The sculpted steel runners at the southwest corner of Riverfront Park stand as Spokane’s best-known piece of public art.
So, the vandalism and theft a few days ago of a boyish statue at the end of this 40-piece work was a crime unusual not for its economic impact or violence, but for its jolt to the spirit.
“I’m really amazed at the power of that sculpture,” said Karen Mobley, Spokane city arts director after two punk kids snapped the steel boy off at his ankle and carted him away.
Mobley’s office at Spokane City Hall overlooks Riverfront Park.
“I see people every single day having their picture taken in front of that object,” she said.
Everyday people go everyday to experience art. A ritual. A celebration. An artistic event in a town that doesn’t often think of itself as having much of that.
“I think the celebration of that sculpture and of the tradition of Bloomsday actually are some of the most important rituals people have here,” arts director Mobley said. “This kind of public art binds us together. It serves as a touchstone that people use to demonstrate what life is about.”
In all likelihood, the vandals understood that they were messing with something almost sacred.
All varieties of steel stick out of the ground waiting to be targeted by teenage thoughtlessness - parking meters, stop signs, fence posts.
But this wasn’t about a piece of steel in the ground.
It was the tearing up of what is best-known and best-loved about Spokane, desecrating that which commemorates a civic tradition.
That made the crime more meaningful and the outrage more intense.
The interest in what happened to the stolen art, which was recovered late Friday in Mead, suggests the power art still holds in what often seems to be a decidedly unartful public life.
Most public dialogue and debate these days centers on the need for good roads, new shopping centers, bigger jails.
Then somebody messes with the art in the park and that violation stings more deeply than a cracked freeway every could.
Reward money poured in.
A steel company offered to give free materials to have the art remade.
Talk shows and neighborhood hangouts were filled with stern comments about the dastardly deed.
There is a learning opportunity here about the place art occupies in community life.
Community is not just about new infrastructure and services.
From the beginning of civilization, art has occupied an important corner in civic life.
“It’s sort of an insult to the human spirit,” said Harold Balazs of the vandalism of the runners.
Balazs, who also has works in Riverfront Park, says violating the runners was “like somebody jumping up and running on stage and pushing over the viola player. It’s an affront to an important aspect of our lives.”
Nowhere in the Inland Northwest is the relationship between art and community more visible than in Riverfront Park.
The park has 11 public works of art. They run from the most traditional totem pole to the most contemporary floating sculpture by Balazs.
“It’s very wonderful,” said city arts director Mobley.
“When professional people come to visit it’s one of the things that people remark about as a strength of Spokane.
That feeling that the park is a special place is what got snapped off at the ankles by the boys with the bad idea. And it is that feeling that art evokes that heartens the artist who created the runners sculpture in the first place.
From his Chewelah studio, artist David Govedare was touched by the outpouring of concern about the damaged sculpture.
“People basically relate to art in the same way,” the artist who spent an entire year in 1983-84 to create the piece from sheets of copper alloy steel. “Art is a part of the world people see. Even if they don’t understand the deep meaning, they feel it. Art is a common bond.
“The sculpture at Riverfront Park captures the world around it, the experiences the people have had there, whether running or viewing. It is an object about the motion, the feeling, the place.”
Govedare believes the runners at Riverfront Park tap into civilized man’s earliest yearnings: the need to leave a mark through time.
From rock wall paintings in the desert Southwest, to the pyramids of Egypt and the Renaissance artists of Florence, the desire to leave a universal message about human experience continues.
“We are partly made in our hearts to create messages to each other,” said Govedare from his remodeled Airstream trailer that is now an imaginative artist’s pad. “I would believe on every inhabited planet in the universe there is a need to express messages about our common experiences.”
So it’s not just a sculpture. It’s not just a stupid prank.
The tremors sent out from the stolen steel runner rocked the foundation of an ancient human truth: art matters.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo