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Fearsome foursome: The four sculptors--David Hamilton (left), Ralph Carlson, Tom Montan, and Ron Rodgers--who created the now infamous untitled piece (branded "The Door to Hell" by some) gather around their perilous portal.

Artistic License

Public art stirs up debate across the county

By Paula Harris

IN THE UNCERTAIN world of art, one person's illuminating masterpiece is often someone else's offensive eyesore. Plop that piece of art onto public turf and you turn an interesting question of aesthetics into a hot-blooded political tug of war.

Of course, public-art debates have raged since the time of ancient Greece. But recently, controversies about public art--the sculptures, paintings, and murals selected to adorn such public spaces as parks and city buildings--have started sprouting faster than grapevines across Sonoma County.

The pieces of art that have stirred up a ruckus have been as varied as their location. Among the targets of criticism: the large Häagen-Dazs-like shapes outside the county administration building; the grinning deceased accordion player at the Cotati hub; a huge hand outside the Santa Rosa Plaza shopping mall (which seems to be grasping for your Visa card); a proposed whale sculpture at Bodega Head; and, most recently, an "evil" door--possibly leading to the demonic nether regions under Sebastopol.

And there may be more to come, since several cities are making ambitious plans to bring more art to the streets--and into your life. The county currently allocates some $50,000 per year from transient occupancy taxes toward such works, and now cities across the county are beginning to look for ways to rev up public-art policies and programs.

In Santa Rosa, for instance, there's growing discussion about bringing visible art into the core of the city.

"We're in the midst of trying to promote the arts in downtown Santa Rosa and looking at placing art in external locations and also in some of the vacant storefronts," says Kathy Clarke, chair of the Arts and Culture Work Group for City Visions (an offshoot of the R/UDAT program). Clarke says that by February some of the empty windows along Mendocino Avenue and Fourth Street will "actively become part of visual arts."

She says the group is researching any requirements it may need to abide by. "The bottom line with art is, it's just not going to please everybody," she says. "We'll be looking to try to make sure that it's not immediately offensive--no nudity, no pornography, and no foul language, because we don't want to offend our public."

She adds that the time is right for such endeavors: "We know we have people's attention--there's a lot of talk both positive and negative around the county right now, and that's the time to open up the dialogue even more. It's definitely the time of introduction."

Barbara Harris, executive director of the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County, says a recent public-arts policy in Santa Rosa now gives a small portion of city capital improvement funds and redevelopment funds towards public art.

"Art is finally in the spotlight I feel a lot more actively--we're growing up as a community, and a lot of people are moving here from environments where art is cherished," Harris says. "Art on the street creates a sense of excitement, energy, and surprise. At first it may look out of context, but then it becomes part of the landscape."

Of course, all these plans may not sit well with critics who have opposed other local public-art pieces.

"What gives one person aesthetic pleasure makes someone else gag," agrees Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly, who's certainly no stranger to public-art debates.

He was on the board when supervisors recently approved and funded a $25,000 decorative sculpture to be placed outside county offices. The controversial--and some say strange--end result: those giant "ice cream cones" erected last year in front of the county administration building.

"Not ice cream cones," chides Reilly with a laugh. "They're actually clouds and the sun. It's a bit whimsical; the lighter side of government."

Reilly is currently fielding protests against a plan to place a whale sculpture on Bodega Head, Sonoma County's most popular whale-watching site. Opponents claim any human-made objects would blight the area's natural beauty.

The seven-foot-tall marble piece, which features four whales spiraling around a solid core of water, is the brainchild of Sebastopol sculptor Warren Arnold. It's the latest in a series of six sculptures Arnold is installing along the coast as a tribute to the annual whale migration.

Previous sculptures have been installed on private land in such places as Big Sur and Half Moon Bay. This would be the first one on public land, but according to opponents, Bodega Head is simply the wrong place for public art. "We do not want to set a precedent. This opens the door to other man-made objects to be placed there," says Sierra Club Parks and Trails Chair Carol Vellutini, who wants the planned piece relocated to Sea Ranch.

The fate of the sculpture will be decided by the state's Department of Parks and Recreation, which may try to find a less controversial location for the piece.

MEANWHILE, Arnold has found himself at ground zero in another public-art debate. As the founder and organizer of Sebastopol's Sculpture Jam public-art event, Arnold has been singed by a hot controversy in his own backyard: An untitled sculpture--some dub it "The Door to Hell"--created by a team of artists at this year's Sculpture Jam has been causing an infernal uproar.

The 3,000-pound concrete sculpture depicts a life-size door, slightly ajar and lying tombstonelike on the ground. Its placement on a grassy berm in front of the city's fire station and near a local church has caused a furor among some observers, who interpret the piece as a diabolical door to the underworld.

"It's just a door," sighs Arnold. "We've got 11 pieces up around Sebastopol and this is the only one that's gotten any comment."

The Sebastopol City Council was slated to discuss the infamous portal and its possible relocation last week, but has now tentatively postponed the debate to Dec. 21. "We're compiling public input and we want to give the community an opportunity to express its views," says Sebastopol City Manager Dave Brennan. He adds that the city now may examine how it participates in the Sculpture Jam exhibit and whether it should gather more public comment before placing the pieces.

RON RODGERS, the artist who designed the door, says the piece was intended to represent the theme of this year's Sculpture Jam--"Portals of Time"--rather than something sinister. In any case, he is quite pleased by all the attention, some of which has been positive.

"My biggest fear would be that [the door] would be just sitting there unnoticed," he says. "But people are touring the area to see it. It's like a public forum."

Indeed, door-watchers report passersby are placing everything from rest-room symbols to Christmas wreaths on the polemical portal. The Sebastopol sculptures are intended to remain on display for two or three years, says Arnold.

"I'd love to see a lot more of this type of work on display so that people driving around can view them and we can keep rotating them," he adds.

Linda Galletta, executive director of Sebastopol Center for the Arts, which sponsors the Sculpture Jam, believes Sebastopol could become a public-art model for other communities.

"We seem to be an area blessed with artistic talent and a passion for culture," she says.

Khysie Horn, owner of Quicksilver Mine Company art gallery in Sebastopol, says she'd like to see more art in public places and "not just in wineries." Public discussion of art serves an important purpose, says Horn, who several years ago weathered a fracas over displaying a painting featuring male nudity in her gallery window.

"Mine was an extremely stressful but good experience because the dialogue that came out of it was amazing--about how people perceive things, and core issues of censorship, like 'Who's the art police?'" she says.

Committees charged with selecting a piece of public art face a difficult challenge, according to Sonoma Museum of Visual Art director Gay Shelton.

"They should consider the site and introduce a piece that somehow reflects the site--consider the place, history, landforms, and use of the space, as well as just the aesthetic experience," Shelton says.

So, why is public art becoming a hot topic in the community right now?

"It really boils down to a nervousness about our visual environment," says Shelton. "We live in a beautiful place, but just by the sheer impact of more of us coming to live here, we're urbanizing the environment, and I think public art is a kind of an expression of that nervousness. "I see buildings being constructed over nature--and I think, 'If I can't stop urban development, the only thing I can do is to aestheticize that environment.' "

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From the December 9-15, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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