Tollefson Plaza has “James Sinding” written all over it. That, and a plethora of words and sentiments posted by anonymous Tacomans. On Saturday, the artist drove a shiny Kenworth dump truck to the plaza at S. 17th and Pacific Ave. and deposited five sq. yards of large, wooden alphabet characters, the raw material for his art installation, Letters. Then he let the public have at it – and a melée ensued. “The opening of Letters went better than I could have ever thought,” says Sinding. “Kids and adults swarmed the pile of letters immediately after the dump truck pulled away. Within an hour the pile had been smeared along the steps with new sayings every minute.” Renegade scribes have been hard at work ever since.
The long, shallow steps that curve around Tollefson Plaza form the perfect message board for the installation; the architectural equivalent of lined paper, they present an easy-to-read billboard for drivers passing by on Pacific Ave. Letters is an ad hoc performance piece that changes daily, with anonymous actors embedding private thoughts into public space. There’s a lot of so-and-so loves so-and-so, as well as floating bits of poetry. Without a mediator (or Spellcheck, for that matter) Sinding checks daily for unwonted comments: “There have been some messages that I would rather be left unsaid. But I have kept a close eye on that.” He wasn’t the first to write a message, as might have been expected: “It’s funny – I have been so amused watching others write their mind that I have not written anything yet.”
One wonders how much alphabet might be absconded with as souvenirs from the site. Warren Caves, owner of Tacoma Art Supply, traded asides with Stephanie Stebich, director of Tacoma Art Museum: “She asked me, ‘You want some letters, Warren? You can have some!'” laughs Caves. The art supply and TAM are both adjacent to Tollefson Plaza so the hapless letters would be easy pickings, but neither party was in the market. While checking out the scene, Caves says he spotted individuals picking all the blue “M”s and “W”s out of the alphabet scramble and building a three-dimensional, house-of-letters sculpture using the letters’ angles to hook onto each other. The artists turned out to be TNT art critic Rosemary Ponnekanti and her young daughter, Bianca, creating the only alphabet architecture on the site. As of this writing, there are still plenty of candy-colored characters left on the steps, though “it does seem like there are less and less words, sayings, and letters as the days pass,” says Sinding.