“Fall Splendor” — Ashland public art

Have you seen a Chinese Lantern Flower,
or steel that looks like lace?
View 23 photos.
Artist: Annette Julien (in photo above).
Ashland Public Art series.

Introducing the artist

OSF prop made by Annette Julien

If you have attended plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), you have likely seen art created by Annette Julien. This is the Cheshire Cat from the 2019 play Alice in Wonderland. At the end of this article, you will see full size photos of two of her dramatic props. (photo by Annette Julien)

I asked Annette, “When did you first create art?” She told me, “I don’t remember when I didn’t do art.” She journeyed from crayon drawings before elementary school to art for every elective class in high school to the Art Institute of Seattle. She received an Associate in Fine Art Degree in their Commercial Art Program. 

After graduation, she became an intern at Dillon Works, a Seattle area company that bubbled with creativity. Then she began as a volunteer in the props department at the Seattle Children’s Theater and worked her way up to a paid position at that theater. Her experience in Seattle led to her job in the props department at OSF, where she has worked for the past 20 years.

Annette explained that her life is filled with art. “I do art at work for OSF and then on the side, I do sculptures for me.” Many of the props she makes are furniture and other large pieces for OSF shows.

Introducing the unique Chinese Lantern plant

Chinese lantern plant
Chinese Lantern plant leaves and pods. (photo by Jennifer Beebe on Pixabay)

The Chinese lantern plant (Physalis alkekengi) has dramatic red or orange colored seed pods that, with the right weather conditions, turn into something totally different but equally amazing. Annette told me that the pods turn into what’s called a “skeleton,” and added, “That happens only if all the conditions are correct, and it’s really spectacular looking. The pods themselves keep their entire shape, with the little seed still bright, bright red in the middle. They have always fascinated me.”

Chinese lantern plant pod
Chinese Lantern plant, showing the pod “skeleton” with a red seed inside. (photo by Esther Merbt on Pixabay)

How Fall Splendor was made

I enjoy seeing a new piece of art that causes me to do a double-take, then think to myself, “How did they do that?” I had that thought as I looked at Fall Splendor. 

A new public artwork normally begins with a proposal put out to artists by the Public Arts Commission. Annette saw the proposal for this public artwork location and submitted her idea as the model shown below. 

Fall Splendor sculpture model
Model for Fall Splendor. The leaves are marked to guide her in the sculpture building process. (photo by Annette Julien)

Annette began her process by collecting samples of the plant leaves and skeleton pods near Ruch. She made a small model for the committee appointed to choose this public artwork. Along with the model, she brought them a large, full-size steel Chinese lantern plant leaf she had made. You can now see that leaf on the ground to the side of the sculpture. It appears to have ‘fallen off” the plant/sculpture. Annette laughed as she told me, “I used to get phone calls…’oh my god, one of your leaves broke off.’” 

Fall Splendor sculpture
You can see the “fallen” leaf on the bottom left. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Making the leaves

The sculpture’s stems and leaves are made with Corten steel. Steel comes in flat pieces, right? The leaves of Fall Splendor are curved and wavy just like real Chinese lantern leaves, right? They got that way through a combination of artistic creativity and brute strength. The artistic creativity was provided by Annette. The brute strength was provided by her brother’s hydraulic wood splitter. Yes, a wood splitter. It is not delicate, but neither is steel. 

Wood splitter
Wood splitter used to shape the leaves for Fall Splendor. (photo by Annette Julien)

Here is how Annette described the leaf making process: “All of these bends were done on a wood splitter. It’s a wood splitter used for firewood, powered by hydraulics.” To split wood, a piece of wood is placed between the flat plate and the wedge. As the hydraulic system pushes the flat plate towards the wedge, the wood is easily split. 

Annette adapted the machine to bend Corten steel. Rounded pieces of pipe were attached to both the flat plate and the wedge in order to gently bend the steel. “I would hold the steel and my brother would activate the splitter plate. I’d say “go, go, go, go, stop,’ and then I’d move the steel or flip it over until I got the wave that I wanted.” This bending was all done at room temperature without needing to heat the steel, since the wood splitter is so powerful.

The stainless steel leaves have been bent, cut down the middle and tack-welded in this photo. Annette had not yet welded the entire center seam and ground the welds smooth. (photo by Annette Julien)

She originally bent the “leaves” as rectangular pieces of steel until she got the wave patterns she wanted. Then she would cut a rectangular piece in half, cut out a leaf shape on each half and weld the two halves together into one wavy leaf. She concluded, “This complex process makes the leaves more interesting and realistic.”

Fall Splendor sculpture
Close-up of one leaf on the finished Fall Splendor sculpture. You can clearly see how the leaf’s center seam has almost disappeared. I am amazed again and again by the skill of a professional metal artist like Annette to make welds “disappear.” (photo by Annette Julien)

Corten steel, used for the leaves, is designed to rust, but Annette’s process will slow the rusting. She colored the leaves by adding an acid-wash patina. On top of that is an outdoor clear coat to preserve the color as long as possible.

Making the pods

The skeleton pods, made of 1/8” stainless steel, required a very different multi-stage process.

In her words, she began “by taking an actual skeleton pod. I cut it apart and spray painted a piece black. Then I scotch-taped it to a piece of white paper and xeroxed it up [made enlarged copies of the piece]. What you see in the sculpture is the actual designs in the pod.” 

Learning this step was my favorite part of interviewing Annette. From the first time I saw Fall Splendor, I was taken with the contrast of thick stainless steel and its delicate skeleton-pod design. When I learned that I was looking at nature’s delicate design, not Annette’s, my appreciation for the sculpture doubled. 

Fall Splendor sculpture in process
Thick paper was used in the pod design process. (photo by Annette Julien)

The pod shape is five-sided. Annette used thick paper to plan the size and shape of each side of each pod. This photo shows the enlarged Chinese lantern pod skeleton designs after they were glued onto the five pieces of thick paper that made up her experimental pod. Once she had the size and shape just right, she scanned the sort-of-football shape of each side into the computer. Using Photoshop, she combined the pod skeleton design with the shape design. This gave her a basic building block for the pod sections of the sculpture. These Photoshop designs were saved as computer files.

Next came transferring this design to stainless steel. She said, “I had the flat stainless steel pieces cut out with a water-jet cutter. I did the computer stuff and I sent them a file.” Water cuts through 1/8” steel? Yes, with the help of an abrasive mineral – typically powdered garnet – added to the high pressure water for the cutting process.  

Annette built this tool to help her bend the skeleton pod pieces. (photo by Annette Julien)

The pod pieces came back from water-jet cutting as flat ovals. The finished pods, of course, had to be curved. I asked Annette if the wood-splitter was used to bend this 1/8″ stainless steel. She replied, “No wood splitter on these.  I used a slip roller to put a gentle curve in them and then I used this pipe setup I built to hand bend them to the right shape to get them all to meet correctly.”

After each of the skeleton pod pieces was cut and curved, she was ready to put the five-sided pods together. Based on her thick paper design, each pod was created of five stainless steel pieces. I look at the stainless steel seams and see them “seamlessly” welded together. Each pod looks as though it were made of one piece of stainless steel, not five.

Fall Splendor sculpture
Stainless steel pod close-up, with glass seed inside. (photo by Annette Julien)

Each pod contains a bright red seed, as do real Chinese lantern pods. These seeds, made of glass, were hand blown at the Gathering Glass Studio that used to be at the corner of A Street and Pioneer Street. The shop has closed, but I was happy to see on the company website that they are still in business, now blowing and sculpting glass at a home studio.

Deep meaning?

According to Annette, there is no deep meaning built into the sculpture, simply the beauty and splendor of autumn (“Fall Splendor”) and the unusual ways the Chinese lantern plant and seed pods express that splendor. If we can visit the sculpture and feel even a taste of true “fall splendor,” I guess that is deep enough.

Fall Splendor sculpture
On November 4, 2020, I visited the Fall Splendor sculpture in the afternoon. I noticed the gorgeous fall color in the background only after I took out my camera to take a photo. I told my wife, “I took a photo of “fall splendor” behind “Fall Splendor.” (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Value of public art and private art

“It makes me smile every time I walk by.” 

Visitor to Fall Splendor

In her daily work life, Annette makes props viewed by thousands of OSF playgoers, few of whom she knows. Maybe that is why the artworks commissioned by friends mean so much to her. Even though not as many people will see these artworks, she gets a special feeling knowing that someone she cares about will enjoy and appreciate one of her creations every day. 

The photos below show one of her favorite private commissions.

Since Fall Splendor is public art, I asked Annette if she gets much feedback about it. She told me, “What’s great is when I come wash it, which I do three or four times a year, people walking by on the stairway talk to me about the sculpture.” One woman’s comment really meant a lot to her: “It makes me smile every time I walk by.” 

How to find the Fall Splendor sculpture

The Fall Splendor sculpture is on the Calle Guanajuato stairway, which you can access from either Granite Street or Calle Guanajuato. 

The top of the stairway is on Granite Street, near the intersection with High Street. At the top of the stairway you will find a bench and a mosaic artwork called Rio Amistad, another piece in the Ashland public art collection. A few steps down the stairway, you will find Fall Splendor. Further down the stairway is the rock and steel public art sculpture called Inorganic Compound.

You can also find Fall Splendor from Calle Guanajuato by crossing Ashland Creek to the path on the west side of the creek and climbing up the stairway.

Other artwork by Annette Julien

Cheshire Cat

For the 2019 OSF season, Annette created the Cheshire Cat head. Its transformation from the foam model to the final work of art is fascinating. Annette described the foam model: “After making a clay model, I scanned it with a 3D scanner and then cut it out of bead-foam on the CNC [machine that cuts following a computer program].  It was cut in layers and I had to glue them together and do a final carving to clean it up.  I was working on making eyes in this picture.” 

OSF prop made by Annette Julien
Cheshire Cat bead-foam model. (photo by Annette Julien)

She said, regarding the next steps: “I did all the fiberglassing and rattan work over this and then took all this foam out when it was done.  One chunk at a time.”

“What appears to be wires is actually rattan, which serves as both the structure and design of the prop. The eyes are transparent plastic and have some simple LED lights in them.  The pupils are just black sticky vinyl, which blocked the light.”

OSF prop made by Annette Julien
This Cheshire Cat prop, made by Annette Julien, was used in the 2019 OSF production of Alice in Wonderland. (photo by Annette Julien)

 Victorian era dentist chair

OSF prop made by Annette Julien
This is the Victorian era dentist chair prop used in the OSF 2013 production of My Fair Lady. (photo by Annette Julien)

Annette was given the task of creating a Victorian era dentist chair for the 2013 Oregon Shakespeare Festival musical My Fair Lady.  

OSF prop made by Annette Julien
OSF Victorian era dentist chair prop in process. Annette Julien built the “H” (for Henry Higgins) from scratch. (photo by Annette Julien)

Notice the large “H” on the side of the chair. Annette briefly described the process of creating that “H” from scratch. “I cut the H out of a piece of flat stock steel and welded  1/2” wide flat stock steel all around the sides.  Welded on the back side.  It was made to look like cast steel.” 

OSF prop made by Annette Julien
I like this photo for its view of the complexity of the chair construction. (photo by Annette Julien)

This is a very intricate yet solid and heavy work of theater art. Something like this might be called “props,” but it is also a working chair, as you can see from the photo below, taken at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

My Fair Lady at OSF 2013
My Fair Lady (2013): Jonathan Haugen (Henry Higgins) and Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I found a one minute OSF video about the making of this chair. I enjoyed the video, but I was disappointed that Annette was not given credit for making the prop. Here is a link to the video.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzIpqg3wBWM

Wilson at the Ashland Library

I will leave you with a smile. This is Wilson the Dragon. Wilson lives at the Ashland Library, above the entrance to the children’s section.

"Wilson the Dragon" at Ashland Public Library
Wilson the Dragon, at the Ashland Public Library. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“Wilson” honors the late Bob Wilson, Ashland Library Director from 1973 to 2003. I learned more about “Wilson the Dragon” from former library Branch Manager Amy Blossom: “Bob Wilson, the Library Director, and I had seen pictures of some libraries that had great big sculptures of animals and fun ways to enter the children’s section and we wanted something like that. 

“Bob talked to his wife Claire Barr-Wilson who is a wonderful artist and had made many clay sculptures, and fantastical creations. (For example the garbage eating dragon at the Children’s Festival). She came up with the idea of a dragon. And added that the tail would go into the wall and come out the other side. You’ll have to check that out.

“Claire designed it, and Annette Julien, who worked at OSF in the Props Department created it. My husband Brad Galusha, made the ledge that it sits on and installed it.”

"Wilson the Dragon" at Ashland Public Library
This sign is below Wilson the Dragon at the Ashland Public Library. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

George Kramer, whose name you see above along with his wife’s name, added to the story. “Bob Wilson was the longtime head librarian at the library, much beloved. He had recently retired, after having overseen the expansion and remodeling (I was part of that design team).  This was one of the years where Oregon was returning a ‘kicker’ to residents and my wife, Joyce Van Anne, and I received ours (I don’t remember what it was, maybe $1000 or something).  Anyway, we decided to donate it to the Friends of the Ashland Public Library and told them they should use it for something that wouldn’t otherwise happen, related to the new building.  They hired the artist and commissioned ‘Wilson.'”

Stop and say “Hi” to Wilson the Dragon the next time you are at the Ashland Public Library. As you peruse the bookshelves, you can also see many other beautiful works of public art at the library.

Other public art on the Calle Guanajuato stairway

References:

Amy Blossom, Personal communications, November 2020.
Annette Julien, Interview and personal communications, October and November 2020.
George Kramer, Personal communications, November 2020.