Thursday, September 14, 2006

Art plan to get public airing
A proposal by Seattle artist Buster Simpson for artwork downtown will be the subject of a public meeting.

Art work that may one day chime downtown has raised some eyebrows among downtown business owners, although others embrace it.

But, partly to answer questions posed by downtown business owners, a meeting to let them hear and see the proposal first hand is set for Thursday.

The 7 p.m. meeting, open to the public, is in Room 130 in Olin Hall on the Whitman College campus. The artist, Seattle-based Buster Simpson, will explain and demonstrate the work and answer questions. ``I hope to have a discussion,'' he added.

He will also show the latest refinements to the work, which is slated to be installed behind Macy's above where Mill Creek daylights.

Titled ``Walla Walla Bound,'' the work now includes a campanile, or bell tower, made of discs from a harrow plow. Some of the discs would be stacked upon and attached to an upright pole. Another row of discs would line a horizontal pole that would extend over the open channel. Both poles would protrude from a base placed behind a wooden fence now behind Macy's. The fence would be replaced with a 10-foot-high, wire-mesh fence.

The discs would play locally produced compositions at regular times in the day and also sound briefly to mark events in the creek, such as a fish passing or changing water levels.

The bell tower would run on a solar panel attached above the vertical part of the sculpture. Next to the solar panel would be another panel displaying an image of the McNary Dam, the first dam the creek water hits as it flows down the Columbia River.

A second part of the project entails attaching license plates stamped with words along creek containment walls between Park Street and Ninth Avenue. Several plates strung together as short poems would be posted together at different spots.

Both parts of the work are meant to focus attention on efforts to rehabilitate the creek to a more natural habitat.

Money for the $381,000 work comes from the Washington State Penitentiary expansion project. By state law, 0.5 percent of construction costs for new state facilities has to go to public art.

`Still just too many questions'

Kathleen Obenland, president of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, said board members feel downtown business owners haven't had enough say in the proposed project.

``We feel there are still just too many questions,'' she said. Among those is how loud the disc will be, ``whether it will add to or detract from downtown.''

The board also has questions about placing the discs behind Macy's. She noted a teen fell into the creek and drowned there recently, raising safety concerns about the site.

The parking lot behind Macy's has been considered as a place for a multi-level

guess (the disc sculpture) would be covered up,'' Obenland said.

Although he noted he's only the city's liaison on the project, which will be gifted to the city by the state Corrections Department and Arts Commission, city Parks and Recreation Director Jim Dumont said he's heard his share of questions about the proposed work as well.

They've included questions about how loud, how often and what times of day the discs would ring, what they'll sound like and whether they would disrupt downtown business operations.

People have asked if the disc volume will be controllable, how the discs will be mounted in place and whether someone could climb the fence.

He's also heard from people ``that love (the art work),'' Dumont added.

One resident who used to work near the intersection of Main and First Avenue told the U-B he remembers when, years ago, ``50 miniature bells'' used to be play ``old nostalgic tunes'' on the hour at the downtown intersection.

Bob Branscum, then manager at a First Interstate Bank branch, which no longer exists, near the bells, said he remembers people complaining about those bells.

In particular, he remembers one or two artists who worked downtown and complained the bells disturbed ``their peace and quiet.''

So he finds it ``interesting'' that now an art work that will chime is being proposed downtown. ``I guess thought patterns have changed,'' Branscum said.

At a previous City Council meeting on the art work, Phil Wasser, owner of Land Title of Walla Walla County, recalled how his building and a downtown church once played chimes but stopped after people complained.

In a phone interview earlier this week, Simpson responded to some of the concerns.

He said the discs will sound similar to church bells. And how loud they ring is adjustable, even from a remote location. He is proposing the discs play a composition at noon and 6 p.m. daily and then chime to mark events in the creek. He also is proposing the discs not ring at all between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Simpson noted that neighbors don't seem to complain about the bells that chime every hour in the clock tower at Whitman College. And he hopes the community is willing to give the chimes a chance.

For example, a song could play for a minute at noon. ``But maybe it would be so beautiful people would want it to go longer,'' Simpson said.

At the very least, he hopes the disc would chime to mark fish passing upstream, as the art is meant to focus the community on efforts to rehabilitate the creek.

In response to questions about the proposed site, Simpson envisions his work fitting well with a possible parking garage, particularly if it includes stores on its first floor.

As he interprets the Downtown Master Plan, the area behind Macy's is envisioned as a public passageway and gathering place and he thinks his work would add to that.

Simpson also thinks the work would meld well with the Master Plan's goal of developing a downtown promenade along Mill Creek.

Simpson also responded to concerns about safety around his proposed sculpture. As his fence would be higher and more transparent than the present one, he believes it will make the area safer than it is now.

But, for all the questions some downtown business owners have raised, others strongly support the proposal.

Nathan Morgan, game buyer at the Book and Game Co. at First and Main, said he's excited about having more art downtown.

He thinks it would draw more people downtown, give them something to talk about and give him an opportunity to point people toward other downtown art.

Stephenie Bowen, part owner of Sweet Basil Pizzeria on First Avenue, said putting art behind Macy's would be better than what she sees in that parking lot now at night - ``some kids hanging out'' and being ``very destructive'' and creating ``a lot of trouble.''

Even if the discs ring in the evening, it would be better than ``kids cussing and blasting their music so loud,'' what she claims comes from the parking lot now, she added.

Bob Austin, owner of Merchants Ltd. on Main Street, said he wondered about Simpson's proposal at first but then viewed Simpson's work on his Web site and ``it put a big smile on (his) face.''

On the site, he found out about a similar work Simpson did in which he lined up old farm equipment in a field. When the cowboy poet Baxter Black first saw that work, he was skeptical at first, too, Austin said.

But, when Black stopped and looked at it, he realized it ``honored our ancestors and the American agricultural heritage,'' Austin said. With time, Black and others got to like that piece and now send visitors there with pride.

``I think that's a perfect analogy to what (Simpson's) doing here,'' Austin concluded.

He also said the ``handful'' of downtown business people with concerns about Simpson's work are the same people ``who say nay to anything.''

Speaking for the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation board, Obenland said the board generally ``loves'' art downtown, but ``it has to fit downtown.''

And although the board has felt downtown merchants haven't had enough say in this proposed work, she recognizes that's what Thursday's meeting is for.

Dumont said the city had urged the public meeting partly because of the lack of public input at several previous meetings when Simpson made presentations to the City Council, Planning Commission and before the committee that retained him.

Dumont also said downtown businesses received a special invitation to the Thursday meeting so they ``have an opportunity to hear and see the proposal and comment on it.

Simpson invited the public to come as ``just a beginning to open a discussion about the creek running through town and how it can become more of a city amenity.''


For more information on the proposed art work, Walla Walla Bound, go to Information about the proposal is also included in a show that features the work of artist Buster Simpson, which is on view at the Sheehan Gallery on the Whitman College campus through Oct. 5.


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