"Soul Pole" slated for early 2022 return to the CD

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Photo courtesy of SPL
Photo courtesy of SPL

Public art installations have the power to tell the stories of neighborhoods. They shape local understandings of history and bring much more than mere aesthetic appeal to public spaces.

Seattle's public library branches are full of — and surrounded by — unique art installations. One of the most notable is the "Soul Pole," a 21-foot wooden sculpture that was deinstalled in April of this year from the lawn of the Douglass-Truth Branch for some necessary conservation efforts.

Photo courtesy of SPL  

The pole is iconic for its stature and intricate carvings of four distinct figures. It was given to the Douglass-Truth Branch in 1972 by the Seattle Rotary Boys Club, where it "was carved by six young community artists in the late 1960s to honor 400 years of African American history and the struggle for justice in the United States," according to Seattle Public Library.

When the pole was deinstalled, Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, told the SPL that "the Soul Pole represents a beacon of pride that anchors the history of Black people to Seattle's Central District... As assets are razed and vanishing from the Central District, with some recognized as historic footprints, it is our combined responsibility to act as good stewards of the art and culture that define our community."

And the stewardship of the Soul Pole has been very involved. After its deinstallation, it was fumigated and fully dried indoors. The art was tested for cracks and areas of soft wood using special equipment by Artech, an organization that specializes in art restoration. Damaged areas were filled in with epoxy and cedar shims, depending on the severity.

The SPL contends that this is technically a conservation project, not restoration, that is, the project's focus is "on preserving the Soul Pole in as close to its current form as possible for generations to come." The conservation plan was reviewed by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board.

The Soul Pole lasted almost 50 years in rough Seattle weather before its removal, so the hope of the project is to help it withstand several more decades of the same.

The pole is supposed to return to its home in the first quarter of 2022 without many noticeable changes. The only visible difference will be a zinc cap, placed atop the sculpture to protect it from rainfall. The other fill-ins and treatments will be painted over to match the original coloring.

Additionally, the SPL plans on putting a new plaque alongside the old one at the base of the sculpture, outlining the history of the Soul Pole and the conservation efforts of this past year. The library (depending on public health guidelines) "is looking forward to planning a celebration of the Soul Pole's return to Douglass-Truth in 2022, during which we hope to celebrate [its] history, including honoring the sculptors... as well as others with connections to the sculpture."

The SPL claims that the reinstallation will look much like a reverse of the deinstallation: "Artech will be delivering the Pole back to the library using a flatbed truck, with the pole stabilized on pallets. At the site, they will use an outreach forklift to rig the pole and remove it from the flatbed, bring it upright, and secure to the mount."

The reinstallation stands as a testament to the value of historical community art; it brings people together and tells vital stories of the past.

Many residents of the CD have been used to seeing the Soul Pole on their daily routines. It has been a marker of neighborhood pride. Thankfully, its return is just around the corner.

The SPL is asking the public for information on the installation's background and sculptors. Any information you may have can be sent to the library's digital communications strategist Elisa Murray at elisa.murray@spl.org.