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Council approves hub sculpture in Railroad Park

Courtesy photo The Ashland City Council approved the design for a hub sculpture at Railroad Park as part of a joint effort by the Public Arts and Historic Commissions to mark Ashland's historic places.

Ashland City Council unanimously approved a public art installation Tuesday in Railroad Park — the first in a series of “hub” sculptures in phase two of the Marking Ashland Places project.

According to the artist selected to create the artwork, the sculpture design “merges a trio of powerful symbols to tell the story of how the railroad spurred a huge transformation in Ashland when Southern Pacific chose the town as a main stop between their Portland-San Francisco line.”

The council initially approved the project — a joint effort between the Public Arts Commission and Historic Commission — in May 2013. Momentum behind the project stalled until October 2018, according to council documents.

A subcommittee focused on the project designed a plan to highlight the four historic districts of Ashland with a site-specific, contemporary art piece that connects to “spoke” sites with historical meaning in each district, marked with a plaque or other informational marker. The historic districts of Ashland include Railroad, Downtown, Siskiyou-Hargadine and Skidmore-Academy.

The Railroad District started as the pilot for the MAP project, with the possibility of expanding into other districts over time, said Aaron Anderson, staff liaison to the Public Arts Commission.

Of seven submissions, three finalists were selected and given $1,500 to complete their designs.

“The theme, it’s really meant to highlight the changes that the railroad brought to Ashland,” said Andrew Stallman, Public Arts Commission chair. “It completely turned our history around, and that’s what this project is about.”

During phase one of the project, the subcommittee agreed to mark spoke sites with 24-inch bronze medallions set into the sidewalks. Installation is scheduled for spring 2022.

For phase two, a selection panel including community members, APRC Chair Mike Gardiner, Public Works Superintendent Michael Morrison, and Ann Seltzer, former staff liaison to the PAC, selected Jennifer Corio and Dave Frei’s hub artwork design titled “Golden Opportunity.”

APRC approved progression on phase two in 2019, according to council documents.

The design depicts an 11-foot-diameter circle of industrial channel iron pierced with a golden spike, acknowledging Ashland as a connection point between Portland and San Francisco on one side and Chinese laborers who built the railroad on the other. The top arc of the circle, a helix of train track, signifies “the topsy-turvy journey over the Siskiyou Mountains.”

The project cost before landscaping and lighting totals $29,500, including $25,000 to the artist. The project is funded by the Public Arts Commission Transient Occupancy Tax allotment. Anderson speculated the sculpture will not be installed before fall of this year.

Stallman said recognition of Chinese workers’ contribution to building the railroad is a component of the artwork, but the sculpture is not specifically a memorial.

During a meeting April 14, Ashland Parks and Recreation commissioners debated the optics of moving the project forward while others vie for a space in Railroad Park to perpetuate a permanent iteration of the Say Their Names memorial along the park’s fenceline.

Some raised the possibility of appearing “tone deaf” to contemporary issues, while others pressed for the project to go forward as a representation of Ashland’s multidimensional history tied to the railroad.

“To me, making a piece of art that glorifies industry, fossil fuel burning, displacement of Native peoples, right where is sort of the center of the community response to Black Lives Matter, really makes me uncomfortable,” said Commissioner Leslie Eldridge, who voted against approving the project.

“With pieces of public artwork coming down all over that signify colonialism or Confederate generals, etc. — just because it’s the history doesn’t mean we glorify it,” she continued.

Recognizing concerns about praising industrialization, Stallman said the project is more centrally focused on the cultural and social changes the railroad initiated in Ashland — how the town got its start as a tourist destination.

“I see everything about Marking Ashland Places as being about people and honoring people,” Stallman said.

The Say Their Names memorial was built in response to George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 and evolved into a multiorganizational effort to fund a permanent art installation as a memorial for lives lost and a marker of hope for Black people in Southern Oregon today, according to Kayla Wade, logistics director for the Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity.

Cassie Preskenis, a member of the Say Their Names art installation collective, was appointed to the Public Arts Commission on Tuesday by City Council.

Stallman said during the conceptual phase of the design, Corio was apprised of the Say Their Names memorial and the city’s focus on social equity and racial justice — input that inspired Corio’s choice to recognize Chinese workers on the sculpture, who suffered their own history with discrimination and inequity and whose recognition is long overdue, she said.

According to the Oregon Historical Society, the West Coast gold rush brought Chinese immigrants, almost entirely young men, to Southern and Eastern Oregon in the 1850s. Nearly 10,000 were counted in the Oregon census in 1890.

In the early 1870s, railroad companies imported Chinese laborers to construct the rail line from Portland to Southern Oregon, and many laborers joined after working in Northern California mines in decades prior.

Railroad builders worked 11-hour days six days per week in all types of weather, moving millions of tons of soil and stone, according to local historian Larry Mullaly.

Across Oregon, anti-Chinese sentiment emerged during economic downturns and widespread unemployment, when white workers perceived Chinese laborers as a threat to their livelihood, according to OHS. Such beliefs culminated in murders and violent “Chinese must go” activities.

APRC approved the hub sculpture project with a recommendation to the City Council that the Say Their Names project be equally supported with “at least similar resources” going forward. The motion passed 3-1.

During the City Council meeting Tuesday, Corio presented an updated example of the message honoring Chinese workers, compiled using feedback from scholars, historians, artists, authors and Southern Oregon University faculty.

The statement says, “In honor of the Chinese men who laid these tracks despite discrimination without recognition. Today we offer our belated gratitude in sadness.”