Public art should bind communities, not divide them
St. Helens' public art legacy is shaky. The city in 2007 spent $4,000 on an artist from Connecticut to spike newspapers together with a steel rod, set them up in an arch, and leave them outside the Columbia Learning Center to biodegrade gently into the soil.
That didn't happen. A few months later the arch collapsed and the newspapers turned into bluish clumps of trash, which were eventually gathered up by the city's Public Works Department and disposed of as such. This was a St. Helens Arts and Cultural Commission-funded project.
And how could anyone forget the St. Helens mini volcano, perhaps one of the most reviled pieces of public art since the dawn of humankind? This, it's important to note, was not an Arts and Cultural Commission project.
On the positive side, the arts commission's launch of the St. Helens trashcan painting competition is commendable. It is a low-budget program that has been well received and has helped beautify the city. Even better, it provides all St. Helens residents the opportunity to contribute public art, to actually have an investment in the outcome.
Given that backdrop, members of the Arts and Cultural Commission should not be too shocked by negative reaction to the Salmon Tree Cycle sculptures, Phase 2 of the Gateway Sculpture Project, at the city's southern entrance on Highway
The commission seems to have learned little from public reaction to the first phase of the Gateway Sculpture project, which saw the erection of two metal obelisk lanterns on the east side of the Milton Creek Bridge, also on Highway 30. While the lanterns over time seem to have found a niche in the city, they're unlikely to ever find a place deep in the hearts of St. Helens residents.
Why? They're inaccessible. Despite being promoted as a means to improve highway frontage and raise awareness of St. Helens' residents association with the Pacific Northwest, there is little to no way for city residents to make that association. While the detail on the lanterns is remarkable, depicting scenes of St. Helens history, the public they're intended to inspire is left out of the discussion and unable to forge any kind of relationship with the art. It's viewed, at best, during a traffic jam on Highway 30, or from the perspective of a pedestrian on the west side of the highway, from a distance, separated by the blur of passing cars and trucks cruising at 35 mph.
Fortunately, the lanterns are sleek and unobtrusive, and while not exactly awe-inspiring, neither are they an eyesore. As for beautifying the highway frontage, that's debat-
Designed by Portland design and architectural firm rhiza A+D, which has numerous successful public art projects to its credit, the recently raised Salmon Tree Cycle sculptures represent the life cycle of one of the Pacific Northwest's most important species, the salmon. The story infused in the statues is compelling, a telling of the symbiotic relationship salmon have with the Pacific Northwest's forests, and St. Helens' place in that relationship.
Again, however, the placement — which is a key factor in the decision-making process for public art — is off. The Salmon Tree Cycle is mashed in with other signage, in the end just adding to Highway 30 clutter. The detail and story are lost, leaving most to speculate on its purpose and design. As with the obelisks, there is no convenient way to access it; but unlike the obelisks, the sculptures are loud and wild. They attract attention, but based on feedback on social media, it's the wrong kind.
According to an online Kickstarter campaign for the Salmon Tree Cycle, it is intended to create a lasting impression, inspire community pride, and encourage visitor exploration and patronage of the city. It's hard to imagine the sculptures achieving those goals as intended. It's a shame, too. We can only imagine the same statues, placed near the waterfront where observers could get up close and personal, would have had a profoundly different effect.
Dollars spent on the Gateway Sculpture Project, phases one and two, total around $100,000. Much of the funding stemmed from state arts grants or local fundraising efforts, leading some to defend the expense when others call foul that the money could have been spent on more critical needs. While we agree there is a crucial need for art funding and that successful public art can help bind a community together, pieces not well received can have the opposite effect. Worse, they can call into question the need for art funding in the first place.
That is why it is critically important the Arts and Cultural Commission take every necessary step to involve the public in discussions about St. Helens public art, especially considering St. Helens' spotty public art history. While meetings and forums are great, having individual commissioners reach out beyond their peer groups to everyday residents in places like the Village Inn, or at 13 Nights on the River concerts, for real feedback prior to launching such endeavors is crucial.
Equally, the many social media critics of the projects, instead of calling for their removal, should use this as an opportunity to learn more about the arts commission and how to get involved. The Gateway Sculpture Project has been around since 2011.
We hope to never see enthusiasm for public art in St. Helens and all of Columbia County wane. But St. Helens runs a real risk for that to happen unless public art endeavors ultimately make sense, reflect wise community spending and involvement, and inspire the very public they're intended for.