Tommy the Turtle has a New Home

Tommy the Turtle enjoying his new view on Kennydale Beach.

If you grew up in Renton anytime between 1960 and 1990 you probably remember spending time at the downtown Renton Sears. You might even smell the popcorn from the upstairs candy counter just thinking about it. 

ad for the Renton Shopping Center featuring the beautiful courtyard.

Renton Center

Well I’m one of those kids who remembers. I remember going down with my aunt to purchase my first cabbage patch kid. I remember a huge enclosed courtyard with JCPenny’s being the flagship store directly across from Sears. The stores in between were mostly local. There was a Walden bookstore with books of all kinds stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling. My favorite, kids corner. It had a door for us kids separate and smaller than the actual doors. My mom’s favorite, FashionsWest, supplying a host of trendy women fashions. And, of course, the oh so popular Command Center, our local arcade in which I was never allowed to go. 

This whole complex had such a cool vibe. It was well thought out, and seemed to offer something for everyone.

The courtyard was a dream. Walkways up both sides that entered into each place of business. And in the center, throughout flowers and benches was an architectural dream.

Let’s rundown a few of the highlights shall we.

FOUNTAIN by Artist is George Tsutakawa, designed in 1970. Now located at the Maplewood Golf Course.

Fountain in it’s current home at the Maplewood Golf Course. Photo from the City of Renton Art Collection.

HEXAPOD by Creative Playthings, designed sometime in the 1959’s. Now located in Skyway outside the old Skyway Grocery.

Hexapod, modernism play structures of the 1950’s. Photo by Popular Mechanics.

PORPOISE by Jim Miller-Melberg (of Form Inc.) created the porpoise. The courtyard had two. One nose up, one nose down. One remains in the collection, on display at the Henry Moses Aquatic Center. The other made its way to Lake Tapps County Park.

Photo from

TURTLE TENT by Milton Hebald, also of Creative Playthings (1953)/Play Sculptures. Now on display at Kennydale Beach Park.

Cover Art for 1953 Play Sculptures catalog.

Let’s talk about this turtle.

I’m not saying it was the most cherished piece if public art Renton has. I’m not even saying it is a piece that defines us in any way. What I am saying is this. This is to me the definition of what public art should be. 

Tommy the turtle, or ”turtle tent”, which is the original name, first came back into my memory in 2014. A good 25 year since I last crawled on his shell. There were public meetings about the new Sunset Park. The city was getting ready to build next to KCLSs new highlands library. These two major construction projects would help the reboot of this untouched 1970’s neighborhood.

That was then, this is now

I wasn’t present at these public meetings, but I remember this is when discussions about Tommy had begun to circulate. 

For those of you reading who might not know, after the Renton Center courtyard was demolished, Tommy landed at the highlands library. Here Kids could continue to play on him for a good 20 more years. 

When KCLS took over our library systems the plan was to remodel both libraries; starting with the highlands. During this time, Tommy ended up in storage. 

A Spokesperson for the Turtle

Over the next six years I followed the Tommy story. I became somewhat of a turtle spokesperson. I continued to ask the city about its safety, and encouraged them to help locate a new home for him. Throughout those years I would get tagged in posts from people wondering what happened to the turtle. Occasionally a photo would pop up on social media stating, ” you know you’re from Renton if you grew up playing on the turtle.”

In a monumental presentation for us on the arts commission to City Council in October of 2017. I presented a whole section around Tommy, the benefits of social shared space. How art becomes central points to our history. 

Everyone on the Arts Commission began to get involved in finding him a home. Marsha Rollinger did some deep digging to find all the information. You would be surprised how Little was documented about the historic courtyard.

The City gets involved

It wasn’t until Betsy Severtsen and Alan Wyatt from the Parks Department got involved that any movement happened. It was there suggestion that Tommy be placed,in his forever home, on Kennydale Beach Park. The beach where famously Clint Eastwood had lifeguarded back when he was a teen. 

The Kennydale neighborhood embraced this addition. They even shared some of their own memories of the turtle. 

One resident sent me a picture of her son playing on the turtle that she remembered playing on at his age.

Who was the Artist

Let’s talk about the designer, Milton Hebald. In 1953, produced by the Play Sculptures division of Creative Playthings from the mid 50s to the mid 60s. The idea behind the catalogs work was said that if you could engage children in play and imagination that they would take that with them into adulthood. 

Creative Playthings, in collaboration with the MoMA in New York City, opened an independent division of the company in 1953 called Play Sculptures. Working with artists to take on the playground. This was done in an effort to refresh ideas about playground planning. These modernistic designed sculptures turned up throughout America in playgrounds, schools, and courtyards. 

Images of turtle tent and baby turtles from the Play Sculptures catalog.

Tent Turtles Across the Land

You might remember that Tommy had two smaller turtles with him while at Sears. Yes, it’s true, they were sold as a set. They did not make the move. In fact, they were demolished along with the complex. May they rest in pieces. However, others elsewhere still stand, amusing yet another generation.

Today there is an entire FB page dedicated to his turtles, which are all over the US. They even have a map of the locations, and Renton’s turtle is on the map!

Clearly there is a lot of history here. One that many of us share. Not only here in Renton, but throughout the USA. 

Yes, I believe this is one of the most valuable pieces of art in our collection. Not the most expensive mind you, but it’s history makes it so rich. 

Art really does give us a sense of belonging. Tommy the turtle, and all ”Turtle Tents” across America have planted in our collective mind. We have shared memories of our precious childhood melted together by this insignificant structure. 

It may look to some like old concrete, but to those of us who remember it stands for so much more. 

I feel honored to have been a part of preserving this piece of Rentons history. I do hope you go visit him down at Kennydale Beach Park. And may children continue to enjoy him for generations to come.

Here I am with fellow Arts Commissioners, Neil Sheesley (left) & Duffy Delgado (right).

Stepping up

Who’s got two thumbs and just got elected new chair of the Renton Municipal Arts Commission? This girl!

The opportunity to join the Renton Municipal Arts Commission came to me within a year of my gallery, happy delusions, closure in 2013. Many friends, artists, and community members had tried for years to get me to join. I had been skeptical. I had many friends tell many stories about their time serving on the Arts Commission. I watch many of these high functioning individuals get burned out. I hid behind my gallery, saying I didn’t have the time. And I didn’t.

Licking my wounds

After my gallery closed I took some time to re-evaluate my life. I took time cleaning up any loose ends left over from the closure. I went to work for someone else. I started to feel like all my work in the community had lost its place. I gave my ego time to settle down, and my mind time to grieve the loss of closing. Then I was ready to get back to the things that mattered to me.

Art & Community

Let’s face it, you don’t open a maker space in your hometown unless you feel on some level the importance of these two things. It takes me 15 minutes to be in downtown Seattle where there are far more people. Far more foot-traffic. Far more opportunities for working with an established arts community. And as I saw it, far more opportunities to get lost in the crowd. 

Bringing Art to Renton

It would be incorrect if I said these opportunities weren’t available in Renton. Any local community has some sort of art happening all the time. I just wasn’t in that circle, and frankly, I felt most of what I was seeing in the arts was directed towards an older demographic. I just couldn’t find my niche. So I opened my gallery, happy delusions. In its five years, it supported over 500 local artists. It was very rewarding seeing all these artists and makers step forward to show their work in my gallery. 

One of the unexpected beauties of this was that I became a voice for this demographic missed in my community art scene. Artists and community members rallied around me to speak for them. 

Rising up as an arts advocate 

I started getting involved with the city of Renton. Started going to the public meeting, and started engaging with the City council members. Stepping up my game by proposing ideas to the Renton Municipal Arts Commission. Slowly I started to understand more about the ins and out of getting projects funded. I started to see issues that I wanted to be involved in. Issues that would help the community I love become more art-centered. And how do you do that? Well, you get involved.

Joining the Arts Commission was a no brainer.

At this point, a seat had opened up and I took the interview. I was happy to see so many familiar faces on the board. Like any committee I’ve ever had the pleasure of serving on, it takes a minute to get up to speed. 

We had a lot of work to do.

I feel very fortunate to have joined when I did. I felt a wave of change happening before my eyes as we worked together to make some positive lasting Chance. We really took a look at where our focus was and formed a vision to get the City excited about art. I found myself once more, meeting with council members. Driving around to local arts agency meetings. Signing up for a Seattle Public Art Bootcamp. Connecting with members of 4Culture, and SoCoCulture. We started working on installing small art projects throughout Renton. We were working with a commission of like-minded individuals. Commissioner who Renton is very lucky to have. All of our hard work began to pay off.

Beautification Project
Just a way to make a construction site pretty.

Show me the money!

In the last 3 years, the Renton Municipal Arts Commission has seen our budget more than triple! The work was showing. The City, the mayor, the council, we’re all getting involved. The movement has been incredible. The commission has been able to continue to participate and coordinate small art projects. But now we are no longer limited to that. Now we have a budget to afford to bring in bigger more extraordinary pieces of public art. We had funds to help make The City of Renton a leader for arts in our area. 

Hip Hip Hooray!

It feels wonderful to be working with such an incredible group of art leaders. It feels like progress at every meeting I attend. It feels like we are unstoppable. So now I step into this role as Chair. I come into it behind a long list of leaders who have done so much to get us to where we are today. I come into it with a renewed commitment to the commission. A renewed commitment to my community. I renewed commitment to show up for the arts community.

Thank you

Thank you to everyone who has helped me along my path. Thank you to the leaders who’ve helped show me the courage to stand up for what is right. Thank you to my mentors who’ve guided me to use my voice. Thank you to the Renton arts community for welcoming me in. Thank you to the city of Renton for listening. Thank you to our mayor and council members who took the time to come to meet with me. 

I will do my best to represent Renton well within the arts.

So what are we doing?

A month is already behind us here in 2020, and the Renton Municipal Arts Commission is off to the races. We have been working on bringing Workshops to the public. The first one will be held this coming April and will be centered around helping individuals apply for our grants. After that, we will be planning two more for the year. One around the film industry, and one around curating a show. We are also tying up some unfinished projects from last year, including art in the new sunset neighborhood park and the Renton Loop sculpture that will be installed at 2nd and main. We are also excited about two projects that are starting in neighborhoods that currently have no art. One in the Benson Hill neighborhood, and one on our historic Renton Hill. 

I am committed to keeping my followers up to date on all things art in our community here on my blog. 

Stay tuned for more exciting happening throughout the year.