The fabric of the university

Tim Doebler

By David Wasson, Washington State Magazine

The ornate Washington State University mace, a convocation and commencement fixture, is perhaps the most widely recognizable of artist Tim Doebler’s creations.

But his artwork is interwoven throughout the University. Commemorative and recognition placards in building lobbies. A stone monument on Terrell Mall. Finely crafted tokens of appreciation awarded to University leaders and supporters.

“I see this as part of the fabric of the University,” says Doebler ’84 MFA, who is retiring in November after 38 years as an engineering technician with WSU’s fine arts department.

A Vietnam veteran and survivor of the bloody Easter offensive, Doebler returned to the States in 1972 and immersed himself in artistic pursuits.

He was good with his hands. Everything from carpentry and glassblowing to drawing and metal casting came easy to him. He also had an eye for detail.

After studying at an art institute in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, Doebler moved to La Grande, Oregon and discovered a vibrant arts community there. He returned to Ohio to finish a bachelor’s degree before moving to Pullman in 1983 while awaiting his acceptance letter into WSU’s graduate program.

“I fell in love with the Palouse,” he explains. “While I was a student, I got a job working in the (art department) shops … making sure they were taken care of and ready for whenever they were needed. I ended up staying on after I graduated, continued maintaining and developing the shops, offering students any help or advice they might need, but otherwise I was free to make art.”

The fine arts building includes an entire lower level of intersecting hallways where various industrial-type shops are located. Woodworking. Pottery. Glassblowing. Metal casting. Sculpting. They are among the facilities artists need to give physical shape to their creative visions and where student artists learn to work with tools.

This also is where many of Doebler’s creations came together.

He recalls being invited to a meeting in 1986 and asked if he could create a University mace. At the time, WSU was the only school in what was then the Pac-10 Conference that didn’t have one. He submitted drawings to the University’s centennial committee, which gave Doebler the go-ahead and raised $3,000 to cover materials and his time.

“I was like, of course, I can do that,” he says with a laugh. “At the time, the shop tech was just a part-time position and I usually did things like build decks for people to make extra money so this was fantastic.”

The project introduced the University and the arts community to Doebler’s skill and attention to detail. He wanted to make something that expanded on the medieval symbolism but conveyed a greater message of hope and progress.

He cast the entire two-foot piece in silver and bronze. A globe is cradled at the top to represent the awesome responsibility of a university president, laurel leaves are woven around it, and Doebler added an anvil within the design as a reminder that WSU is where knowledge is forged.

Its first official use was in the inauguration of WSU’s eighth president, Samuel H. Smith. It now is part of every commencement and convocation and is typically carried by the chair of the Faculty Senate.

The mace led to more commissioned artwork. Among them are the giant placards hanging in the lobby of French Administration bearing the names of donors to the University and the plaques nearby with the names of eminent faculty.

There are also plaques outside buildings commemorating those involved in their creation. All are carefully crafted to include design elements, often subtle, that are intended to help convey the building’s purpose.

His favorite piece was an award commissioned by the WSU Foundation for retiring President Glenn Terrell, who was famous for his morning walks through campus in which he would engage students, staff, and faculty in casual conversation. Doebler obtained a concrete core from the campus mall and mounted it atop an elaborate wooden stand he designed and built.

Those shop skills and craftsmanship are what he considers key to artistry. Doebler calls them “attendant skills,” mostly Old World knowledge that began to fade in the industrial era but that artists have continued to rely on for their creations.

Doebler has a substantial personal collection of his own sculptures and artwork that he plans to showcase at galleries in retirement.