FitzGerald, James (1910-1973)

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 8/16/2018
  • Essay 20621
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Born in Seattle, James FitzGerald studied architecture at the University of Washington, then traveled and studied fine-art painting. During the Great Depression he worked on projects funded by the federal government to paint American landscapes and to design bas-reliefs adorning a tunnel for the Lake Washington Floating Bridge that opened in 1940. That same year FitzGerald married Margaret Tomkins (1916-2002), also an accomplished Northwest painter. The two shared a studio in Seattle and later on Lopez Island, and had three children. Following a devastating fire that destroyed his home and studio in 1959, FitzGerald focused primarily on sculpture as a medium for the remainder of his career. His efforts to replicate natural forms in bronze led to his creation of nearly a dozen public fountain sculptures in Washington and on the East Coast, including his pinnacle work Fountain of the Northwest for the 1962 World's Fair at what became Seattle Center. A year after his death from cancer, FitzGerald's final fountain design was posthumously cast in bronze by Tomkins for Seattle's Waterfront Park.

Beginnings as a Painter

James Herbert FitzGerald was born on August 17, 1910, in Seattle. As a young man, he first developed an interest in architecture and, starting at 19, this led him to undertake a five-year course of study at the University of Washington (UW). His studies earned him a Bachelor of Arts degree in architecture in 1934.

FitzGerald remained on the move following his graduation, embracing a passion for the arts while focusing on painting for his creative expression. His experiences during this time were broad and encompassing. After UW, he worked at the Art Center School in Los Angeles. Continuing south, he hitched a ride on the back of a manure truck headed to Mexico and there experienced the work of Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and studied firsthand the famous muralist's work. During the summers of 1935 and 1936 he studied mural painting under the Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949).

Returning to the States, FitzGerald next studied under Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) at the Kansas City Art Institute, and also taught painting, watercolor, and drawing there for two years. During this time, he also worked at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, teaching watercolor technique, and formed close working associations with the painters Boardman Robinson (1876-1952) and Henry Varnum Poor (1887-1970). Along with Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985) FitzGerald was selected by the U.S. Treasury Department Art Program to document the Western landscapes as part of the government's sponsored-artist programs during the Great Depression era. He later recalled:

"Vic was sent to do scenes of Washington and I was sent to Idaho. We had letters that enabled us to live in Forest Service stations and CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camps, etc. I spent all summer hiking in northern Idaho from one mountain fire lookout to another. This summer was valuable to me and I imagine these early studies of nature have some bearing on the abstractions of our western landscape I am doing today in bronze" (Bestor interview, 2).

After assisting Robinson in the following summer of 1938 with a series of murals for the Department of Justice, FitzGerald moved to the East Coast when he was awarded a Carnegie Foundation Fellowship to attend graduate school at Yale. There he studied architecture, philosophy, and Flemish painting for one year. FitzGerald then moved to New York, where he shared a studio at 46 West 8th Street, working with a group of fellow artists, including Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), as part of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) program in the city.

By the fall of 1939, FitzGerald had returned to Seattle and started teaching as an associate instructor in painting for the University of Washington. It was at the UW Art Department that he first met Margaret Tomkins (1916-2002), an assistant professor who taught drawing, painting, and history of art. The two married just a year later, in 1940. They would have three children: son Jared (b. 1944), and daughters Miro (b. 1946) and Gala (b. 1951).

New Work in Sculpture for a Public Works Project

A Public Works Administration (PWA) funded project underway in 1939 -- the construction of a new, twin-bore tunnel through the Mount Baker Ridge above Lake Washington southeast of downtown Seattle -- led to FitzGerald's first effort to create a public sculpture. The twin tunnels would provide the route from the city to a new floating pontoon bridge being built across Lake Washington. For the tunnels' eastern façade facing the lake and bridge, the project's architect, Lloyd Lovegren, enlisted FitzGerald to design a triptych series of vertical concrete panels to decorate the the tunnel entrance.

The three panels he designed each depicted a theme specific the Pacific Northwest as a gateway: the south panel a Chinese dragon, the center panel a sailing ship and whale, and the north panel a Native American totem from Alaska. The panels were also the largest cast in concrete to that point, each one measuring 25 feet high and 12 feet wide. The completed designs were cast by the sculptor James Wehn (1882-1973) in Seattle and installed in time for the official dedication of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge on July 4, 1940.

FitzGerald and Tomkins briefly relocated from Seattle to Spokane, to help with another federally funded effort. In 1941, FitzGerald was hired by the Federal Art Project's state director, Robert Bruce Inverarity (1909-1999), to head the Spokane Art Center, with Tomkins as one of the painting instructors. FitzGerald described it as more of a public service-oriented school, rather than one devoted to teaching artists:

"I think they felt a commitment to the community because the community had put up some sponsorship. They wanted to give a service, and consequently they really didn't train people to be artists. But they did give a service. We had lots of illustrated art history lectures that were interesting and good classes. I would say the classes were far above the caliber of the students. But Spokane at that time was a pretty dead community, too, and it was a very reactionary community" (Bestor interview, 9).

Only a year later, the artistic couple had returned to Seattle. The U.S. had entered the fighting in World War II, and FitzGerald next put his skills as an artist to work for the war effort, serving as the Production Illustration Chief for the Boeing Company. This involved translating a subject from blueprints into an eyewitness view that helped to show perspective and what an assembly should look like to an average viewer. FitzGerald's work in this area included assembly drawings done for the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber in mass production.

The Mount Baker tunnel triptych was a prelude to FitzGerald's later efforts in the sculpture medium. Until 1954, he continued to remain a dedicated painter, using the media of egg tempera as his primary art form. He would apply colors mixed in a solution of egg yolk and water to wooden or Masonite panels coated with a white gesso ground. Over the years many of these works were collected by the Seattle Art Museum, Henry Art Gallery, Washington State University, and other institutions.

Studio Fire and a New Artistic Direction

In 1954, FitzGerald completed his first full-sized bronze sculpture, a fountain for the campus at Washington State College (soon to be renamed "University") in Pullman. The work was an evolution of sorts for the artist, with his desire to take forms found in nature -- rocks, trees, forests -- and translate these into public artworks to be enjoyed as bronze and stone sculpture. A second fountain -- Rain Forest -- was designed in 1959 and cast into bronze for Western Washington College (later University) in Bellingham, and installed in 1960 as Western's first acquisition for its new outdoor sculpture collection.

Concurrently with these first fountains, FitzGerald was working on another key sculpture in 1958 and 1959. Called Rock Totem, its design reflected a desire to meld forms found in nature with FitzGerald's own creative interpretation, which remained grounded in abstraction. At a glance, the sculpture appeared as a series of angular blocks stacked and interconnected to form a vertical column with a terminal height of 12 feet.

Margaret Tomkins described the process for the design of these new works:

"The method employed: hand-formed individual patterns cast in a sand mold. The original idea for the sculpture was not developed through drawings, but by making small-scaled sculpture in wax which was cast by the lost wax method. This model indicated a general conception from which the sculpture later developed in its own way in relation to scale and inter-related forms" (Tomkins, "James FitzGerald").

The early successes of his first two fountains cast in bronze, combined with another event to steer FitzGerald toward sculpture as a preferred medium. On July 13, 1959, a fire broke out at the FitzGerald home and studio on 10th Avenue in Seattle's North Capitol Hill neighborhood, burning the structure to the ground. The artist cut his right hand attempting to break down the door to make sure his two daughters, Miro and Gala (12 and 8 years old at the time) were not inside. While none of the family lost their lives, the loss of their artwork was substantial. In addition to glass panels from a new commission for the Seattle Library, the fire destroyed "99% of the paintings up to that date by FitzGerald and Tomkins" (Tomkins to Nilsson). The loss of the library project was likewise disheartening, as this had been a collaborative effort by James and Margaret to create an elaborate screen with elements of sand-cast bronze, etched brass work, and fused glass with welded bronze.

FitzGerald noted the loss of one sculpture work as particularly devastating to him: "The most valuable thing I lost was a wax and wood model for a 12-foot bronze sculpture called 'Rock Totem.' I have been working on it all my life, in one way of speaking" (Farrell). More than 50 years later, Miro FitzGerald recalled the importance of this work as well, in how it "symbolized a re-birth I believe to my dad, an ascension upwards from the traumatic loss they had suffered" (Miro FitzGerald email).

The fire convinced FitzGerald that sculpture, and specifically work cast in bronze, would prevail against any future repetitions of disaster (only several bronze sculptures had survived the destruction). The loss of the first Rock Totem model also spurred the sculptor to renew his efforts in the medium with greater purpose, which in turn had a lasting effect on the development his portfolio of public sculpture commissions and his reputation as an artist of international acclaim. Between 1959 and 1972, FitzGerald created 11 monumental cast-bronze sculptures for public sites in Washington, at Princeton University in New Jersey, and in Santiago, Chile, and Ogden, Utah.

New Commission for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair

FitzGerald had worked with architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993) back in 1954 when he completed his first fountain, on the Washington State College campus. The fountain was designed for a women's dormitory and that building had been designed by Thiry, who shared FitzGerald's vision of fountains and other sculpture work as an enhancement to the surrounding landscape for his building projects.

FitzGerald continued his association with Thiry to the duo's mutual benefit. His next project working with Thiry came four years later in 1958, while undertaking a wall mosaic done in a tesserae style using colored ground marble, cement, and latex, for the new Washington State Library in Olympia. It was a fortunate turn for the sculptor's career, as Thiry had been hired as the lead project architect to design the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair in Seattle.

FitzGerald was invited by Thiry to make his own contributions to Century 21 in the form of sculptures. Two of these were designed as pieces for a public exhibition during the run of the World's Fair from its opening on April 21, 1962, through the October 21, 1962, closing. The first of these was an abstract small bronze sculpture titled Song of Wind (1962). In the time since his studio had burned to the ground in 1959, the sculptor had also created three new versions of Rock Totem. Two of the sculptures were cast into bronze in 1960 and 1961, with a third study done in wax. FitzGerald included the wax version of Rock Totem as part of the "Art Since 1950, American" exhibition curated by Sam Hunter for display in the Fine Art Pavilion during the Fair's run in 1962.

While Rock Totem and Song of Wind were both offered only for temporary display, FitzGerald coordinated with Thiry to create a more permanent public sculpture as part of Century 21's site plan. Designed with four vertical "tree form" patterns using French sand molds and cast into bronze using the lost wax casting method, FitzGerald created a new fountain for the Playhouse Theater's courtyard, titled Fountain of the Northwest. The design incorporated channels for water to spray through openings in the bronze, further enhancing its use of natural forms with the collecting pool below. The fountain was dedicated on March 21, 1962, one month before the official opening of the World's Fair.

The success of these early fountains led FitzGerald to design eight more fountains over the course of his career that were eventually cast into bronze, including one installed in the sunken plaza of the 1964 IBM Building in Seattle, designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki (1913-1986). Yamasaki, born and raised in Seattle, also designed the Pacific Science Center for the 1962 World's Fair and the World Trade Center in New York.

Owing to his need for a new self-casting resource, FitzGerald opened his own foundry in South Lake Union with Tomkins in 1964. John E. Fraser, who came from a long line of foundrymen from British Columbia, worked briefly in the FitzGerald foundry until he set up his own foundry -- Fraser Bronze Foundry -- in 1965 in space rented from FitzGerald. (Fraser relocated his foundry to Lake City in 1970). Another foundry assistant, Terry Copple (1945-1996) collaborated with Tomkins in 1974 on the bronze casting of FitzGerald's final fountain design for Waterfront Park in Seattle.

Legal Trouble

The historical significance of Fountain of the Northwest in the Playhouse courtyard comes from its being one of the 11 fountains that FitzGerald created in his career. Yet it was the monolithic design for Rock Totem that continued to impact the sculptor's life for years after its first public exhibition at the 1962 World's Fair.

Robert Hopkins (b. 1934), a student working toward his Master's of Arts degree in sculpture, had visited the fair and seen Rock Totem on display. Two months later, Hopkins received a commission to create a sculpture for the rear entry of the Washington Federal Savings and Loan Association's new branch bank in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Hopkins completed his eight-foot sculpture in bronze -- Transcending -- which was installed in 1962.

Upon seeing it in person, FitzGerald's reaction was immediate. He filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement against both the bank and Hopkins, asking for $50,000 in damages and removal of the offending sculpture from public view. Hopkins in turn filed his own lawsuit for libel, over remarks FitzGerald had made to bank personnel demanding the removal of the sculpture.

Over the next three years of court battles, FitzGerald's attorney, Irving Clark Jr. (1921-1978), could not prove that Rock Totem was a design deliberately copied by the younger sculptor. The courts noted that vertical sculptural forms as well as Native American totems had been around for hundreds of years, available for both sculptors to review and draw inspiration from to create their own artworks. In 1967 Hopkins was legally exonerated from any wrongdoing, with local newspapers portraying him as a figure akin to David in the battle against Goliath.

The final judgment of the Washington State Supreme Court also found that FitzGerald was accountable for remarks he made to bank employees and in a written letter offered up as evidence at proceedings, which called Hopkins "a thief ... [whose] desire for money has guided his hand in his path of plagiarism" (FitzGerald v. Hopkins). With no direct proof available to show Hopkins had deliberately copied Rock Totem, and with the subsequent judgment that Hopkins had violated no copyright of the work, such words were deemed unfounded in the legal review and in the end cost FitzGerald $15,000 in the judgment against him. Nearly a half century later, Miro recalled the aftermath in the days that followed the court's decision: "The house felt somber, like a morgue when I came home from school. I knew we had lost" (Miro FitzGerald email).

In the end, Rock Totem prevailed as a public artwork for FitzGerald, albeit in a city other than Seattle. One bronze casting of the sculpture done in 1961 was eventually acquired for the private collection of Jon (b. 1938) and Mary (1939-2013) Shirley, and later donated to the City of Bellevue and accepted for that city's public art collection on October 21, 2002. The 14-foot tall sculpture was installed in 2008 at the corner of 108th Avenue NE and NE 12th Street in Bellevue, where it still resided as of 2018.

Final Years

The legal controversy surrounding Rock Totem coincided with a final period in the sculptor's life where he made a full transition away from sculpture based on forms represented in nature to those wholly abstract in conception, which incorporated found objects such as children's toy parts. These were his artistic reflections of the late 1960s, as the Vietnam War raged overseas and at home, with FitzGerald drawn to conflict as a new theme in both his emerging new work and in his worldview:

"Sculpture must speak the language of plastic form, a language deeply seated in our emotions and not governed or motivated by our mental process. Today our lives are smothered in gross materializations and our emotional inner reality is neglected and starved. Young people today are keenly aware of our dilemma and are taking every means to free themselves of our mad destruction of our fellow man and are trying to move completely away from the materialistic 'garbage culture' we have assembled and wish to pass on to our children" (James FitzGerald, "Notebook ...").

FitzGerald's new bronzes in this abstract vein were featured in exhibitions held in 1968 at the Gordon Woodside Gallery in Seattle and at Everett General Hospital. The following year he was at the Catherine Vivan Gallery in New York with a one-man exhibition. His last fountain design that he cast in bronze at his Seattle foundry was done for the Civic Center Waterfront Park in Kirkland in 1970.

FitzGerald was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer in 1973. He died that same year, with Tomkins continuing efforts to see one of his final fountain designs installed as part of the new Waterfront Park under development by the City of Seattle. In 1974 the design for Waterfront Fountain was cast in bronze, as the last public-art sculpture jointly credited to James FitzGerald and Margaret Tomkins and produced by the FitzGerald foundry (which closed shortly thereafter). The fountain was dedicated on October 25, 1974, with the official opening of the new park on Seattle's central waterfront.


Dorothy Bestor, interview with James and Margaret Tomkins FitzGerald, October 27, 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Margaret Tomkins, "James FitzGerald," August 24, 1978, Folder 14, Box 1, Acc. 2848-002, James FitzGerald and Margaret Tomkins Papers, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Margaret Tomkins to Jo Nilsson, August 25, 1977, Folder 14, Box 1, Acc. 2848-002, James FitzGerald and Margaret Tomkins Papers, University of Washington Libraries; James FitzGerald, 1910-1973 (exhibition catalog, 1988), Folder 46, Box 1, Acc. 2848-002, James FitzGerald and Margaret Tomkins Papers, University of Washington Libraries; James FitzGerald, "Notebook -- FitzGerald," p. 10, Folder 1, Box 2, Acc. 2848-002, James FitzGerald and Margaret Tomkins Papers, University of Washington Libraries; Barry Farrell, "Artist's Spirit Burns Bright after Fire Ruins Treasures," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1959, p. 31; Miro FitzGerald, email to Fred Poyner IV, March 21 and 28, 2016, in possession of Fred Poyner IV, Issaquah, Washington; Fred Poyner IV, Seattle Public Sculptors -- Twelve Makers of Monuments, Memorials and Statuary, 1909-1962 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2017); Fitzgerald v. Hopkins, 70 Wn.2d 924 (1967); William Gibb, Gloria Campbell, and Robert Mortenson, The Fiery Furnace -- A History of the Foundry Industry in King County and the Puget Sound Region (Kirkland: Sundial Press, 2011); "Born 450 Years Too Soon," Boeing Magazine, October 1943, pp.1-3; Jane H. Kay, "Seattle's Minoru Yamasaki -- Integrator of Sculpture and Architecture," The Seattle Times, June 18, 1967, magazine p. 5.

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