9/1/2014

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81-year-old artist comes out of retirement to replace city's beloved dragon

81-year-old artist comes out of retirement to replace city's beloved dragon
The head of the new dragon play structure being installed at Deane's Children Park. (Photo courtesy Mercer Island).
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MERCER ISLAND, Wash. -- If fire-breathing dragons are meant to frighten and scare children away then the one on Mercer Island has put on a pretty poor performance for the last 48 years. In fact, thousands of children have preyed - or in this case played -- on the city's resident mythical creature so hard community leaders agreed it was time for it to retire.

"We were at a crossroads, either we could repaint it or we could put in a new dragon," said Amber Britton, coordinator of cultural arts and events for Mercer Island.

But, Britton said the city didn't want to hire just any artist to build just any dragon; they wanted to find the man behind the original sculpture at Deane's Children Park - and they did. It took some work to find some of the people involved with the 1966 installation but Britton said once she heard the name of the original artist she was determined to track him down.

"It was in May when Amber first emailed me," said Kenton Pies. "I am now 81, and she found me in Montana. I am retired, and my original dragon from 48 years ago was starting to crack and they wanted a new one."

Pies agreed to create a new creature for Mercer Island, and in June -- once the city council approved the money for the project -- Pies and his partner, Derek Vonheeder, went to work.

"This is really a sentimental piece with Mercer Island residents," Britton said. "Multiple generations have played on it and have such a fond memory. So, for them we knew we needed to keep the dragon tradition going and to be able to get the original artiest was really exciting."

From Vonheeder's shop in Montana, he and Pies spent eight weeks building the steel skeleton for the new 50-foot dragon. Last Thursday, the two drove the dragon from Montana to Mercer Island and, with the help of several local crews, installation got underway the next day.

Pies said not only does the new structure feature a steeper slide and a bigger mouth for children to climb through; it's also a lot sturdier than the original.

"This one is welded from steel and rebar," he said. "I built the first one 48 years ago with fence wire, and I hand mixed the concrete."

Crews are in the process of spraying the dragon with a concrete-type material to make it smooth, and Pies said a green tint will be applied to the outer layer so it won't need repainting.

The city also decided to keep the head of the old dragon and believe they've found the perfect place to put it - within eye shot of its predecessor. Pies said he plans to recoat the old dragon's head to help hide the years of wear and tear.

A dedication ceremony for the new dragon is planned for next month. The city will publicly welcome the sculpture, officially named Kenton Pies, as the newest piece of the city's art collection -- a legacy Pies himself is quite pleased with.

"This one is so well built it's going to last 100 years," he said.

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