Beyer, Richard Sternoff (1925-2012)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 10/01/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20863

During a career spanning about 45 years, sculptor Richard S. Beyer created more than 90 works of public art installed in cities and towns, primarily in Oregon and Washington state. In 1968 he received his first public commission and eventually moved from carving in wood to creating sculptures from cast aluminum. After 30 years in Seattle, Beyer moved his home and foundry to the small town of Pateros, Okanogan County, where he continued to produce his bold and quirky art. Beyer had no formal art training and his work was never embraced by Seattle's art community, but the general public saw his figures, whether human, animal, or avian, as approachable and reflective of the lore and values of the communities in which they lived. His most well-known work, People Waiting for the Interurban, is a cast-aluminum sculpture installed in 1978 on a traffic triangle near the Fremont Bridge in Seattle. The life-size sculpture depicts five adults, a child, and a dog waiting for a trolley car that never arrives. Beyer died April 9, 2012, in New York City at the age of 86.  

Growing Up on Spring Hill Farm

Richard Sternoff Beyer was born on July 26, 1925, the third son of Otto and Clara (nee Mortenson) Beyer, who had been married in a Quaker meeting in 1920 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Both parents were drawn to progressive causes; Clara Beyer was employed in the Children's Bureau and the Division of Labor Standards at the U. S. Department of Labor and her husband developed a labor-management cooperative system for the railroad industry.

The Beyer family lived on Spring Hill Farm in McLean, Virginia, with "a fine antique house with two barns … The house had been occupied by rebels during the Civil War, and the story has it that Colonel John Singleton Mosby (1833-1916), a Confederate partisan leader, rode through the downstairs on horseback" (Beyer, 12). The three boys were tended by two African American women who were part of the household.

Beyer exhibited a lively personality as a boy. He attended a Quaker-run boarding school in Pennsylvania until his father determined he needed more structure. He attended, and was dismissed from, several other boarding schools, ending up at a public high school in Fairfax, Virginia. He attended the University of Virginia for a time, then transferred to Columbia University in New York City, but when World War II intervened, Beyer had to postpone completing his degree until after the war, earning a Bachelor of Science in 1952. He turned down a congressional appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, was drafted into the Army as a private, and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge.

In June 1946, after his military discharge, Beyer made his way to San Francisco with a friend. At a cocktail party, he ran into an old family friend, Margaret Wagenet (1924-2004). Margaret's mother, Betsy, and Richard's mother, Clara, had met while students at the University of California. The women became lifelong friends, and after marriage the two families enjoyed many Sunday dinners together. Richard and Margaret were married October 9, 1948, but there was sadness that day as well; Margaret's mother died unexpectedly four days before the wedding.

From Economics to Art

The young couple settled in Greenwich Village for two years and in 1950 moved to Levittown, Long Island. They had three children: Elizabeth, born July 19, 1950; Charles, born July 20, 1953; and another boy Otto, who was born May 14, 1952, but lived less than two days. The family moved to New England in 1954. where both Richard and Margaret earned master's degrees in education from the University of Vermont. When they returned to New York, Beyer took a position at the Bureau of Economic Research.

In 1957 Beyer was accepted as a doctoral student in economics at the University of Washington and the family moved to Seattle. While working on his degree, Beyer started making small sculptures in stone and wood as a way to relax. "Among his first projects was a collection of small cedar pieces depicting one of the state of Washington's most tragic events: the massacre of Industrial Workers of the World members in 1916 … Rich's miniature sculptures were shown in a gallery on University Way, Seattle, and all were sold" (Beyer, 19-20).

Beyer left the PhD program without earning his degree and took a job as an engineer at Boeing. But the couple had joined the Quakers in the early 1960s, and the aircraft manufacturer's military connections did not sit right with Beyer. He left Boeing and took a job with a state agency, but quit after six months.

Self-Taught

Throughout the job changes, Beyer continued to sculpt, selling his work at Jakk's Gallery in Pike Place Market and the Edmonds Arts Fair. His first large-scale sculpture was created in 1963. Called The Peace Wolf, it was sculpted from western red cedar, which became one of his favorite materials, "used in creating sculptures of bears, wolves, dogs, pigs, rhinos, birds, and ultimately even the mould for People Waiting for the Interurban" (Beyer, 22). The sculpture was loaned to Pike Place Market where it was displayed for about a year.

Beyer took opportunities as they arose to learn more about art and sculpture techniques. On family camping trips to the Olympic Peninsula, he would survey the logs washed up on shore and select the best ones for totem poles and other sculptures. The process helped him become more adept at handling and moving bulky heavy materials, not to mention honing his talents with a chain saw. In 1974 the couple toured Egypt with a group of former high-school friends. "This was an opportunity for Rich to see how immense granite sculptures were cut out of blocks, i.e., cut from the 'living rock.' It also was a chance to see a formal style of figures -- streamlined and polished, but sometimes soft, graceful, and expressive" (Beyer, 26).

Commissions and Foundries

In the late 1960s Beyer started receiving commissions, which would continue for the next four decades. Most of his sculptures were public-art installations for towns and cities in the western United States, mainly Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Other states with Beyer installations include California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, and Virginia.

In 1968 and 1969 Beyer created several works for Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo: A brick fountain with birds carved into niches, panels carved from brick and installed on the exterior of the Poncho Theater, and six benches carved from cedar, each depicting a reclining animal -- horse, lion, wolf, mountain goat, alligator, and bull.

In the 1970s his commissions included The Old Man and the Cougar (1971), installed near Western Washington University Library in Bellingham; The Root Digger (1978), carved for the tribal headquarters at the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon; and brick-carved panels for several municipal buildings, including Kent City Hall, Bellevue's Newport Library, and Seattle's Rainier Beach Metro Station.

Beyer first worked out of the family home in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood and later moved his studio to a warehouse on the city's Lake Union. In 1968 he bought an old cement-block paint shop in Fremont, but outgrew that space by the early 1980s. His son Charles had married and was living in Moscow, Idaho, where he was a student at the University of Idaho. Beyer moved his foundry to Moscow and hired Charles to run it.

The arrangement worked for a few years, but Beyer eventually relocated the foundry to Pateros, a small community in Okanogan County. He purchased a large metal building on the Columbia River that was perfect for his needs. After 30 years in Seattle, he and his wife moved to Pateros in 1988.

Beyer began working in cast aluminum in the late 1970s. It was not a common material for sculpture, but Beyer enjoyed working with it for several reasons. "Less than two-thirds the price of bronze, with a lower melting point, aluminum became his signature material despite sniffs from critics. 'I guess there is no great expectation for aluminum,' Beyer says. 'It is wonderful, but I think it's the light color that bothers people. The background of people is in bronze for their public sculptures.' Still, he says, 'I would've loved to make sculptures out of iron. That'd be pretty impressive, for people to knock their shins against them'" ("Cast of Characters ...").

People Waiting for the Interurban

The most famous of Beyer's cast-aluminum sculptures is People Waiting for the Interurban (also called Waiting for the Interurban), installed on the northeast end of the Fremont Bridge in Seattle. The iconic sculpture depicts five life-sized adults, one holding a child, and a human-looking dog, all waiting patiently under a pergola for the Interurban to arrive. The Interurban, an electric trolley line that ran between Seattle and Everett beginning in 1910, went out of commission in early 1939.

Beyer was to be paid $2,500 for the sculpture -- his first large-scale, multi-figure, cast-aluminum piece. The project came about by accident. Beyer had joined the Fremont Improvement Committee, which was looking for ways to revitalize the neighborhood. He suggested an art contest. It was well-publicized, but garnered no entries. Beyer decided to take matters into his own hands and went around to Fremont businesses asking for donations. Once he had received a few pledges, he started to design and create his sculpture. The project took three years, off and on; the statue was installed on June 17, 1978, during the Fremont Fair. (A pergola was added a year later.) By that time donations had dried up, and it took more than a year for Beyer to receive his $2,500 artist fee and reimbursement for the $2,643 he had spent on materials.

The statue's aluminum shell makes it tough and durable, resilient to both weather and public enthusiasm -- a good thing, since People Waiting for the Interurban is regularly decorated with tutus, streamers, scarves, tiaras, signage, and an assortment of other items, all welcomed and appreciated. "If it's somebody's birthday, the figures get draped with ribbons and have balloons tied to them. If it's freezing, somebody inevitably puts scarfs around them ... These stoic sculptures in Fremont have become part of the neighborhood's daily routine, permanently waiting for a trolley that never comes" ("Corny or Not ..."). Beyer's favorite decoration went up soon after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, when some local wag affixed breathing masks to each of the figures.

Corny or Controversial

Although the general public embraced Beyer's quirky art, his sculptures have had their fair share of detractors. "You're not going to see his name on any art-school seminars, nor see him invited to gallery doings. As one critic sniffed many years ago about that famous Fremont sculpture, which was dedicated in 1978, … 'some people in the art community find the piece corny and maudlin'" ("Corny or Not ...").

Beyer wanted people to touch, sit on, or otherwise engage with his art, and he encouraged others to follow in his footsteps. "I'd like to see more people make art," he said in a 2002 interview. "If you see people making art, you know they're not making bombs or going off to war or doing awful things" ("'Waiting for the Interurban' ...").

Several of his statues have had a fair share of controversy. The Big Catch (1994), created for Des Moines, Washington, shows a man embracing a large salmon, which appears to have breasts. "It was a bit of a surprise," City Manager Bob Olander said of the salmon's human attributes. "I think it is humorous and delightful, but there are some people who don't like it" ("City by the Water ..."). Similarly, the citizens of Ellensburg were concerned when the initial design for The Bull (1986), which positioned a bull sitting upright, legs crossed, on a park bench, was thought to be too anatomically correct. Further embarrassment was averted when Beyer revised the placement of the bull's legs and tail.

Coyotes, Bulls, Bears, and a Peace Park

Beyer was prolific at producing art for Eastern Washington, particularly after he moved to Pateros in 1988. Steve Lachowicz, board member for Art on the Avenues in Wenatchee, said of Beyer, "His influence on art in our region has been huge. He brought us real, thoughtful, beautiful art that made us think and made us smile." ("Sculptor Rich Beyer ..."). The sculptor's obituary in The Wenatchee World noted: "His vision of respect for the common man -- along with a love of nature, history, science and playful teasing -- marked his works as 'populist' by many critics and, at the same time, won him legions of fans" ("Sculptor Rich Beyer ...").

Some of his more well-known works east of the Cascades are Coyote Leads the Salmon Up the River (1990), created for Walla Walla Point Park in Wenatchee; Chelan Bear (1994), depicting a grinning bear standing upright, holding a lantern; and After Work (1999), three figures installed overlooking Grand Coulee Dam, a tribute to the laborers who built that massive structure.

Beyer's art got an international boost when he was asked to sculpt a piece for the Seattle Peace Park in Uzbekistan. In 1973 Seattle was the first American city to forge a sister-city bond with the USSR -- in this case, Tashkent. To acknowledge the 15th anniversary of the friendship, the two cities created a peace park in Tashkent, and Beyer created a sculpture called Life, Love, Time, Game. The totem-like installation, cast from aluminum and standing 16 feet tall, has four levels, each depicting individuals at various stages of life, from infants to two old people sitting on tombstones.

The Final Decade

Beyer continued to receive commissions, and in 2000 it was reported he was charging $10,000 for one of his sculptures. But in the fall of 2001, when he was 76, Beyer suffered a serious stroke while giving a talk in Okanogan, Washington. After months of rehabilitation, he was able to resume work. Three years later, on April 24, 2004, Margaret, his wife of 56 years, died of cancer at the age of 79. An artist in her own right, Margaret had recorded Beyer's life story in her book, The Art People Love: Stories of Richard S. Beyer's Life and His Sculpture, which served as a catalog of his work.

Beyer was deeply affected by his wife's death but continued to accept commissions. In 2006, he moved to New York City, and the following year married Dorothy Scholz, whom he had known many years before.

On March 27, 2012, Beyer suffered another stroke and never regained consciousness. He died on April 9, 2012 at the age of 86. The funeral was held April 14, 2012, in New York's Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and a celebration of his life was held on June 16, 2012, in Fremont, coinciding with the popular Fremont Fair and Solstice Parade. It was a fitting tribute for a man whose People Waiting for the Interurban had become one of Seattle's most well-known and beloved public sculptures.


Sources:

Margaret W. Beyer, The Art People Love: Stories of Richard S. Beyer's Life and His Sculpture (Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 1999); Jefferson Robbins, "Casts of Character: Artist Richard Beyer Looks Back at his Legacy," The Wenatchee World, January 13, 2005 (https://www.wenatcheeworld.com/); Mike Irwin, "Coyote Mourns: Sculptor Rich Beyer Filled NCW with Beloved Public Art," Ibid., April 12, 2012; Peter Rinearson, "Waiting for Payment," The Seattle Times, August 4, 1979 (www.seattletimes.com); Erik Lacitis, "Corny or Not, Beyer's Art Appeals to the Masses," Ibid., March 7, 2000; Charles E. Brown, "Margaret Beyer, 79, Was Artist, Educator," Ibid., May 1, 2004; Lynne Thompson, "'Waiting for the Interurban' Sculptor Richard Beyer Dies at 86, Ibid., April 12, 2012; Dan White, "A Seattle That Won't Blend In," The New York Times, October 30, 2008 (www.nytimes.com); "To Russia, With Love," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 19, 1988 (www.seattlepi.com); Jack Hopkins, "City by the Water Has Kept Its Traditions Despite Growth," Ibid. August 9, 1997; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Neighborhoods: Fremont -- Thumbnail History" (by Patrick McRoberts), and "Seattle-Tashkent Peace Park in Uzbekistan is Dedicated in Tashkent and at Seattle Center on September 21, 1988" (by Priscilla Long) https://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 20, 2019).


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