A Whale Rises in a Salt Lake City Roundabout, and Some Are Not Happy

As a teenager growing up in Midvale, the heart of suburban Salt Lake County, Stephen Kesler recalls the first time he saw the Ninth & Ninth neighborhood of Salt Lake City.

“It totally caught me off guard, it blew my mind,” Kesler said Monday. “It’s more of an arts district. There were vegan restaurants, there were record stores. It looked like a little oasis in the valley. So, for me, it was out of the blue.

So when Kesler, an artist who specializes in animal sculptures, learned that the city was going to commission a large piece of art in the traffic circle at 900 South and 1100 East, he thought of something else at the improvised: a humpback whale, piercing the surface.

Three years after the city began planning it, and after controversy in the neighborhood, the finished sculpture, ‘Out of the Blue’, was presented to the public on Monday night – complete with a ribbon cutting that brought out the parents with children, locals and a good number of dogs.

During the ceremony, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the beauty of public art like “Out of the Blue” is that “[it] can activate our imagination and even lead us to ask ourselves questions.

For people who question a whale, Mendenhall said, “there’s also folklore about whales living in the Great Salt Lake, and I think in a way it’s a sweet reminder that we’re living in what was once the bottom, or at least the shore, of a giant inland sea.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Felicia Baca, third from left, director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council, and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, right of Baca, were joined by a group of children to cut the ribbon.

Mendenhall added that “it’s not the Ninth & Ninth roundabout, it’s these people – it’s you – who create a place where people arrive and feel at home.” She asked neighbors to open their arms and “pectoral fins,” noting that “public art can be that lens for culture and for reflecting on our values ​​as a community.”

Renato Olmedo-González, public art program manager for the Salt Lake City Arts Council, said Kesler’s whale proposal was chosen because it “speaks to the unique characteristics of the Ninth & Ninth neighborhood in general.” .

Ninth & Ninth, Olmedo-González said, “is a quirky place. It’s a place that welcomes different people’s identities, embraces people’s differences.

Kesler lived in the Ninth & Ninth neighborhood for 25 years, before recently moving to Oregon. “I bought my first house there,” Kesler said. “I had my first child there. I had all my studios right next to the ninth aisle.

In these studios, he created sculptures familiar to the Salt Lake area: whales and sharks in the Loveland Living Planet aquarium, giraffes near the entrance to Hogle Zoo, and a giant red iguana outside. of the Red Iguana 2 restaurant in the Poplar Grove neighborhood.

These works, Kesler said, “are kind of expected in these places, aren’t they? For public art – and I’m sure this happens on most public art – opinions vary. This one has definitely become my most controversial.

“I personally don’t like it,” said Scott Maynard, owner of Mr. Scott Salon half a block from the roundabout. He said that of the approximately 25 customers who visited the show during the erection of the whale, maybe two of them like the sculpture.

Maynard said the city went to great lengths to contact neighborhood residents when the roundabout was built and when 900 South underwent renovations — but the same process was lacking in deciding what to put in the roundabout. -point.

When neighbors first heard about the proposed whale sculpture, Maynard said, some filed comments with the city and even started a petition to stop it. “When the outcry died down, no one listened,” he said.

No protesters were present when the ribbon was cut – although two gnome statues were placed at opposite ends of the ribbon.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The large humpback whale sculpture at the intersection of 900 South 1100 East gets its inaugural paint scheme inspired by the view of the Salt Lake Valley on Friday, April 8, 2022. New artist is expected to change the paint design every few years.

A couple, Tim and Tiffin Roberts, brought signs. His reading “turns 90 degrees” and his reads “what he said”.

The Roberts live up the hill from the roundabout and said they loved the sculpture – but the whale is at the “worst angle” and from their home looks like “a blob with wings”. They want it rotated so it looks “more dynamic” from all sides.

Olmedo-González said the city partnered with community organization East Liberty Park to survey residents in the neighborhood. “We asked them very important questions, like ‘what speaks to you in public art?’ and “what makes the Ninth & Ninth neighborhood unique?” Olmedo-González said, adding that the city received around 100 responses, many of which were provided to artists proposing projects to fill the roundabout. .

Whale-killing neighbors began placing garden gnomes on the roundabout space in early 2020. In July 2021, a human-sized gnome wearing cheetah-print boots was placed on the mound, holding a sign that says ‘Whales Belong to the Ocean’.

Rob Eckman, who works at King’s English Bookshop, helped with the original carving of the gnome – and at Monday’s opening he noted that gnomes are often stolen. It is more difficult to fly a massive whale.

As Kesler and his team installed the massive sculpture — made of fiberglass molded around a steel frame — passers-by occasionally shouted comments. Most were positive, he said, although one called it “ugly” and another shouted, “This is terrible – destroy it.”

“It’s hard to ignore, no matter how strong you have to be to think it wouldn’t bother you, with people screaming three feet from your face or when you’re 12 feet up on a ladder trying to don’t fall,” Kesler said.

Olmedo-González said the city intends to let neighbors bring the lawn gnomes back to the roundabout now that the statue is complete. “We don’t see why a whale and a gnome can’t exist in the same place,” he said.

The town, Olmedo-González said, asked second- and third-grade students from nearby Bennion Elementary School to create artwork that “imagined a world in which a community of gnomes would welcome the whale.” This artwork is placed in a time capsule to be incorporated into the sculpture, he said.

And, in what could be considered a peace offering, Mike Murdock, the painter commissioned to paint a mural on the whale sculpture, wore a garden gnome hat while working last week.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A gnome stands guard at a whale sculpture unveiling ceremony on Monday

Kesler said the city’s Arts Council came up with the idea of ​​having a mural as part of the sculpture, and he immediately suggested that the entire whale be painted. “The whale being a canvas for rotating murals was what really sold the idea to me,” he said.

The mural will be replaced every three to five years, Olmedo-González said. “We wanted the artwork to be reinterpreted over time and respond to the neighborhood in a way that I think artists can do,” he said.

As “Out of the Blue” was erected, Olmedo-González said, “People really got involved. They were talking about the whale, … they were talking about what it represents. … They came with their own ideas of what it is.

That’s what public art is supposed to do, Kesler said, and often doesn’t. “A lot of public art, you walk past it and you don’t even know it’s there. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to [my sculpture] to be such a big chunk,” he said. “Public art, in general, is there for conversations.”

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