When Expo ’74 opened, several pieces of public art were already on site, commissioned for the fair and to remain afterward as permanent installations in what would become Riverfront Park – Sister Paula Turnbull’s garbage-eating goat and Glen Michaels’ Moon Crater being among the more recognizable ones.
But there was another piece of art being installed as the international exposition opened – Ken Spiering’s Mountain Sheep, not part of the officially commissioned Expo art works but now very much a part of the public art collection in the park. As it was then, it remains today – lovely, but a little hard to find.
The sheep stands on the steep south bank of the Spokane River just slightly downriver from the Howard Street Bridge. Easily seen from the bridge, if you know where to look, it was difficult to see when the old YMCA building made viewer access complicated. But now that the Y has been replaced by a sloping conservation area, it’s a little easier. About halfway down the staircase leading from the end of the Howard Street Bridge into the 4-acre conservation space, there’s an opening in the shrubbery that affords a great view of the sheep as it stands above the river.
“It used to be that people would call me on their cellphones wandering around the park and ask me just where that sheep was,” said Karen Mobley, arts director with the Spokane Arts Commission from 1997 to 2012 and now a program contractor with the Spokane Arts Fund. “I’d just talk them through to the site as they walked.”
Independent of the Expo ’74 projects, Spiering first got permission from the Spokane Parks Department to install the sheep in its precarious location on the river in 1973, with little discussion as to just how that would happen. At the time the artist was teaching gas welding at Spokane Art School, where his class consisted primarily of 14- to 16-year-old girls. Together they conceived the idea of the bighorn sheep and the actual work was divided pretty evenly between teacher and students.
“I was delighted that the girls were so capable,” said Spiering, who now works out of his own studio in Valleyford. “My biggest responsibility was to keep the design conforming to the shape of a sheep and being sure it didn’t morph into something like Jabba the Hutt. The scary part was installing it on a precipitous edge above the river.”
He recalled that he, one student and two friends arrived early in the morning for the daylong installation and kind of scrambled over the river ledge as they concreted the sheep into place. “I can’t remember if it was the first day of the fair or maybe a few days into the fair, but I do remember driving slowly out in my pickup through the crowd of people coming in the north gate.”
Spiering said the life-size sheep is made of mild steel and weighs about 125 pounds. He had previously made clay sculptures of sheep and other animals depicting the wildlife that he saw during his growing-up years in rural Wyoming. The sheep seemed a good fit for the Spokane River location, he thought.
Still, it’s a tough spot for reasons beyond just easy viewer access. Mobley recalls that for many years an employee of the parks department maintenance staff would don climbing gear, hook up to the Howard Street Bridge and work her way down to the sheep to clean it once a year.
The sheep may be one of the lesser-known sculptures in the park, and its arrival somewhat unorthodox, but it was the beginning of a nice relationship between Spiering and Riverfront Park. He has other works there now – most recently (2008) the Spokane Public Facilities District commissioned him to install his Current Event, the giant four-fish sculpture along the 700-foot span on the wall of the Spokane Convention Center at Spokane Falls Boulevard and Division Street at the edge of the park. And of course probably his most well-known piece in the park is Childhood Express, better known as the giant Radio Flyer red wagon, installed in 1990.
Spiering, who holds a master of fine arts degree from the University of Idaho, teaches art part time at Freeman High School and continues creating art in a variety of media (including Bloomsday T-shirt designs and carved door panels at the Coeur d’Alene Resort), which can be seen from the North Pole to South Florida. As for what’s important in public art, he said he believes we “want to encounter something rather unexpected, something that will become a signature for this place we have spent some time, and something that we will remember and be inclined to point out to others in the future.”
Like a bighorn sheep overlooking a river in a downtown park, even if it’s a little hard to find.