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Fire statue gets heat

Controversy erupts over design of statue meant to commemorate Almeda fire

A firestorm of protest has erupted over the design of a 20-foot-tall sculpture in downtown Medford that is proposed to honor Almeda fire victims and those who stood against it.

“It is kinda gross,” wrote Rosemary Harrington, a retired local radio talk show host, on Facebook.

She joined a chorus of comments referring to the sculpture of four stylized figures standing against a wall of fire as “morbid” or having the potential to trigger PTSD.

Sandra Phoenix, author of “Firestorm 2020,” a book about the fires that ravaged the Pacific Northwest, including the Almeda fire, called the sculpture “creepy” in an email.

“This proposed design would represent yet another painful, permanent reminder of the horrors we faced on that day and the repercussions that still affect us,” she said.

A change.org petition against the statue had received 624 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

Faced with the backlash, Medford City Council addressed the controversy at its Thursday evening study session by pulling financial support for the project and asking organizers reevaluate the sculpture and its location, according to a council statement posted Thursday evening on the official City of Medford, Local Government Facebook page.

“We also request that the organizers create a public process for determining what the piece of art will look like and where it should go with the focus on representing the rebuilding of our neighboring communities,“ the council statement reads. (Updated)

The $75,000 stainless steel and corten “Firestorm” artwork was set to be installed at a prominent location at the corner of Fifth and Riverside and would be visible from the Interstate 5 viaduct.

Last Thursday, the council authorized $33,750 toward the funding campaign, which comes out of the Council Vision Fund.

The request for the dollars came from former Mayor Lindsay Berryman and Medford Planning Commissioner EJ McManus, who were both members of the Downtown Medford Association. Berryman, a founding member of the association, retired this week when her term ended and a new board convened.

Councilor Eric Stark sponsored the request.

The council authorized $332,025 toward five projects. The Firestorm sculpture was the least expensive of the projects. A $148,275 grant will go toward creating new signs to help visitors find their way to various destinations. Another $60,000 has been set aside to paint six additional murals under the Interstate 5 viaduct.

The “Firestorm" sculpture depicts four stylized, stainless steel figures of men and women standing against a structure that appears to be on fire. At night the structure will light up, mimicking flames around the steel figures.

A model of the sculpture is at the Rogue Gallery & Art Center on Bartlett Street.

The artist, Robert Barnum, who grew up in Jackson County and lives in Michigan, said he is aware of the controversy surrounding the sculpture but remained committed to his design.

“You can’t stand up in front of 100 students a day and tell them how important something is, and then make visual mayonnaise,” he said. “It is not art for art’s sake, this is necessary.”

In 2003, Barnum, who is the brother of Medford Building Safety Director Sam Barnum, was awarded the Michigan Artist of the Year Award and is currently the Ferris State University resident artist.

Barnum had developed ideas for the art project just after the Sept. 8, 2020, Almeda fire that destroyed 2,500 residences.

He said the figures are not on fire as some have suggested, but are instead showing the strength of those standing in the face of adversity. He said the figures are stylized so they are more representative of all types of people.

Barnum, 70, went to Southern Oregon University and Oregon College of Art. In addition to being a sculptor, Barnum is a painter who has undertaken a number of mural projects.

Barnum said decorative or “pretty” art has its place, but he said the severity of the Almeda fire needs a far stronger statement.

“Some people have latched onto the idea that the figures are burning,” he said.

On the contrary, the figures represent the strength of the people standing against the ravages of the fire, Barnum said.

The statue, he said, represents a step forward into new ground that is meant to start a conversation about the fire and the effect it had on local residents. He said he would be reluctant to change the statue in response to the criticism.

Instead, he hopes the sculpture starts a conversation that doesn’t end in a few years.

“This has really lit a fire,” he said. “If it is some nice pink thing out there, nobody will notice it.”

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.

Update, Jan. 14: Added the Jan. 13 Medford City Council statement pulling funding for the Firestorm Art Sculpture.