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St. Helens explores identity through public art

As a gateway sculpture plan moves forward, city councilor says public art is a success story with growing pains


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Public art comes in all shapes and sizes in St. Helens. This statue of Seaman, the Newfoundland dog that traveled with explorers Lewis and Clark, overlooks the city's public docks. Public art is on a roll in St. Helens.

With its newest proposal to greet motorists as they pass over the Milton Creek Bridge on U.S. Highway 30, the city’s Arts and Cultural Commission is working toward adding another bit of adornment to the city’s visual landscape.

While past and current projects in the city — paid for with private and public funds — haven’t always been completely successful, the community and its leadership appear to be placing more value on the way the city looks and feels to newcomers and residents alike.

“Public art has an increasing value in St. Helens,” said City Councilor Susan Conn, a member of the ACC. “People are beginning to care about the city and the way it looks, and they want to represent themselves well.”

Over the years, a process has developed to bring plans into reality, merging diverse interests and skills together while ideas are still being formed, said City Councilor Doug Morton.

“It’s been a success story, but in the past there have been some growing pains,” Morton said. “The Gateway Project will be an acid test.”

The proposed Gateway Sculpture Project, if it succeeds, will be a great example of bringing the ACC together with public works department heads to build a plan to install and maintain the art and create a clear understanding of where money will come from to pay for it all, he said.

“Those tough questions have to be asked and studied ... to know exactly what’s going on,” Morton said.

The Gateway Sculpture Project

Last week, the ACC considered two sculpture proposals for art that would span the east side of the bridge that crosses Milton Creek and make the highway frontage more appealing.

Two artists were chosen from a pool of 11 applicants to present their concepts for the $50,000 sculpture to the commission: Suzanne Lee submitted a design incorporating locally-inspired images moving up two tapered metal columns and Zoe Bacon and Eric Miller submitted a stainless steel sculpture of a ship.

The commission was impressed with both designs, said Margaret Jeffries, the commission’s staff liaison with the city. Ultimately, they chose to recommend Lee’s concept to the City Council and request that it spend the money to begin the first phase of the project by having Lee complete full renderings of her artistic vision.

“Lee is planning to put in an insert that would project light though the metal cutouts,” Jeffries said. Lee encouraged the commission to choose plants and animals for the cut outs that are present in the local environment, from dragonflies and salmon to birds and plants.

“She’s looking for that input,” Jeffries said.

The Gateway project would be the latest of several projects the ACC has spearheaded, which include the St. Helens banner project, the annual trash can painting competition, the Spirit of Halloween pumpkin painting for kids and the hands-on arts and cultural workshops for youth, she said.

Morton, a retired Portland Public Schools teacher who taught fine arts classes, sees the Gateway Project as a symbol for the work that has happened over the years to build an efficient system for adding public art that is practical while adding to the city’s curb appeal.

He’s seen a few projects flop in the past because planning didn’t look carefully enough at details, like installation and maintenance. The “Paper Arches” project in McCormick Park in 2007 is an example he cited, where newspapers were adjoined in the shape of several tall arches using metal rods with the flawed idea the papers would eventually disintegrated in the rain.

“There wasn’t any correspondence or communication with parks and public works,” he said.

Probably the largest public art fiasco had been the miniature Mount St. Helens volcano located at the triangle merge of Columbia Boulevard and St. Helens Street, the installation of which prompted a loud public outcry for its removal.

While some might see those projects as failures, Morton saw them as opportunities to learn how to bring more input into the early phases of a project to ensure its success. He’s thrilled with the way other public art projects lately — like the trash can painting and the Garden Club’s traffic diamond at Columbia Boulevard and St. Helens Boulevard — have turned out.

Jeffries stresses the link between public art and making the community stronger.

“Community development is strongly tied to economic development,” she said. “Anytime we can do something to enhance the community and the way it looks, those are all positives as we move toward a stronger economic future.”

The City Council will consider the commission’s recommendation at today’s work session and meeting.