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Ashland art committee selects Seattle artist's work

A piece by Seattle artist Susan Zoccola will greet visitors and locals as they enter downtown if Ashland City Council approves the recommendation of the Public Arts Commission in its choice for the Gateway Island public art project.

Zoccola’s "Gather," a modern piece 20 feet tall, will stand near the intersection of Siskiyou Boulevard and East Main streets in front of the Ashland library. Zoccola, whose large-scale public installations appear across the country, said she was thrilled about the selection.

“It was a pretty tough competition, and the other artists did a great job, too," she said Monday after she was notified of her artwork's selection. "You never know how things are going to land, so I’m just thrilled. I really had this strong connection to the city, you know? I’m crazy about Ashland. And I really like the piece, so it’s all just really cool.”

The Gateway Island was set aside by the city as a place for public art more than a decade ago. Gathering input on the project and procuring funds has taken time. The Public Arts Commission receives 3 percent of the city’s lodging tax to put toward public art. Given the prominence of the Gateway Island, the commission elected to save funds for seven years to pay for a creation that would be appropriate for the space.

Commission Chairman Margaret Garrington said the scale of the piece had to be large.

“This project has been seven years in the works," she said. "We didn’t want to have a small piece here, and a small piece there. We wanted something large that would really stand out when you come into downtown.”

Zoccola said her time in Ashland helped shape the piece. She was in close contact with the Public Arts Commission, which provided word plots that had been generated during the public input process and offered insight into the qualities the community wanted in the piece. She said she took many photos during her visits to the Rogue Valley.

“My process is very intuitive, so I visited Ashland, spent time here," Zoccola recalled. "I took a lot of pictures. So I’ve got pictures of Ashland all over my studio and they kind of just worked at the back of my mind and different ideas came up. The imagery I came up with was warm and welcoming, and community. And there was also problem-solving regarding what that particular space wanted.”

Zoccola says part of that problem-solving had to do with the fact that many, if not most, viewers of the piece would be seeing it from a car, rather than on foot.

“I wanted it to be big enough that it was going to be visible from the cars and from a little bit of a distance, but not so big that it would be scary to sit by.”

Zoccola said she wants the piece to draw people in for a closer look, with visual appeal from afar, and change as people approach it.

Zoccola said the thoroughness of the selection process was somewhat unusual: artists were given a full year to develop proposals. She said the city’s collection of input on the qualities the piece should have was invaluable.

“Ideally, I like making pieces that are very site-specific and that make sense for the place they are going to live," she said. "So I feel like my job as an artist and my opportunity as an artist is to intuit what people who live there are going to like. So this grew out of that process.”

It’s a mode of working that resonated with the seven-member committee appointed by the Public Arts Commission to make the final decision. Selection committee member John Davis, former owner of Davis and Klein Gallery in Ashland, said he loved Zoccola’s intuitive approach to art.

“When I ran an art gallery, I would look at an artist’s work," Davis said, "and I would say, ‘Is this artist speaking with a unique voice? Does this artist have a world view that is their's alone?’ And that’s what I saw in this work.”

The piece, a light framework of curving metal covered in a colored patina, will soon move from the design phase to construction, assuming it gets the expected final approval. 

“There still needs to be some fine-tuning in a way," Zoccola said. "They selected this piece, and I’m excited about it, but there are some questions about orientation. ... And also fine-tuning the coloration. I suggested a palette, but that can all be fine-tuned as well. I just want to make sure it is where everybody wants it to be.”

Zoccola said she will work with fabricators in Utah to construct the sculpture. While she won’t be welding the piece herself, she said she will work closely with the production facility.

“I’m there, and we make the decisions together, and then they do the welding," she said, "because they weld way better than I do. Some artists just do the drawing and send it off, but I like to go and be part of that process. To try different processes. Especially with coloration.”

The selection committee’s decision will pass to the Public Art Commission, which will forward the recommendation to City Council for final approval. The piece is expected to be completed by fall 2016.

Alec Dickinson is an Ashland freelancer. Reach him at AlecAlaska@gmail.com.

An artist's conception shows the 20-foot-tall artwork chosen by a selection committee to sit in a park area near the Ashland library. SUBMITTED IMAGE