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Ashland creates ‘Golden Connections’ of public art

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune“Golden Connections," a public art installation in Ashland’s Railroad District that recognizes the construction of the Trans-Pacific Railroad, was dedication in a ceremony last month.

The Ashland Public Arts Commission and the Ashland Historical Commission have been working together for over a decade to create new connections between the present day city streets and the city’s past.

The installation of a sculpture called “Golden Connections” in Railroad Park is only the beginning of a planned series of art pieces designed to conceptualize and memorialize Ashland’s people and historical events.

“This is just the start of this project,” Andy Stallman, former head of the Arts Commission, said of the project.

“Golden Connections” commemorates in a steel structure one brilliant event and the tragic reality behind it. In 1887, the Trans-Pacific Railroad completed its rail lines from San Francisco to Portland. The connection was the completion of Trans-Pacific tracks around the United States.

The country had never been connected in this way before, and like so many other small towns graced by railroad stations, Ashland was transformed after the final golden spike.

The population boomed, the economy was fed with new tourism dollars and travelers sometimes decided to pick up and move to the previously isolated small town of Ashland. But the construction of this golden connection came at a price.

Along the golden spike at the center of “Golden Connections” reads an inscription in Mandarin Chinese: “Today, with regret, we offer our belated gratitude.”

The artists, Jennifer Corio and Dave Frei of Cobalt Designs, sent three ideas for the spike’s inscription for the volunteer panel to choose from, “Train Time,” “Winding rails,” and “An offering of gratitude and forgiveness to the Chinese.”

The panel chooses to dedicate the sculpture to the Chinese laborers who worked and died under harsh conditions. They asked to modify the statement to include some form of gratitude and an apology.

Corio worked with Portland based calligraphy artist and lecturer Jiyu Yang to create the spike’s inscription.

This choice, and “Golden Connections” itself, is an example of how a public art installation is formed as it moves from an idea born in Public Arts Commission discussions and becomes through an intricate process a physical tangible piece of art.

In January 2013, Ashland Public Arts Commission and the Historical Commission created a subcommittee for a joint project: conceptualizing the history of Ashland through public art using a spoke and wheel concept.

The center spoke would be a sculpture, with spoke sites in the surrounding area around the main art piece. Each part of the overall installation would correspond to tell a story about Ashland’s past. After Ashland City Council approved the project, it stalled until 2018, when it was named “Marking Ashland Places.”

To find artists, PAC sent out a request for qualifications.

The requests ask for an artist to submit a proposal proving they have the necessary skills and experience to create a public art installation that meets the criteria of the project. In this case, a contemporary sculpture that speaks to the history of the Railroad District while fitting neatly in the intended site space.

For “Golden Connections,” the subcommittee was fishing for a local artist, but the RFQs were sent around the West.

“We want to include local artists, that was a high priority for us,” Stallman said.

Seven submissions came back, but the only one from a local artist did not meet criteria. Of the seven, the subcommittee chose the proposal from Corio and Frei of Cobalt Design studios of Portland.

Once a design was chosen, the subcommittee created a new panel of local volunteers to continue the project.

“It’s an interesting process,” Stallman said. “When it comes down to the home stretch, you have to turn it over to people who aren’t as familiar.”

Stallman compared the creation of the volunteer panel to the American government principle of checks and balances. The fresh eyes on the new commission help to keep the project connected to the interests of the Ashland community.

It was this panel that chose the inscription honoring the Chinese railroad workers and changed the tone and intention of the art installation.

The hub of this first “Marking Ashland Places” project is now in the ground with its spokes waiting in storage. Eight golden medallions arrived in December. Installing the medallions in the ground, Hollywood Walk of Fame-style, has proved difficult due to ADA considerations.

“I think we [Ashland] should become a mecca of public art,” said Kendall Engelund, current head of the Public Arts Commission.

On Friday, May 6, during Ashland’s First Friday Art Walk, PAC will present short talks from 6 to 7 p.m. at three of its existing art installations, where visitors will hear stories about the artists and how the artworks were made:

— “Nourishing Our Community,” by artist Lonnie Feather, at Pioneer and Lithia Way (stone sculpture in front of Stop & Shop).

— “Street Scene,” by artist Marion Young, on East Main Street near Pioneer (in front of the Chamber of Commerce).

— “Velocity,” by artist Gordon Huether, in the alley between East Main Street and the Thomas Theater.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne