If you build it, they will come after you
There’s one thing on which everyone who has had an opinion — and seemingly everyone has had an opinion — can agree upon regarding the public art piece intended for downtown Medford to honor Almeda fire victims.
“Firestorm” was well-named.
The City Council this pulled back $33,750 for the proposed 20-foot-high statue of faceless figures shown either (depending on your point of view) holding back or being engulfed by light depicting flames from the 2020 fire that destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses.
A Thursday night press release announcing the decision said community members had reservations about “the look, size and location” of the statue, a model of which was created by Michigan artist Robert Barnum, a Jackson County native.
Other than the look, size and location … everyone loved it.
No good deed goes unpunished, of course, so it’s not surprising that a public art display in view of the Medford overpass (as if there aren’t enough distractions when rumbling over the viaduct) that pays tribute to those impacted by a fire that began in Ashland before raging through Talent and Phoenix would be exempt from controversy.
This isn’t the $45,000 or so spent by the city on refurbishing and keeping the portal to the former Greyhound bus terminal at The Commons. Despite the debate over that decision, the entrance way was historically accurate.
The particularly predictable firestor … brouhaha … over “Firestorm” goes beyond it being a statue in Medford spurred by a fire that began in Ashland before raging through Talent and Phoenix.
First … well … it’s public art.
I’m no art expert, but when it comes to having opinions … I’m a Hall of Famer. The same can be said everyone would be rumbling over the viaduct to see the “flames” suppressed by (or attacking) the 20-foot faceless figures at 5th and Riverside.
There have been battles over the quality of art since the first cave paintings were mocked by hunter-gatherers returning from hunting and gathering.
In Ashland (where brouhahas over art are a genetic requirement), there was such sturm and drang in 2018 over a 22-foot metallic wheat field called “Gather” that the $100,000 project was handed back to the Seattle artist who created it … then returned as “Threshold,” which now stands near the fire station and resembles the aftermath of a multi-cycle crash at the Tour de France.
As with “Firestorm,” the intent behind “Gather” (and, subsequently, “Threshold”) was noble … the Ashland piece being inspired by the artist’s first visit to the city.
And that brings us to the other tripwire for ceremonial, rather than purely creative, pieces of public art: What best represents the event or person being honored?
Forty years ago (oh my gawd, I’m old), a national firesto- … brouhaha erupted over what now has become recognized as one of the most striking and emotionally powerful pieces of public art in country … the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, D.C.
What was once called “a black gash of shame” is now among the most-visited national landmarks and has spurred traveling replicas and permanent installations across the United States.
Yes, a bronze statue of heroism was added to site to mollify detractor; likewise, the stone walls holding dedication plaques could have softened the resistance to “Firestorm.”
But in each case, the prominent piece of art remains and while the name-laden wall has an undeniable emotional pull, the laurel-yanny debate over juxtaposition of the skeletal figures and “flames” of the Medford piece didn’t seem likely to inspire such reverence.
Barnum, when asked before the City Council’s action about the controversy, said the importance of “Firestorm” goes beyond “art for art’s sake.”
“You can’t stand up in front of 100 students a day and tell them how important something is,” he said, “and then make visual mayonnaise.”
Of course, some people like mayonnaise. Not me, butter being in the eye of the beholder and all that … or, rather, mayonnaise has never seemed to like me.
And now those who found “Firestorm” to hard to stomach appear likely to have a chance to make Medford’s commitment to public art more palatable.
The City Council, in making its decision, has requested that “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.”
I suspect we’ll discover that, as always, it will be easier to build consensus over what folks don’t like than it will be to commission a piece that will be aesthetically, contextually and financially acceptable.
The prospect is enough to make even faceless figures cover their eyes.
Mail Tribune columnist Robert Galvin draws his own conclusions at firstname.lastname@example.org