Anyone who’s ever bought a piece of art, brought it home and hung it on the wall, only to be a bit surprised about how it fits – or doesn’t – in its new setting can understand how the members of Art in Public Places felt, shortly after Portland artist Mel Katz finished installing his two colorful art pieces, “Sunra” and “Atilt,” at the 14th Street and Newport Avenue traffic circle a few weeks ago.
Pretty quickly, two issues came to light, in their minds: The two-part artwork’s placement didn’t show off the abstract, painted aluminum sculptures to their biggest audience of passing travelers – they were more like thick aluminum slivers, turned sideways, with a far less-than-desired impact.
What else? Well, once in the great outdoors, the artwork seemed a bit … dwarfed by its surroundings.
“It didn’t really fill the space,” said Cate O’Hagan, an Art in Public Places (http://www.artinpublicplaces.com) board member.
“This is something we learn as we ago along,” even after 30 years of privately funded public art in and around Bend, O’Hagan said Tuesday, “In the studio, it looks huge – even in the (downtown) library, it looks substantial.” But the 9-foot-tall artwork, on 3-foot concrete pedestals, didn’t fill the setting as they had hoped.
So the artwork came out again a few days ago, and crews moved in to reposition the concrete pedestals, also adding a third.
That’s right – thanks to Mike Hollern and the Bend Foundation, a third, quite similar Katz sculpture, entitled “Double Arc,” will be joining “Sunra” and “Atilt” in the roundabout next week. The two initial pieces cost $35,000; the Bend Foundation is putting up another $20,000 (a discount from the $22,000 retail price) for the sibling, part of a suite of artwork Katz made for a show at the Laura Russo Gallery in Portland. (More of Katz’s pieces can be seen on the gallery’s Web site, at http://www.laurarusso.com/artists/katz.html .)
Initially, O’Hagan said, “We went to the gallery to look at all of them, and said, `Nice – but we have a budget.'” Now, thanks to the funding assist, she said, “We’re repositioning them, and adding a third.”
The placement issue has brought yet another lesson for the group, about making sure the artist’s vision meshes with their own – including what’s typically the last decision, regarding the artwork’s placement.
“One of the things we did with `Phoenix Rising’ (the bright orange bird at the 14th and Galveston traffic circle) is a scale model in plywood was put on a pole, and tilted up in the intersection,” O’Hagan said. “We took a walk several blocks down Galveston, and we were able to see at a distance how it would appear. There are steps we can do in the future to get a better idea.”
Group will work with artist on placement
The rising volume of debate in recent years over the privately chosen public artworks has prompted Art in Public Places to revise its methods and include the public in the selection process, and also to work out a new agreement with the city (see bendbugle.com/?p=11039). But it seems, the group itself had delegated to the artists a share of authority it now wants to make sure doesn’t go awry.
“Mel (Katz) does have a preference for how his art sits, on a neutral base of rock work, surrounded by a circle of landscaping,” O’Hagan said. “The artists are specific about how they want their art positioned. Mel came in and positioned the pieces. We came in and said, `Whoops.’ We hadn’t thought about the direction of the majority of traffic.”
“We’ve been letting the artist have the full say on the setting,” she said. “We need to have a more thorough conversation, considering the dominant traffic pattern. This one, we’ve been able to correct before it’s all done.” She added that city officials said the small changes in concrete have a “minimal” cost.
“The third piece will stand a little apart from the other two” in the new configuration, OHagan said.
Some folks, no doubt, aren’t too fond of the newest roundabout art, like the previous ones. But O’Hagan said the citizen reviews that she’s heard have been “nothing but positive, as far as I can tell.”
“We’ve been out there a number of times, standing out there with our hands on our hips in the roundabout,” she said. “We’ve heard, `Way to go, dudes!’ and `Love the art!'”
Then there was another common reaction to abstract art – befuddlement, giving way to disgust.
“One woman pulled up, stopped traffic and said, `What is it?’ We said, `It’s a piece of contemporary art.’ She said, `Yeah – but what is it?’ We said, `Whatever you want it to be.’ She was disgusted with it. There’s some people who seem to require a literal reference point, and will never be satisfied with anything but.”
O’Hagan wasn’t aware that Mayor Oran Teater has thrown out the idea of using synthetic grass – based known as AstroTurf – in roundabouts, to cut maintenance costs. In fact, Teater posed for a photo with a patch of fake grass in the temporarily empty 14th and Newport roundabout.
Some of his colleagues call the AstroTurf idea a bit extreme; others suggest that it be tried in a less visible, not-so-controversial locale.
“I’d be interested to hear from the public” on that idea, O’Hagan said, calling it an “aesthetic issue” that could dovetail into the public art debates as well.
“You hear, `Not in my backyard!’ about the art stuff – but AstroTurf in my back yard? It’s an insult to put AstroTurf in my neighborhood, when the next guy’s neighborhood gets art.”