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Second time's the charm for Gateway public art

Susan Zoccola paused to ponder her answer when asked about the controversy surrounding the public art project she designed in 2015.

“It’s part of the process, and although it doesn’t happen very often, it is what it is,” Zoccola said during a phone interview more than a year after the City Council approved her design following vocal public opposition to both the selection process and her previous design attempt.

“In a way, I’m glad it happened — it pushed me to design the second idea, which I think is much better presenting Ashland,” Zoccola said.

A sculptor of more than 30 years, Zoccola, of Seattle, said she started designing public art 20 years ago.

Her works are scattered across the Pacific Northwest — in Seattle's international airport, in a middle school hall, on the streets of Everett, Washington. Coming this January, it’s Ashland’s turn.

The $100,000, 22-foot-tall sculpture resembles a basket with interconnected spirals made of metal tubes. It will be installed at the Gateway Island as soon as mid-January, said Ann Seltzer, the city’s management analyst. The city will start working on landscaping and lighting in early spring.

Locating at the entrance of the downtown on Siskiyou Boulevard between the city’s library and Fire & Rescue Station No. 1, the Gateway Island has long been deemed as a prime location for a public art project.

The city started the process in 2007 with a Public Art Master Plan — the same year the council voted to start dedicating 3 percent of the city's transient occupancy tax to public arts. With the tax at 9 percent, public art’s share is about one-quarter of 1 percent of a visitor’s total lodging bill.

Zoccola applied following a national call in 2015 for entries for a city of Ashland contemporary art project. She became one of the three finalists in September 2015 with her first design, “Gather.”

Zoccola said she had never been to Ashland before working on the project. During her first visit, she said, she found the city “warm and welcoming” with “a high bar” in public arts.

“It’s a beautiful place with Lithia Park and the nature surrounding it,” she said. “I knew I wanted my piece to contribute to that texture — to reference the nature and to enhance it.”

The three finalists presented their design to the seven-member panel, with roughly 60 Ashland residents in attendance. “Gather” was chosen at the end — that was when the opposition started pouring in.

It was all over social media — comments after comments berating the city’s decision. Residents flooded city meetings to testify against the search process, the contemporary art project and the design itself.

Zoccola was tasked with creating another design, which later became “Threshold,” but the opposition didn’t stop.

The City Council finally approved her second design in June 2016, with Councilor Stefani Seffinger saying the design “really captures Ashland.” The council voted 5-1, with then-Councilor Carol Voisin casting the lone vote in opposition.

“It has been a long process,” Seltzer said. “Right now we don’t have any concerns going forward — we are just eager to see it being installed.”

The project will be pieced together in Utah and delivered to Ashland in January. The city is currently working on the footing for the project, Seltzer said.

“What I discovered is that there were only a few people who were very, very vocal,” Zoccola said. “But I got so many supportive people backing me and that pushed me to design ‘Threshold.'”

— Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.