Interview with Harlan Matheson
By Jake Sigo
On May 20, 2007, at approximately 2:00 p.m. Elizabeth Thuston and I interviewed Mr. Harlan Matheson, at his residence located in Bremerton, Washington. Mr. Matheson was the assistant to Mr. Blass from 1957 – 1958, during the time of the mosaic’s construction and therefore was able to provide us much detail about the process that would otherwise have been lost. He remained on the project with Blass until Mr. Matheson’s departure from Olympic College in 1958 when Blass was still working on the mosaic.
Mr. Matheson believed the college planned for the mural by building a recession on the wall of the building; however, the wall was only recessed by approximately ¾ inch. Blass’ plans for the mural required a deeper recession, so Mr. Matheson was charged with carving it out with a chisel and hammer. To Blass’ initial dismay, Harlan put his foot down and insisted on using a jackhammer to complete the preparation. Blass didn’t use the mural for instructional purposes, but did permit interested students to assist in the processes. Blass typically worked in his studio from 8:00 – Noon each day, teaching courses in the afternoon, and proceeding to work on the mural into the evenings. Mr. Matheson recalls frequently working until 7p.m.
Planning the mural
Blass ordered the maintenance staff to construct a “mock wall” of sorts in his studio, which was housed in a building that formerly served as military barracks, providing much needed open space, high ceilings and light from the north. The wall was constructed from plywood, and then covered with butcher paper. Blass created a grid over the paper-covered wall, and a corresponding grid over his initial sketch, which was 3” x 15”. It was this grid technique he used to transfer the image to the mock wall. He was now ready to begin constructing individual tiles.
Constructing the tiles
The initial plan was to construct the murals using individual tiles that were 1 square foot in size. This process was changed to speed up the process. To construct the initial tiles, he transferred the image by placing onion-skin paper over the mock wall and tracing the image. The paper was then placed on a work bench with a sheet of ¼ inch thick glass placed over it. Blass placed the broken glass over the traced image, sticking them to the sheet of glass using dental wax. Steel bars were cut and used to form a dam around the edge of the glass pieces were applied, separated by grout, and then cement was poured. A week or two later, tiles were run under hot water (to melt the wax for easy removal) and to check for any spaces that needed to be filled in with grout. After the concrete has a chance to cure for around 28 days, it was time to install the tile on the building.
Applying the tiles
The last step in the process was to apply the tiles to the site. Plaster of Paris was applied to the building and the surface prepared using a rake made of wood and nails. This process created grooves in the plaster to help bond the tile to it. Tiles were held in place using square concrete nails until they set and the next tile could be applied. This process was repeated numerous times, mostly around the edges, as the center was planned to be completed last. By the end of the mosaic, Blass had changed his process to finish up the project as is noticeable in the style change for the images in the center.
Mr. Matheson described Blass as a tough, no-nonsense teacher of classic education. Blass served in the Army during WWII, and moved to Bremerton after a brief return to Pittsburgh, PA. He was said to have peddled here on a bicycle!
Harlan believes that Blass would want the mosaic preserved in situ ideally, though he personally wouldn’t be opposed to its relocation. He feels the destruction of the mosaic would be a terrible loss to the school and its history. He suggests leaving it in place and incorporating that wall into the new building, or simply building around it.
Interview with Mural Assistant, Mr. Matheson
By Elizabeth Thuston
As a recent graduate from Olympic College, Mr. Matheson was a fine candidate to be an artist assistant. But before he was a student he served in the military when he was drafted. He was transferred all over Europe, but he spent most of his time in Germany. Then he wanted to go to Olympic College to be an engineer in the Naval Shipyard.
The whole mural as completed didn’t impress Mr. Matheson; he admired the small tiles that were created one by one. Each tile was completed by the artist, by a very tedious process. There was a large wall in the art room were a thick brown paper was placed. The artist then drew a small sample, and then projected it to size on the brown paper. Next came the tiles, the process was very difficult to do. Mr. Matheson described the best he could. When looking at the mural someone might think that it was created from the inside out, but it was actually done the other way around. The artist placed each tile from the outside in.
Mr. Matheson left in 1958 and there was still a lot of work to do. As he went on with his life, the mural was still coming to life. Creating brochures for Aerospace Companies, Mr. Matheson was a successful man.
When he was asked his opinion about the mural’s meaning, he replied, “There is not one meaning, because everyone who sees it, had their own idea.” He wants to see it saved. He believes it should be incorporated into another building. “Pictures are nice until they fade in color, documents cannot describe the beauty, leave it where it is.” The mural was a contribution to the college.
I learned a lot about the mural through this interview. Never have I met someone with such a deep passion for the work he did. He mostly remembers how hard it was to make rather than feeling victory from a great success. This man had been through a lot in his life, and this mural means a lot to him. The expression on his face when we asked if he would like it saved was priceless. Pride beamed, he wants to save the mural at all costs.
Interview with Bernice Walsh
By Jacob Sigo
I interviewed Ms. Bernice Walsh, a former student of Blass during the construction of the mural. We had a wonderful conversation about the history of the arts and culture of Bremerton and her experiences at Olympic College. Mr. Blass was the first art instructor and was responsible for the development of the art program at Olympic College. Ms. Walsh too, described him as a “taskmaster of sorts” – a real stickler when it came to class. His teaching focused on the real fundamentals of art, charging students with the responsibility of researching various artists and styles. She recalls the mural being separate from any course she took from him, though at the time of her attendance she admits she wasn’t “at that level” in her art.
She does recall Blass keeping journals during the creation of the mosaic, and suggested we contact a friend of his (who didn’t respond to requests for interview or comment) to inquire about the possible location the diaries/manuscripts as they could provide fascinating details about the mosaic, its construction and more importantly, Blass’ interpretation.
Interview with DeAnna Kauzlaric
By Acquanda Tomlinson
DeAnna Kauzlaric was interviewed on May 15, 2007, at 10:00 a.m. in the basement at the Haselwood Library, Olympic College, Bremerton, Washington.
DeAnna Kauzlaric’s familiarity with the Olympic College’s mosaic is nothing short of question less. Although not a student at the college, for twenty-six years she worked on campus handling public requests at what was then called Public Services. Today, this department is known as the Communications Office. She witnessed first hand the beginnings of the mosaic, which began over half a century ago and has just recently been the subject of discussion concerning its destruction or preservation. It was here on this campus that she met her future husband, Brad, who at time was a student at Olympic College and enrolled in Hank Blass’ art class. She told the story of her first date with Brad and the bumpy ride through the streets of Bremerton, the dance she wondered if she would ever get to, and finally the arrival at the doorstep of a project that would soon manifest hard work, dedication, and a large imagination. It was on this night that she witnessed up close the unfinished and barely touched wall which for the next half-century would house the famous mosaic. Driving around and finally reaching the campus before the dance, Brad, pulling his car into the dark area and turning on the lights of the vehicle, revealed the then barren and incomplete project that he explained was what he had been working on.
“The construction of the mosaic was a tedious task.” A cartoon drawn up and posted on the thick concrete slab was just one step in the design of this mosaic. Each piece of glass was then turned over and affixed with an adhesive. Hank, the art instructor and mastermind behind his project title “The Progression of Man”, assigned each student specific tasks whether it was collecting or sorting of glass, hand mixing concrete, or polishing tile. Each bit hand-cut by the instructor and piece by piece assembled to produce the mosaic, which has now been a finished project for nearly 50 years.
“Brad and other students were very vested in it as were so many others, yet they did not receive any class credits,” DeAnna stated. “The project was not part of the class curriculum.” Those who worked on it did so of their own free will. Brad, who lived only a few streets away from campus, at one point, was so consumed with the construction of this mosaic that he spent just about every spare moment fixed in front of its domain. Working on it after class and on weekends, his parents at one point wondered if he would ever return home.
Brad first learned of the potential destruction of the mosaic from a phone call from a former classmate. Brad wrote a letter to the Olympic College Foundation expressing his desire and support for saving the mosaic, but when asked if he would put more effort forth in trying to save this piece, time and energy made him think twice and he was not sure he had enough of each. [Brad passed away shortly after writing the letter].
I asked DeAnna if the mosaic were not to be saved what is one thing she would want people to remember. “The effort of the workers and the class. Tedious work should be respected and in comparison to the student population today, this piece was a huge process.”
Each moment spent working on the mosaic turned to hours, hours to days and days to week. The weeks then turned into months and finally, months to years as the five-year construction came to an end and the project was finally finished in 1957. There are those who still have a live memory of the mosaic and this piece of art reflects cherished memories. Some take a moment and reminisce about back in the day. A five year project shows the dedication and devotion of the art instructor and his students.
There are those who walk by and glance and others who stop and take a moment and in their minds, recreate a feeling which can only be felt while in its presence looking back and saying, “Hey, I remember.” Regardless of the differing views and sentimental values of each person, those who were involved and, in many cases, those who have recently become involved, believe the word of someone who is very close to the mosaic ring true: “The mosaic was built to last. If we expect for those in the future to respect what we do today, then we need to represent what those before use have done.” The rule of three played a tremendous role in the construction of such a masterpiece: Dedication, determination, and desire. Had it not been for each, the piece which hangs for an additional unknown amount of time on the Math/Science building today would not be a discussed topic and I would have been assigned a different project.
Phone Interview with Joy Beckley
By Caroline Hartse
I phoned Joy Beckley on May 17, 2007, on the recommendation of DeAnna Kauzlaric. Joy resides in Bremerton, Washington. Joy’s mother, Nellie Leach, was on the Art and Music Committee of the Kiwanis club. Nellie Leach was integral in raising funds and collecting materials for the mosaic. Joy’s father, J. Harvey Leach, was an active member of the Kiwanis Club and also played an integral role.
Joy, however, felt it was important to relay a very humorous, yet extremely telling, story about the mosaic. During the years when the Kiwanis club was helping Hank Blass raise funds and collect materials for the mosaic, Joy was dating her future husband, Bart. Joy’s mother had asked Bart to bring her green and brown bottles. He thought this was funny because she was really referring to liquor bottles, but Joy did not think her mother realized this. One night Bart and other Navy personnel from the Hornet raided the officers’ club in order to collect all empty bottles. They then placed all the bottles in the Leach’s yard. When Nellie Leach saw the bottles the next day and realized they were liquor bottles, she was worried what the neighbors would think. J. Harvey Leach thought the situation was hilarious and his future son-in-law won him over with this action. Joy’s husband has passed away, but she said that he always told her that he and the crew of the Hornet were a part of the mosaic.