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Ashland attempts to put its artistic side in perspective

After a flock of art lovers protested a restrictive city sign code that for decades has prohibited virtually all public art, the Ashland Public Arts Commission on Friday said it hopes a new Public Art Master Plan will open the door for tasteful downtown art.

The plan, to be considered Tuesday by the City Council, would separate out art from the decades-old city sign code, allowing art, sculptures and murals to adorn businesses, as long as they don't promote them commercially.

At the meeting, developer Lloyd Haines gave his controversial eight large framed paintings to the city for appropriate display. The Public Arts Commission said, because of the complex work on the master plan, they would consider it in 2008.

The illegally mounted framed paintings were taken down from the Lithia Way overpass because he mounted them without the approval of Oregon Department of Transportation engineers who are responsible for the bridge's structural integrity, and because the display violated the city's sign code, which bans "graphic wall art."

The panel also told Kevin Christman that current law prohibits putting his bronze sculpture of a crouching winged angel, called "Alchemy of Light," in the small garden in front of Soundpeace on Main Street, but, once the master plan for public art is approved, the commission will support it.

However, the panel indicated some reservations with the winged angel theme, because Soundpeace sells similar New Age-oriented merchandise. The commission doesn't want art to promote commercial interests.

"If it were a nude, we wouldn't be having this conversation," said member David Wilkerson.

Some eight or 10 people showed up to protest the current code, saying it blocked legitimate art in its quest to prevent schlock and visual clutter. Commission members heartily agreed, noting their panel was formed in part to undo that restriction and allow tasteful art around town.

Since the commission endorses the changes, townsfolk expressed impatience that it isn't enacted quickly, in time for the holidays, but Ashland code enforcement officer Adam Hanks told the commission it would be four to six months before the new public art code is law.

The owner of the Soundpeace property, Jerry Garland, protested that the angel sculpture isn't a commercial sign to promote the similar smaller angels available for purchase inside his store, and such an assertion is "absolutely insane."

But Wilkerson said while "everyone agrees we need to change the ordinance," the present code remains in effect and it prohibits not only "art" promoting products in a store, but any art at all, even paint framing a window.

Christman told the commission, "This (change) needs to happen "¦ Ashland is touted as an artistic town, so when art is presented, it's not a problem but everyone says 'Oh, joy!'"

Commission members and the public decried the vague language of the present law, which blurs distinctions between signs and art, noting it technically would ban the visual elements on the Starbucks and Quizno signs and pose problems for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sculpture on Main Street and the waiter displayed in front of Wiley's World of Pasta.

Commissioners indicated that a recent proposal for physical representation of eyeglasses in front of an optometry office would have to be considered a sign, intended to promote a business — not art — and therefore banned.

"It's what the sign ordinance tells us," said Wilkerson. "It's a sign if it advertises the business inside."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Ashland attempts to put its artistic side in perspective