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Ribbon cut for St. Helens sculpture project at bridge

Large lanterns light up east side of Highway 30, across from Walgreens

Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - Julie Vigeland, chairwoman of the Oregon Arts Commission, speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the St. Helens Gateway Sculpture Project. The two 16-foot-tall, obelisk-shaped lanterns created for the project are visible in the background, on the other side of Highway 30. Also pictured, from left to right: project director Kannikar Petersen, St. Helens Mayor Randy Peterson and project artist Suzanne Lee.A crowd of public officials, members of the local business community, and interested residents turned out Wednesday, Sept. 10, for the official inauguration of a public art project at the Milton Creek highway bridge.

Two obelisk-shaped metal lanterns were recently installed along the side of Highway 30 in central St. Helens — the culmination of the St. Helens Gateway Sculpture Project. The intent of the project is to add artwork to the highway frontage through what is otherwise a nondescript section of the city.

St. Helens Mayor Randy Peterson and Julie Vigeland, who chairs the Oregon Arts Commission, addressed the crowd of several dozen after a light catered lunch.

Vigeland referred to the art project as “creative place-making,” a concept of making streetscapes unique that she said communities from Ashland to Boston have embraced.

“By creating this stunning cultural soon-to-be-icon, you are welcoming visitors into your community. You are alerting them that something special is happening here. They’ll know this time to pull off the road and investigate this creative place,” Vigeland said.

The three-sided obelisks feature designs meant to illustrate the environment and history of St. Helens. Motifs include a sailing ship, a canoe, Mount St. Helens, evergreen trees, and fossils of creatures that once inhabited the area of modern-day Columbia County, such as mastodons and sabertooth salmon.

The artist, Suzanne Lee, was present for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“I think they’re lovely,” said Lee, a Portland-based sculptor who said it took her and the project team about two years to create the artwork. “It would have been nice to have five times the budget and twice the scale, but I think they are a very nice proportion, and the LED does a pretty good job of having them glow at night. So they’re as good as we could have gotten.”

Kannikar Petersen, the project’s director and chairwoman of the St. Helens Arts & Cultural Commission, won effusive praise from Peterson and Vigeland, who called her a “bulldog” for her tenacity in moving the project forward.

“I think it’s a very successful project,” Petersen said after the ceremony. “I think the part that is most successful is all the partners that made it happen.”

Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - The two lanterns created by Suzanne Lee, a Portland-based artist, for the St. Helens Gateway Sculpture Project. The obelisks are fastened to the east side of the Milton Creek highway bridge, across from Walgreens pharmacy, where the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the project was held Wednesday, Sept. 10.The location of the sculptures does provide an obstacle to viewing them up close. They are located on the east side of the Milton Creek highway bridge, on the other side of the highway from the sidewalk and nearby businesses; the ribbon-cutting ceremony itself was held in the back parking lot of the Walgreens pharmacy across the street. The speed limit on that section of Highway 30 is posted at 35 mph.

While some of the designs are easy enough to make out from the other side of the highway, others — particularly smaller or more obscure illustrations — are harder to spot.

“I think the idea is that you can’t fully comprehend all the design and cut-out in one look,” Petersen explained. “It’s for people who travel by several times and continue to discover things on it.”

Petersen said her original idea was to have one sculpture on each side of the highway, but the cost of moving a power line on the west side of the bridge was prohibitive. She also said she ruled out having them both on the west side because there are a number of lighted business signs there, and anchoring them to the ground on the east side of the highway was not permitted due to the railroad running alongside it.

The obelisks are about 16 feet tall and tower at least 20 feet above street level, according to Lee. They are fastened to the side of the bridge by brackets, with the permission of the Oregon Department of Transportation, which Petersen and Vigeland said eventually went along with the art project after some initial resistance.

Petersen said the project has stayed within its $50,000 budget. Many contributors to the project, including companies that supplied materials for the sculptures, chose to donate their time and money, Lee said.

Funding for the project was raised by the Arts & Cultural Commission at events such as the Sweetheart Ball.

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