James Acord: Artist-in-Residence of the Atomic Age

Unless indicated otherwise, the details of this tale are taken from Philip Schuyler’s wonderful two-part story in the New Yorker (1991).

James Acord worked out of a studio in Seattle’s Fremont district. But Fremont declared itself a “nuclear free zone,” and Acord had to go.

It is not as if Acord had placed Seattle in immanent danger of an atomic catastrophe. Quite the opposite—one of his projects had every possibility of eliminating the threat of nuclear war. Acord proposed replacing the warheads in ballistic missiles with granite sculptures called “artheads.” He shrewdly calculated that the anticipated “cost over-runs and the kickbacks” associated with arthead production would satisfy the Pentagon by costing as much as the nuclear warheads they replaced. The potential profits for those involved in such a military-artistic complex were enormous, and Acord predicted that “This is the one that will put me over the top.” Alas, not even the art world has proven immune to the cutbacks that followed the end of the cold war.

Given his peaceful intentions, what could explain Acord’s eviction from his Fremont studio? The answer might lie with an aspect of Acord’s art that his fellow artists (and landlord) may have considered inherently evil—radioactivity. Ever since childhood, when he shut himself up in a dark closet to watch the ethereal flashes of alpha particles striking the screen of a spinthariscope, Acord has been fascinated by radioactivity.

First and foremost however, Acord is a sculptor, and granite is his material of choice. Although difficult to work, it has one unrivalled characteristic—durability. And granite has something else that Acord highly prizes - uranium! From the moment he became aware that granite contained trace quantities of uranium, Acord sought a way to create an interplay between the two materials in a single work of art.

The means by which he would do so came to him during a visit to the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art constructed from parts of medieval churches. The reliquaries he saw there, designed to hold sacred artifacts, provided the answer. Acord resolved to construct a nuclear reliquary in which he would seal uranium! The idea was a natural for the one-time altar boy who had held ambitions to become a priest—ambitions prematurely thwarted when he was caught performing unauthorized rites with holy water and wine.

Acord began the painstaking work of carving his reliquary in 1980, but it wasn’t until 1986 that a friendly tip led him to a source of uranium: Fiesta Red, the antique orange dinnerware with the uranium-containing glaze. In no time at all, Acord had accumulated substantial quantities of Fiesta dinnerware and even devised a technique for extracting and concentrating the glaze. Desirous that the uranium content of his precious concentrate be analyzed, Acord went to the State of Washington’s Radiation Control Program. But instead of analyzing his uranium, they confiscated it! Adding insult to injury, they informed Acord that any future attempts to separate the glaze would be construed as processing and require a license! The application alone would cost $27,000 and if the license were granted, the annual fees would exceed a quarter of a million dollars.

The alternative wasn’t much better. Unless he were licensed, he could possess no more than 15 pounds of Fiestaware at any one time. Furthermore, chemical separations would be forbidden and a license would have to be obtained by anyone purchasing Acord’s work. Sales prospects looked grim!

Even so, Acord continued work on the reliquary, and by 1988 it was almost complete. Five foot high, a stepped base supports a gradually tapered column. From the top of the column, like a fossil out of bedrock, emerges the skull of a horse. Philip Schuyler, author of the quintessential New Yorker articles on Acord, speculated that it might be a knight from a gargantuan chess game. But Acord said no—he just liked the way it looked. All it lacked was uranium.

In late 1988, Acord got his big break. The NRC ruled that the 15 pound limit applied to source material, not the dinnerware itself. Free to complete his sculpture as long as it contained no more than 20% glaze, Acord encapsulated his Fiestaware in a stainless steel vessel and sealed the container in the base of the sculpture. The reliquary was complete. He called it “Monstrance for a Gray Horse.”

Prompted to find other uses for his remaining stockpile of Fiestaware, Acord created the “Atomic Fiesta Plasma Reactor.” The reactor consists of stacked Fiesta Red dinnerware submerged in a 30 gallon fish tank and it takes advantage of the differing vapor pressures of ordinary and heavy water. By continuously bubbling air through the tank, the light water is preferentially evaporated while the naturally-occurring heavy water is concentrated. Acord calculates that in several thousand years the heavy water content will be sufficient for the reactor to achieve criticality. The precise moment will be identified by the sudden appearance of floating fish - fried, ready to eat.

The Fiesta Plasma Reactor (now decommissioned) made its last appearance in 1988 at a special showing of Acord’s art. The exhibit marked his decision to leave Seattle for the greener pastures, figuratively speaking, of Richland Washington, site of the Department of Energy’s Hanford reservation.

As soon as he had settled into his new home, Acord undertook a pilgrimage to Hanford’s reactors. What he saw there was a revelation. It convinced him that the engineers who had constructed these modern wonders were artisans of the highest order. Hoping to learn what he could of their skills, Acord actively sought out members of the nuclear community. When he heard that a number of Hanford workers had drinking problems, Acord joined the local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous. Unfortunately, everyone with a Q clearance was suddenly removed from his group and Acord’s thirst for knowledge went unquenched.

It took time and effort, but the nuclear community eventually accepted Acord as a member of their club, and he began to get invitations to speak at their professional meetings. One invitation proved critical. The occasion was a symposium sponsored by Hanford’s Fast Flux Test Facility, and Acord had the audience in the palm of his hand. Following his talk, an enthralled Siemens delegation from Germany approached him with an offer he couldn’t refuse: eight-two kilograms of depleted uranium in the form of 12 breeder blanket fuel assemblies. Acord fondly recalls, “beautifully engineered 316 low-swell, stainless steel with zirconium tubing. Its not every day that you’re offered stuff like that” (Hall 1995). And best of all, Siemens agreed to ship and store the assemblies at their Richland facility.

With the assistance of his good friend Nancy Kirner and a few courses in radiation protection, Acord obtained his license and the uranium! Unfortunately, the acquisition of the uranium has proven a mixed blessing.

While his entry into the nuclear field has provided him with unlimited speaking engagements, ­it has left his finances depleted and his marriage broken. It has also consumed a great deal of time: Acord has surveys to perform, reports to fill out, and as one of Hanford’s five licensees, he is required to attend meetings of the radiation protection and emergency evacuation committees.

Furthermore, with nobody willing to commission a sculpture that would incorporate the fuel assemblies, Acord is between a rock and a hard place: “I don’t know whether to pull the plug on this thing now, or let the regulators do it when they next inspect the company and find me in violation” (Hall 1995).

He does have one potential commission on the horizon: courtesy of the Hanford B-Reactor Museum Association, Acord has obtained three huge granite reference slabs. The hope is that he will create a relief sculpture on the unfinished sides of the slabs and that one, a 42 ton monster, will grace the Museum grounds. As yet however, the funding hasn’t materialized.

Throughout the trouble, Monstrance for a Gray Horse contentedly occupies Acord’s yard on Richland’s Saint Street. It’s granite eyes gaze impassively at the rusting vehicles passing by.

And James Acord? While lesser mortals might have returned to Seattle and forsworn all things nuclear, Acord is determined to maintain his residence in the Atomic Age. Nothing short of an eviction notice will make him leave.


  • Hall, J. Artistic License. New Scientist. (Dec.) p33-35, 1995.
  • Schuyler, P. Moving to Richland. I The New Yorker (Oct.) p59, 1991; Moving to Richland II. New Yorker (Nov.) P 62, 1991.

The assistance of Nancy Kirner, Linley Storm, Bruce Pickett, and Debra McBaugh is gratefully acknowledged.