Metro Parks Tacoma

Sculpture Tour

"Some very fundamental truths are reflected in art, truths to do with religion, philosophy, and mythology." (Mead, 1984, p. 25)

When you enter the conservatory you enter another world.  The permanent tropical plants and changing floral displays are drawn from every continent.  These plants have been removed from their natural settings and reassembled in the conservatory for enjoyment and study.  Hidden amongst the displays are six sculptures created by Clarence Deming.

The sculptures are artistic reinterpretations of religious art found all over the world and represent the traditions and legends of African, Maori, and Aztec cultures.  Not exact replicas, the sculptures sample from several traditions.  Like the plants removed from their natural habitats, these sculptures are removed from the social and cultural grid of music, dance, ritual, language, and place, as well as the spiritual processes that gave the art meaning. (Mead, 1984; Schmalenbach, 1988)

This tour will introduce you to some of the art traditions that inspired the sculptures here in the conservatory.

"…artists strive to build into their artistic creations the mana (power) that will move people." (Mead, 1984, p. 24)

Clarence Deming by sculpture in Seymour Conservatory. Clarence Deming (b. 1912, d. 2003)
"Works of art are produced by individual persons whose unique sensibilities transform the stream of tradition." (Kubler, 1993, p. 42)

Clarence Deming created the six cement sculptures currently on display in the conservatory, plus many others that have been lost or destroyed.  He worked for the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma for 31 years, serving as curator of the conservatory from 1949-1971.  He transformed the formal conservatory layout into a tropical environment, adding changing displays, the curved walkway and sculpture.  For holidays he created large-scale, thematic art installations that combined sculptures and plants. (Rhind, 2005)

For each sculpture, Deming made scale drawings and molded cement over chicken-wire forms, adding oxides for color.

An artist whose unique vision integrated art, other cultures, and plants, Deming created another world within Tacoma.  He appreciated the art of diverse cultures and paid homage to them by crafting his own art works in honor of different artistic traditions.

 "For Clarence's conservatory shows always boasted spiritual themes of their own, born in his artist's mind and sculpted by his hands from inexpensive materials in the conservatory dungeons." (Bence, 1971)
Old Mexico map to go with info from Captain From Castile at Seymour Conservatory. Captain From Castile
According to a Tacoma News Tribune article published in 1950, Deming read Captain From Castile by Samuel Shellabarger.  This book, a 1945 best seller, was republished in 19 countries and was made into a movie staring Tyrone Power.  It is the story of a young Spanish nobleman who joins Cortez to conquer Mexico, a swashbuckling tale of a young man's moral education as he experiences romantic and political intrigue. 

The book contains descriptions of Aztec architecture and culture.  Deming clearly drew inspiration from the vivid descriptions when creating his cement sculptures.  As an artist, Deming was probably influenced by passages such as the following.

"The trail leading southwest from Cuauhnahuac entered a world unknown to white men, an unimaginable country beyond the furthest horizon.  It was almost impenetrable, a region of bare or forest-clad summits, subtropical valleys, headlong streams, narrow cañons; a region rich in precious metal, rare woods, vivid flowers, and wild life; rich too in the secrets of vanished peoples and forgotten civilizations." (Shellabarger, 1945, p. 372)
Quetzalcoatl sculpture in Seymour Conservatory. Quetzalcoatl
Art Tradition:

A plumed snake, Quetzalcóatl symbolizes fertilization of the earth.  The reptile represents the earth and the feathers the sun.  Quetzalcóatl was a spiritual guide with many roles.  He is known as the inventor of the calendar and writing, teacher of maize (corn) growing, and muse to artists and craftsmen. (Westheim et al, 1972)

15.25" x 26.5" x  12.5" (hxwxd)
Ancestor Figure in Seymour Conservatory. Ancestor Figure
Art Tradition: Maori

Maori art typically features ornate carved tattoo patterns over the entire surface.  Ancestral figures are large headed with a menacing expression.  The tongue sticks out in defiance from a horizontal figure-eight shaped mouth.  Double spirals near the mouth symbolize articulation. (Mead, 1984; Wingert, 1953)

36.5"x 13.5"x 5.5" (hxwxd)
Wall sculpture in Seymour Conservatory. Wall Relief
Art Tradition: Aztec and Maori

This wall relief is an excellent example of Deming's sampling from multiple cultures in one art work.  The central figure with its menacing expression and tongue is characteristic of Maori carving.  Skulls, like the one on the left, decorate the exterior walls of many Mexican pyramids.  (Westheim et al, 1972)

49.5" x 34.25" x  9.75" (hxwxd)
Head sculpture in Seymour Conservatory. Head
Art Tradition: Maori

This head has the characteristics of Maori sculpture; note the horizontal figure- eight shaped mouth and menacing expression meant to evoke both awe and fear.  The head serves as a pot for the Tillandsia cyanea plant.  The symbols on the base are decorative and have no literal meaning. (Mead, 1984; Wingert, 1953)

36.5" x 11.5" x  7" (hxwxd)
Ancestor figure in Seymour Conservatory. Ancestor Figure
Art Tradition: African

This ancestor figure protects the entrance to the conservatory.  In many African traditions the head, rather than the heart, is believed to be the location of the soul.  Thus, the large domed head symbolizes both wisdom and spirit.  His belly evokes the transmission of life and ancestral blood lines.  (Schmalenback, 1988)

37"x 11.5"x 10" (hxwxd)
Alligator sculpture in Seymour Conservatory. Alligator
Art Tradition: Realism

Animals in the Crocodyliae family have been revered and reviled for centuries.  While many ancient societies recognized the alligator as an ancestor or creator linked to eternity, religions like Islam and Christianity emphasized the animal's savagery.  Mayans and Aztecs believed the world rested on the back of a giant reptile.  Australian Aborigines tell the tale of a crocodile ancestor who chewed the land to create rivers.  Chinese dragons were inspired, in part, by alligators.  (Ross, 1989)

52"x 23"x 70" (hxwxd)

About the Authors

Amy E. Ryken is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Puget Sound and chair of the conservatory's education committee. She researched, wrote and designed this tour.

Holly A. Senn is a sculptor and Virtual Reference Services Librarian at Pacific Lutheran University. She researched, wrote, and photographed this tour.

The authors thank Megan Fish, Office Assistant, University of Puget Sound for her graphic design and book assembly contributions, and Bill Rhind, Metro Parks Tacoma Historian, for his assistance in locating primary source materials about Clarence Deming.

  • Bence, E.  (1963, April 12).  Easter show set to open at Wright Park.  Tacoma News Tribune, pp. 1, 8.
  • Bence, E.  (1971, August 2).  Clarence Deming retires.  Tacoma News Tribune.
  • Garrison, E.  (1950, May 12).  Latin's a help on the job.  Tacoma News Tribune.
  • Kubler, G.  (1993).  The art and architecture of ancient America (3rd ed.).  New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Mead, S.M. (Ed.).  (1984).  Te Maori: Maori Art from New Zealand Collections.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
  • 'Mum show here offers 40 different varieties.  (1954, November 14).  Tacoma News Tribune.
  • Rhind, B.  (2005, Spring).  Clarence Deming integrated art and horticulture.  Botanical Prints, 9(1), 1-2.
  • Ross, C.A. (Ed.).  (1989).  Crocodiles and Alligators.  New York: Facts on File, Inc.
  • Schmalenbach, W. (Ed.).  (1988).  African Art from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, Geneva.  Munich: Prestel-Verlag.
  • Shellabarger, S.  (1945).  Captain  From Castile.  Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Westheim, P., Ruz, A., Armillas, P., de Robina, R., and Caso, A.  (1972).  Prehispanic Mexican Art.  New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  • Wingert, P.S.  (1953).  Art of the South Pacific Islands.  London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.