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Shawn Vestal: Spiering, Spokane’s wagon master, wants new park art to endure

Howeler + Yoon Architecture

Courtesy

A rendering of “Step Well,” the $360,000 sculpture that is being recommended for placement in the Clock Tower Meadow of the redeveloped Riverfront Park. The designer is J. Meejin Yoon, an MIT professor and award-winning artist and architect who’s overseeing the art plan for the new park.
Howeler + Yoon Architecture Courtesy A rendering of “Step Well,” the $360,000 sculpture that is being recommended for placement in the Clock Tower Meadow of the redeveloped Riverfront Park. The designer is J. Meejin Yoon, an MIT professor and award-winning artist and architect who’s overseeing the art plan for the new park.

Everyone’s got an opinion, it seems, about the new sculpture commissioned for Riverfront Park.

Some think it’s a clever and creative design from an esteemed artist that will eventually become a signature piece like the Big Red Wagon and the Bloomsday runners. Count me in that camp: I think the “Step Well” sculpture, at least on paper, is both appealingly simple and deceptively complex, and will provide an attractive new way for residents to see the city and enjoy the park.

Others don’t like the way it looks. Or the fact that a local artist wasn’t selected. Or the $360,000 price tag. And then there is the perennial Cranky Pothole Question: Why not fill potholes instead of (fill in the blank)?

But few have considered the Step Well sculpture through the lens that Ken Spiering does: How will it weather the weather? What’s it going to look like long after the taste debates are over, and it’s lived through decades of snow, rain and sun?

“In this climate, you don’t do exterior mosaics and you don’t do exterior wood,” said Spiering, whose long and distinguished career as a public artist includes the creation of the Big Red Wagon.

As the construction fences around the elegant new Looff Carousel building come down, officials are making final decisions about the public artwork built into the park renovation. The Riverfront Park committee voted Monday to place the Step Well sculpture adjacent to the former YWCA site; the full Park Board will vote on the location Thursday.

The work was designed by J. Meejin Yoon, a decorated architect and designer who teaches at MIT. She is known particularly for creating interactive public spaces like the StepWell piece – which around 70 people at a time will be able to climb and sit on.

The Park Board will also vote Thursday on a plan for restoring one of the Expo ’74 butterflies on the north bank of the park. A fundraising campaign to rebuild and erect a second Expo butterfly on the south bank is under way.

Spiering said he likes the concept and design of the Step Well sculpture. What he’s not sure about are the materials – wooden laminate – and the commitment to the long-term maintenance such a piece requires.

Spiering’s own Big Red Wagon shows how hard the elements can be on outdoor art. Rust has gotten in around the wheels, and begun eating away the steel, leaving jagged holes. He estimates $35,000 to $40,000 worth of repairs are going to be needed.

“That’s made of steel and that’s only 25 years old,” Spiering said. “If we took a $35,000 repair bill and amortized it over the last 25 years, that’s still a pretty significant bill.”

Fianna Dickson, a spokeswoman for the city Parks and Recreation Department, said Joon and the committee overseeing the park renovation have indeed paid attention to the questions of how the sculpture will age, and whether to allow it to develop a natural worn patina or to try and preserve the appearance with coats of sealer.

The project’s official documents describe a relatively light regimen of maintenance, noting that the wood material “is durable enough to be left untreated and unprotected without concern to its integrity.”

Dickson also said that maintenance will be a regular budget item for the sculpture moving forward.

Public art is reliably divisive at the front end. But the divisions also reliably dissipate over time, as the art outlives the chatter. Public art asserts its value through endurance, through occupying shared space, through building an extended communication with the community over time. Public art joins the community the same way people do – as newcomers who gradually become old-timers.

This is largely true, I think, beyond the question of whether you like the art or not. Whether it moves you, delights you, interests you, catches your eye. This is largely true, I think, because we grant them prominence in shared places, and our lives connect to those places, and connect to the others who have connected their lives to those places, and these connections over time build community.

Spiering’s wagon, dedicated in 1990, might be the signature example of that in this city – a sculpture of such visibility and familiarity, such generational reach, that it says “Spokane” as clearly as any name does. Spiering was recently inducted in the Spokane Hall of Fame; he is a deserving recipient of the honor for many different reasons, but he’d be a first-ballot pick for the hall if all he’d ever done was build that wagon.

It is interesting to think of the Step Well sculpture in the context of the wagon. Both encourage people to climb on them, touch them, interact. But where the wagon is representational and nostalgic, appealingly easy to “get,” the Step Well piece is abstract and sleek, a little more elusive.

Spiering said it’s a “daring” and appropriate choice for Spokane at this stage of the city’s growth.

He just wants it to last.


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