I finally made it up to the secret garden above the treetops, in daylight and with something like a camera and found an unlocked door.

On the ninth floor of the Mark Hatfield Federal Courthouse is a secret sculpture garden. At the gate, while being frisked I asked, “which floor is the secret sculpture garden, the one where judges can have a quick toke during lunch?” and got an immediate vibrant stare from the blue-suited security guards, “what do you mean secret? It’s not a secret. It’s open to anyone.”

Awkward pause which refreshes.

They took a secret just-in-case picture of me and I stuck my secret art camera back in my pocket and went to find someone else to talk to. I felt slightly less anonymous, but I figured I would soon be in good company.

In the lobby (and all this icon-architecture is at SW Third and Salmon Streets) is a dark and dour oil portrait of Matthew Deady, an early justice of Oregon’s Supreme Court. The portrait, by William Cogswell, made in 1887, hung in the Central Library prior to it’s 2000 remodel, is now fixed to a wall about twenty feet off the ground – it’s a dour, dark portait, popular at the time, but in it’s current position quite impossible to look at. The lobby areas of the courthouse have tightly controlled waterfalls and various insipid aphorisms carved into the granite walls. The place is cold and shivery, just what some asshole like Howard Roark would build.

Get to the ninth floor, skip the courtrooms which are boring and head for the south side of the building. There’s a slightly hidden door which if you’re lucky is unlocked. Scamper out and you’re free.

The artist is Tom Otterness and he calls this set of sculptures Law of Nature, built for the site in 1997. They’re just terrific. The pictures here are lousy – go to Otterness’ web site, they’re much better, but they’re much better in person. Context means much in contemporary sculpture, either abstract or slightly surreal.


The first impression is you’re out of the building and way up high. The air is better, the sounds of wind and weather and not fans and clerks clicking. There are no cameras watching you. And you’re high above the city. And there’s a path to follow, down a ramp, around a corner and into some shrubbery.

Suddenly and slightly underfoot are Tom’s bronze and bucktoothed creatures, Books and TVs, smiling, hypnotized, wander hand in hand. The beaver bites at the base of the trunk while above blind justice hides a secret dagger. A shower drowns a pile of castaway books, a courtroom scene with judge, jury, prosecutor and accused.

It’s hard not to be silly in the midst of such ornate oppression and linear conceit. Tho Otterness’ ridicules his subjects, it’s hard to imagine they would be bothered, because of the arrogance and self-indulgence of law and because of the distance the small sculptures take from the occupants. They’re outside the building, outside the law, they’re small and bronze and playful, the opposite of the ghosts in black robes which haunt the interior halls.

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