Dedicated in March 2019, Ancich Waterfront Park in downtown Gig Harbor is both a remembrance of the town’s pioneering Ancich family and a dedication to the commercial fishing boats that shaped much of the community’s history. The park’s landscaping plan included public artwork and, when considering how to proceed, the city decided to keep the specs spare. There were only two parameters in the Gig Harbor Call for Artists: honor the community’s commercial fishing industry and working waterfront and don’t block the harbor view. The rest was left to the skilled interpretation of the artist who ultimately received the commission: Olalla metal sculptor Gary Jackson.
The owner of Sunburst Metalworks and a member of the Gig Harbor Art League, Jackson specializes in freestanding and relief wildlife sculptures and signage made of stainless steel and bronze. His stately blue herons, salmon swimming upstream and eagles and cormorants captured midflight can be found in several area businesses and homes. Much of his work is commissioned.
“Often, customers find me by doing an internet search for someone who can build a certain sculpture, although many of my commissions are word-of-mouth or repeat customers,” Jackson says. “We discuss their needs; I develop sketches and a proposal and then we work together to make adjustments.”
Born in Mansfield, Ohio, Jackson grew up in Southern California, where his talents as a maker and artist were evident by high school.
“As a teenager, I liked building model kits and won several trophies in model car contests. In high school, the classes I excelled in were art, metal shop and industrial drawing,” he recalls. “I’ve always loved constructing objects in an artful, crafty way.”
After high school, he studied technical illustration at El Camino College and worked in several small and large fabrication and machine shops. In the mid-’70s, he moved to Washington to begin a shipfitter apprenticeship at Bremerton’s Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
“I learned welding and how to shape and form heavy metal objects and then join them into a cohesive unit,” he says. “I loved the program and graduated with honors but knew I wanted to use the skills I learned to create art.”
His evolution from welder to recognized metal artist took a few more years and training. There was a short stint studying graphic design at Seattle’s School of Visual Concepts and a metal sculpture class and two photography courses at Olympic College. Somewhere in that timeline, he bought an Olalla house that came with a “wonderful garage” and purchased a welding machine to begin his own welding business — “metal work with an artsy touch,” he explains.
Jackson says metal fabrication has come a long way since his high school metal shop and early shipyard days.
“Things are much more computer-oriented,” he explains.
He uses a computer to do his drawing layout work. Most of his metal cutting is done on a CNC (computer numerically controlled) plasma cutter, a computer-directed machine that uses a plasma torch to cut metal in patterns numerically coded by Jackson.
“The CNC is particularly useful for typesetting metal signs in a wide array of fonts,” he says.
His art installation on the sides of the Ancich Park boathouse is one of his most ambitious design and production efforts. Titled “Seiners at Sunrise,” the 25-piece mounted relief sculpture portrays purse seining, a type of commercial fishing done by the Ancich family and still in use by some of the Gig Harbor fishing fleet today.
The scene details a small skiff stretching a fishing net from the main purse seiner to set it out in the water, while salmon swim underneath the boats and eagles fly overhead.
“The most challenging piece by far was creating the net,” Jackson explains. “I had to weave it myself from various sizes of stainless-steel round bar. It took a month to just to complete that single feature.”
The Ancich Park commission is one of several Jackson has completed for the city, notes Gig Harbor Mayor Kit Kuhn. Jackson also designed and created a 25-foot relief sculpture mounted in the lobby of the Gig Harbor Civic Center.
“His stainless-steel sculpture over the entrance of the council chamber’s entry doors combines a variety of recognizable features that represent Gig Harbor’s landmarks, industry and architecture,” Kuhn says. “He was chosen partially because of the unique quality of his work that would show images that reflected the heritage of Gig Harbor.”
In addition to his commissioned work, Jackson also creates a few pieces for retail sale. Savage Plants and Landscape in Kingston is a big fan. This summer, the nursery retailed two of Jackson’s pieces, including a stainless-steel great blue heron.
When asked how he created the freestanding sculpture, Jackson describes a complex process. He started with a 4-by-8-foot sheet of stainless steel and cut all the pieces either by hand or with the CNC plasma cutter.
“After the initial cutting, I grounded and sanded the flat parts to be smooth and then used a 15-ton hydraulic press to shape the individual parts,” he says. “The body is created in two halves before it’s shaped and welded together. The head is shaped the same way before being attached to the body.”
He created the legs from solid, stainless-steel round bar and then shaped and attached the feet.
“All seams were welded complete, then grinded and sanded smooth using sanding strokes that mimic the actual flow of the feathers,” he continues. “Then I installed the glass eyes from an online taxidermy supply company.”
Jackson’s unique signage can be seen throughout the area, from Poulsbo’s Molly Ward Gardens restaurant to Tacoma’s Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, as well as at the entrance to multiple residential communities, businesses and the Bonney Lake Park and Ride. However, his metal work with an artsy touch is not limited to sculptures and signs. His website’s special project portfolio also includes commissioned furniture — bedframes, unique metal tables and wall screens, as well as artful outdoor landscaping features such as pergolas and trellises.
To see how Jackson’s skills can transform a sheet of stainless-steel and a stock of round bar into a flight of sparrows or a spouting whale, examples of his work and contact information can be found on his website at sunburstmetalworks.com.