Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Shimmering glass sculpture 'The Salmon School' returns to Tacoma

The Salmon School hanging over head in the Tacoma Art Museum.
CB Bell
The Salmon School exhibit will be on display at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass through September 15, 2024.

The entrance to the gallery is narrow, designed to feel a bit like a fish ladder. There’s lots of signage about science and the show’s worldwide travel, but soon you get to a single shimmering piece mounted on the wall. It’s at chest level with a sign above it that says: "please touch this fish."

Its bright silver exterior curves like a fun-house mirror, reflecting viewers and distorting the face of anyone who leans in.

The invitation is pretty irresistible. The sculpture is hollow, its silver skin poured into the inside of about a quarter inch of clear glass. It’s incredibly smooth and cool to the touch, mimicking what it might feel like to touch a real fish. But the end of its body is missing, a stump with a bottle-like opening where its tail would be.

A few yards away, hundreds of these zeppelin-like fish hang from the ceiling on clear lines, floating in formation.

Two walls of the gallery have colorful barcodes depicting their DNA. A third wall displays videos of rivers near and far, where they could have come from. Their shining bodies reflect all the images around them.

An up close view of the glass salmon as part of The Salmon School art sculpture.
CB Bell
The walls of the gallery display colorful barcodes depicting the salmon DNA as their shining bodies reflect all the images around them.

“You can almost feel the flow of the fish when you're seeing it,” said visitor Nancy Taylor, who dropped in on her way from SeaTac Airport. She was pleasantly surprised by the experience, calling it visceral.

“With the reflection from the water, it looks like a real salmon,” she said.

This is just the kind of impact the show’s maker, Joseph Rossano, was going for. He created it after seeing the effects of climate change on salmon and steelhead in his home rivers, the Skagit and Stillaguamish, north of Seattle. He wants this sculpture to stop viewers in their tracks and make them think.

“You know, the reason this piece is made out of glass is because glass is fragile, transparent, reflective,” Rossano said.

Rossano is a steelhead fisherman. He said these fish represent that most unique, powerful and elusive species. Unlike other salmon species, they can spawn and make the journey from river to ocean more than once. They’re also one of the most endangered salmonids in the Pacific Northwest.

“And we're talking about an ecosystem that is also very fragile, and it's transparent in the sense that it shows our impact on it. And, and that reflects that impact as well,” Rossano said.

Two years ago, after its initial showing at Bellevue Arts Museum
and a dormant phase because of the pandemic, the piece was featured as a keynote presentation at the U.N.’s climate talks in Glasgow.

People seated at while tables while working on laptops and talking to one another.
Ben Etridge
UN's 2021 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland.

Ben Cobb got to go with it. He leads the hot shop at the Museum of Glass, where hundreds of the floating fish that make up The Salmon School were created during a three-day maker event.

He helped hang them in a pavilion where dignitaries from all over the world saw the piece, as well as thousands of others.

“Who were not artists or makers, but were standing back and watching us [and] would ask questions,” Cobb said.

Men wearing bright yellow vest as the install The Salmon School in Glasgow.
CB Bell Media
The Salmon School by Joseph Rossano install in Glasgow.

He said he connected with all kinds of folks and heard their stories about the plight so their salmon returns in the United Kingdom, Scotland and elsewhere.

“So this isn't a uniquely Pacific Northwest issue,“ he said.

After Glasgow, the piece traveled around Scotland and was shown in a variety of settings, including a distillery and Balmoral Castle, the private summer residence of Queen Elizabeth II, before her death.

“And to see it back here, I think is great. It sort of completes its lifecycle,” Cobb said. “Hopefully it goes on…just like steelhead spawn more than once.”

The Salmon School exhibit will be on view at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass through next fall.

After that, creator Joseph Rossano said he hopes it will keep traveling, as a climate-awareness activity sponsored by the United Nations during its ‘Ocean Decade.’

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to