'Blocked Out': Finding a way to move forward

A black sandstone block with two bare feet carved in the top. A stone bench shaped like a giant ear. Green lawn over earth mounded into sharp hillocks.

"Blocked Out," the new public artwork on the University of Washington campus, fuses sculpture with landscaping.

The 2-foot-high block suggests an auction block on which people of color stood to be sold. It also works as a speaker's platform.

The ear, covered with a multicolored mix of Northwest river rock, is a place to sit and listen, evoking in its many colors the spirit of diverse voices. The mounded earth - powerful sound or shock waves conveying the speaker's voice.

Located between Suzzallo Library and Mary Gates Hall at the University of Washington, two classic Gothic-style buildings, "Blocked Out" inhabits new ground. Students in professor John Young's spring Design/Build Studio created the monument.

For Young, chairperson of public art, the spring project is an annual event. In just 12 weeks, the Design/Build Studio class takes a public artwork from idea to installation. But this year's project is a first: "Blocked Out" is the first student-created public artwork on campus that celebrates diversity.

A controversial start

The creative impetus for "Blocked Out" began two years ago, but it was rooted in a controversy that goes back decades.

In October 2003, the UW Athletic Department installed a statue of former Husky football coach Jim Owens in front of Husky Stadium. The bronze monument opened old wounds in the African-American community. Owens, who coached the Huskies from 1957 to 1974, is known for revitalizing the UW football program, for his "Death March" practices and for the racial issues that boiled over during his tenure.

Sumona Das Gupta, a 22-year-old UW biochemistry major with family in Calcutta, India, heard about the statue and called fellow Minority Think Tank (MTT) member Jaebadiah Gardner, an African-American and Hispanic student majoring in English and American Ethnic studies. She convinced him to help lobby for the statue's removal.

Before the 2003 Apple Cup, they passed out protest flyers with other MTT students. Apart from the old controversy, the activists raised an important question: Why wasn't there a public monument on campus that represented people of color and their struggle?


Das Gupta has a lively face and curly, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her diamond nose ring is a gift from her mother. Jaebadiah Gardner, originally from Los Angeles, wears an Anaheim Angels baseball cap over braids. Their ready smiles mask a tenacious devotion to their causes.

In addition to carrying challenging course loads and co-directing the student group EMPOWER (Encouraging Minority People to Overcome with Education and Respect), the two spearheaded what became known as the UW Cultural Diversity Project.

For the students, or "inspirational specialists," as Gardner calls his fellow activists, the road to their monument was a convoluted one. As they shifted their focus away from the Owens' statue toward building a diversity monument, "we saw every administrator on campus. We saw the assistant to the assistant deans," Gardner said.

A meeting with UW public-art administrator Kurt Kiefer finally got the ball rolling. Kiefer sent them to Gail Dubrow, professor of urban design and planning, and Debra Friedman, then in the Provost' Office. Here, they heard, "We can make it happen."

Impressed with John Young's successful public art projects, the activists asked him to devote the spring 2005 Public Art Curriculum to creating a diversity monument, with significant caveats from the activist group: The course must include the activists, even though they had no art training, and all students in the class must share a commitment to welcoming future generations of students of color.

Young, a tall, gray-haired sculptor, laid out his own requirements. First, they needed to come up with $30,000 to fund the work. The students came back with $50,000, much of it pledged by Connie Kravas in the UW Development Office.

Young also asked for a secure site for the work; the students came back with two possible sites.

The UW Cultural Diversity Project Spring 2005 was on.

Making waves

The conceptualizing phase for "Blocked Out" took two weeks of "conscious struggle" in the studio class and "wasn't always pretty," according to Gardner.

Not all members of the class were comfortable talking about race and what it means to be different. Some wanted a work that confronted racism; others, one that celebrated diversity. They ended up with both.

The spring Design/Build Studio brought its project in one week early and under budget. Before commencement in June, "Blocked Out" was dedicated to "those who are excluded from the house they were exploited to create."

The intent of "Blocked Out" was to make waves, take a stand, have a voice. As the American Indian contemporary artist James Luna told Young's studio class, "There is no melting pot, but we can learn to live together in harmony."

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