81-year-old artist restores beloved dragon

Cement is sprayed onto the mesh structure of the dragon early last week. - Courtesy Photo, Ross Freeman
Cement is sprayed onto the mesh structure of the dragon early last week.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo, Ross Freeman

When the city of Mercer Island first approached Kenton Pies about designing and building a new dragon statue for Deane’s Children Park, he wasted no time, immediately setting to work on a clay model.

Flipping through books provided inspiration and when the city formally decided to rebuild the structure, instead of retouching it for $30,000, the 81-year-old artist decided to leave retirement for the project.

“When I first did this [it] was something creative to do. I didn’t have any idea of how popular it would be, or how universal it would become,” said Pies, taking a break from the assembly of the dragon one afternoon last week. “I don’t think I even knew over the years, that this was called the dragon park.”

Pies worked side-by-side with his assistant, Derek Von Heeder almost daily for eight weeks. Dozens of phone calls and emails were exchanged with the city. Then the steel skeleton was shipped in three parts, assembled on site and coated in cement. Over the weekend an acid-based paint was applied.

“So many people have reacted to it,” said Pies. “Even since we’ve been working on it, people have come up to the fence and will wave.”

Pies was first recruited for the project in 1965, in the early days of his artist career. Back then the park wasn’t owned by the city of Mercer Island and when MI staff first considered replacing the structure, they couldn’t find records of his work. Only his name, scrawled in all caps at the base of the dragon head hinted at the sculptor’s identity.

In 2005 Pies moved to Montana. He continued his artistic career, but branched off into other mediums. A portfolio filled with photographs reveals elaborate entryways, wood carvings and paintings of the Montana landscape. Pies recently launched plans for an arts center near his home. He hopes to outfit an old school, converting the space to a gallery and classrooms.

“This was the project that could bring me out of retirement. I get bored anyway,” laughed Pies.

Though pulling up brochures of his work, and thumbing through photos, it’s clear he’s kept himself busy.

“This is more than just a play structure,” said Amber Britton, project manager with Mercer Island Parks and Recreation. “This is a piece of art.”

The city is paying $60,000 for the new dragon, which is funded by MI’s 1% for the Arts Fund. Of that sum, Pies will pay $7,000 in taxes and admits between material, labor and transportation, he’s not likely to make much of a profit.

“But to think of all the kids that will play on this, that is much more satisfying than even what I’d done before,” says the artist.

“People have been bringing their grandkids here for years, have played on it as children,” says Britton, “even people that don’t live on the island. There are so many people connected to it.”

A ribbon cutting ceremony will be held at Deane’s Children Park on Nov. 16 at 2 p.m.


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