comparing falconry to his life as an artist: "Really, it's crazy to invest that much time and money in something that has such vulnerability. It's like working on a masterpiece for three or four years, never knowing if it's going to suddenly disappear. But that's an incentive in the relationship. You're never on higher alert than when you are chasing a falcon. It totally tunes you into your environment. The same thing is true when I stay up for three days working on a sculpture; everything becomes important. Your survival is dependent on your ability to achieve something."

The contemporary sport (or art) of falconry is defined as a means of catching wild quarry or game. It involves flying a bird free every day and coaxing it back to the falconer's arm with lures, or food. What is the reward of this expensive and time-consuming practice? For most falconers, it's witnessing the bird's natural habits at close range.

Years of close contact with birds have given Matteson an incredible visual and tactile knowledge of bird anatomy. While he uses mounds of reference materials when creating a piece - flipping through bird books and digital photos or talking to friends in the ornithology community - more often than not he'll grab a ball of red wax and try to shape from memory the birds he has lived among for so long.

The first time I visited Matteson's house, he was between falcons. But he did have a group of homing pigeons, which he released from their coop to show me. After a lot of "shooing," the birds took off and began circling the property a hundred feet above us - never straying from our sight.

"Pigeons are amazing animals," Matteson said, looking up at them. "They have the ability to navigate across huge distances - and nobody knows how. Some people think they can see magnetic north in their brains. Some think they use stars."

I asked him if he was worried about the pigeons getting attacked by predators. "I'm self-centered about that. If I see a falcon making a kill on a pigeon, I can appreciate that. If I see a pigeon making a really good escape, I can appreciate that, too."

After working with bronze for roughly twenty-five years, Matteson has arrived at a point where he can push almost any material beyond its conventional use. For example, Tundra Tercel, carved from Turkish marble, has wings spread in flight. He filed these down so thin that the marble became as fragile as glass.

He still worries that his sculptures are looked at as simple, ornamental works - representational at best. Yet for him they are rooted in deeply felt political and spiritual convictions.

He tells me the story of a sculpture he created as a tribute to Rachel Corrie, the young Olympia woman killed on the Gaza Strip as she tried to block an Israeli bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian family's home. Matteson created a dove perched on top of a pyramid for the Evergreen State College campus, where she was a student. He remains close to her family to this day.

Another piece, which sits in Matteson's living room, is more spiritual in nature. It's a sperm whale, diving to the bottom of the ocean. Matteson says the inspiration came from Psalms 36:6: "Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep. Oh Lord, thou preservest man and beast."

A lifelong member of the Church of Christian Science, Matteson has always looked beyond surfaces to the spiritual nature of things. He is heavily invested in using metaphor to ignite constructive discussion among viewers. For him, that is what justifies the nasty "footprint" left behind by cultivating and sculpting with copper and metal. He believes the ideas he is trying to communicate evoke an eternity beyond the physical world.

Ross Matteson, Creeper

Matteson was born in Seattle, the fifth of six children. His father was a Boeing engineer and his mother was a teacher. During his teen years, Matteson lived on then rural Mercer Island. "Literally hundreds of houses were built on my favorite natural areas as I was growing up." In the '70s, Matteson worked to protect Pioneer Park from development. He protested the building of a golf course, waving signs on roads and writing letters to the city council.

At the time, Matteson's enthusiasm was fueled by the antiwar movement. "I tried to go to an antiwar demonstration in Seattle once," he says. "But I had the wrong location. So I ended up holding my sign alone along the side of the road!"

His house in West Olympia (the same he rented while attending college at Evergreen) lies directly on the line dividing the city of Olympia and Thurston County. Matteson served as president of the Overhulse Neighborhood Association for several years and fought to keep the urban boundary from encroaching any further into his rural neighborhood, where crucial habitat and natural wells were at risk of being paved over. In 2001, he was sued for trying to block a proposed development which would level a twenty-nine-acre tract of second-growth forest - directly across the street from his home. The suit was eventually dropped, but the ordeal took a toll on his health: he developed a painful tumor on his eye that faded almost as soon as the legal tension subsided.

Working with only one eye through all of this, Matteson struggled to complete a commissioned sculpture, Perfect on Petra - a bronze falcon perched on an abstract base. It ended up being a huge boost to his career, with a complete edition of twenty castings selling out to private and public collections all over the country.

Yet it wasn't a total victory. The forest Matteson tried to protect is now the cookie-cutter-clean Ashlynn Estates, a subdivision of over sixty homes. Matteson remains fairly Zen when he talks about it: "Those are the struggles of bringing a successful piece to fruition."

The first time I saw Matteson handle a falcon, the bird, a peregrine, had been rescued near Grays Harbor. Local resident Don Harter came across it injured on the beach. Harter called the local parks services. They took it to a veterinarian in Olympia who volunteered to reset the wing. Next, he contacted Matteson and asked him to oversee the bird's rehabilitation.

Because the bird's behavior was especially erratic, Matteson called a friend, biologist Steve Laymen. Together they completed the falcon's rehabilitation. Laymen nicknamed the bird "Explosion" because whenever she landed on his arm her talons gripped with a force he had never experienced in a bird. Matteson guessed that at some point in her life Explosion must have dropped food when she needed it most, and had learned never to do it again.

On a Saturday in July, I followed Matteson - and a whole convoy of people interested in the bird's release - to a spot just northwest of Aberdeen, along the edge of Grays Harbor. There, on the side of a quiet road, which ran right next to the beach where she was found, Explosion was measured, weighed and tagged with a visual ID so that, if she were to be spotted again, her health could be monitored.

I was struck by both Laymen's and Matteson's extreme care for the bird. They stopped constantly to make sure she had enough water. They plucked stray feathers and debris from her tail.

As soon as they let her go, she was beating her wings as if her flight had never been interrupted. In seconds, Explosion disappeared behind a line of trees along the beach. I turned to watch Matteson react. He had already grabbed binoculars and was jogging down the road to get one last look, but she was gone.

Matteson's work has not been widely covered or shown locally, but he has been able to sell his work to buyers in countries around the world, including Egypt and Lebanon.

Despite this success, Matteson continues to struggle. He's very aware of the demands his career makes on his family. His wife, Genny, has held powerful jobs in local government but now chooses to work full-time for the family business, Matteson Sculpture.

Matteson seems flummoxed by the way contemporary and modern abstract art monopolizes arts audiences. "I call all art abstract. Whether it's music or sculpture or whatever - it's all working towards understanding the substance of the idea. The ideas are central to what I'm excited about. But there's a lot of snobbery among artists when distinguishing between what projects are fine art and which are decorative art. I don't want to understate what I think is the value of fine art. Obviously, I'm very committed to it. But I like thinking of creativity as a subject rather than art."

In this vein Matteson tells me about his idea to design a car. "Because my dad was an engineer, I've been around people who find planes and boats sexy my whole life - those are beautiful forms if you think of there being aesthetics within the industrial world." Matteson can see a pretty strong connection between the aerodynamic design of his sculpted birds in flight and the ergonomic curvature of a vehicle. "If people who love cars saw one alongside my sculptures at a car show - people who don't realize that they like sculpture - they might see that what they really like is art."

This year, Matteson recast the NSCC Northern Flicker Monument for a private commission - the casting was to be installed on the perimeter of a shopping center in Mill Creek. Sam Dunham, the owner of the center, has been a collector of Matteson's work for over fifteen years, ever since she bought a quail at the Bellevue Arts Fair in 1993. "I can't look at Matteson's work without wanting to put my hands on it," she says.

A Redmond resident, Dunham and her late husband built a commercial real estate business from the ground up. And very often as their success grew, instead of investing in the stock market, Sam bought work from local artists. After seeing the variety of public art pieces there are to enjoy in Kirkland, she was inspired to instigate some of her own. She bankrolled the installation in Mill Creek and she hopes it will be a "beginning" for that community in embracing the value of public art.

When the piece was unveiled in September, Matteson spoke at the dedication ceremony. "Public art is not inherently good or bad," he said. "It is simply a reflection of what is important to the community that facilitates it. I am deeply hopeful, though, that some of the ideas expressed by this sculpture will support your desire to be delighted like young children in the world around us."

Back at NSCC, a few minutes' walk past the original Flicker Monument, I discovered an unexpectedly large green space and a small patch of wetland. The area is bordered by I-5, just across from Northgate Mall, so it's far from serene. But it feels surprisingly separate from the city. I came across several comfortable ducks and a homeless man, also enjoying the privacy. I spotted a kingfisher, too (apparently a rare sighting), and a flicker.

Standing in muddy grass, listening to the steady bounce of the highway and admiring the fall colors, it occurred to me how sad it was that this green space would probably be gone someday, and if I hadn't found it in time I would never have missed it. I would have puttered back and forth along the highway between my house and the movie theatre, never knowing what had been there before.