Putting a new face on Newport’s ‘Ambassador’

Time and the elements have taken a toll on Sam Briseño’s welcoming sculpture, which is undergoing restoration to its rusty metalwork and broken glass face

It’s been a beloved Newport icon for 16 years, a welcoming vision on the edge of Nye Beach, towering 21 feet tall, arms outstretched in greeting. Its image can be seen in brochures, magazines, and on the camera rolls of countless photographers from all over the world. But now, The Ambassador, the metal-and-glass sculpture by late artist Sam Briseño, is in trouble.

In healthier days, Sam Briseño’s sculpture, “The Ambassador,” greets visitors to Newport’s Nye Beach with a wide embrace.
In better days, Sam Briseño’s sculpture, “The Ambassador,” greets visitor to Newport’s Nye Beach with a wide embrace.

The glass face is broken, passers-by report seeing chunks of metal on the ground, and one dog walker confessed he no longer felt safe walking the pups beneath those winged arms, rickety with rust. That’s why visitors to Don & Ann Davis Park won’t see The Ambassador for at least a few months. The Ambassador is in rehab. 

“We have been aware for some time that The Ambassador needed help,” said Catherine Rickbone, chairwoman of the Newport Public Arts Committee, explaining that heavy rust is weakening the sculpture. “We decided the best thing to do was to get it down, so that, number one, it wouldn’t deteriorate any further, and number two, it wouldn’t inadvertently harm someone.”

The Ambassador was designed as a sentinel of welcome, Rickbone recalled Briseño telling her. But while it is one of Newport’s most readily recognized pieces of public art, the coastal town wasn’t its first home. It was initially installed at the Port of Toledo, where it was given a sendoff with belly dancing and fire when Briseño accepted the opportunity to place the sculpture in the Newport oceanfront park, said Bud Shoemake, former director of the Port of Toledo.

Newport’s ATLAS Fabrication dismantled the sculpture last month and is doing the repair work to make it whole and safe again. While they’re at it, Newport glass artist Teresa Kowalski will be remaking the face she created all those years ago with Briseño, who died in 2015 at age 64.

“It was all Sam’s sculpture,” Kowalski said. “He asked me to make a glass face to put in it, but it was all his creation.”

Glass artist Teresa Kowalski will replace the broken glass of the face. She chose green glass for the original work, to add a representation of the “earth” element to the metal of the statue and water it faces. Photo by: Bill Posner
Glass artist Teresa Kowalski will replace the broken glass of the face. She chose green glass for the original work, to add a representation of the “earth” element to the metal of the statue and water it faces. Photo by: Bill Posner

The two artists had worked together on other pieces, where Kowalski did the glass work and Briseño the metal stands to hold them. When Kowalski turned to Briseño for a new stand for her stained-glass blue heron panels, Briseño proposed she work with him on what would become The Ambassador.

“His style complemented my work so well,” she said. “It was just a beautiful collaboration. So, we did a trade. He would make a stand for my glass pieces, and I would make a face for the sculpture. That’s what is nice about mixed media. You could have an ambassador that was only metal, but when you combine it with another element, they just complement each other and make it that much better.”

Others might have chosen blue glass for the face, but Kowalski opted for green, wanting to add the element of earth to the sturdy metal sculpture with its ocean background, she said. The expression on Kowalski’s glass was inspired by what she calls the “primitive-looking” metal face Briseño included. (It also has a pierced ear.)  The face is most visible viewed from the west.  Kowalski believes it was repurposed, possibly from something originally used in boating.   

“That would really tie in with what Sam was doing,” she said. “He was always repurposing found objects that were used by the working people. If you went to his shop, the whole inside and surrounding area were just filled with recycled pieces, pieces he had collected. Maybe that piece was already shaped like that. It looks like what they tie boats to.”

Kowalski is also making a piece for the empty diamond-shaped spot in The Ambassador’s torso.

“Originally, there was a square of glass in the body,” Kowalski said. “It was recycled glass and really thick, an inch or more. That got damaged, so I am replacing that, too.”

Teresa Kowalski and Sam Briseño worked together on a series of glass panels, including “Blue Heron in the Cattails,” in which the metal artist fabricated stands for Kowalski’s images. “His style complemented my work so well,” Kowalski says. “It was just a beautiful collaboration.” Photo courtesy: Teresa Kowalski
Teresa Kowalski and Sam Briseño worked together on a series of glass panels, including “Blue Heron in the Cattails,” in which the metal artist fabricated stands for Kowalski’s images. “His style complemented my work so well,” Kowalski says. “It was just a beautiful collaboration.” Photo courtesy: Teresa Kowalski

The repairs are estimated to cost about $3,500, Rickbone said, and Newport is hoping to have The Ambassador back by midsummer. While it is on leave, the Public Arts Committee is pondering landscaping options to heighten the ambiance and enhance its public art presence. That may or may not include a bench, Rickbone said. It most certainly will not include a request posted on social media for a viewing platform to allow photographers to rise above the sea of cars typically found around it. 

The Ambassador’s decline has served as something of warning to the city, Rickbone said.   

“The committee has realized that we must, on a regular basis, probably yearly, work at coating it. It’s going to be an ongoing project to keep The Ambassador, and we feel that it is so critical because of how iconic it is. It’s a treasure and something to be preserved.” 

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

About the author

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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