Fordyce Street: from sawmills to art!

Fence murals? Yes!
(Learn about the artists)
Yard art? Yes!
43 photos!
Art around Ashland series.

“There’s a 25’ long multi-colored Jellyfish on Fordyce Street!” That’s the email message I got from a friend who reads my Walk Ashland articles. No, we don’t have a new aquarium on Fordyce Street, but we do have a jellyfish. My friend proved it to me with attached photos. Here’s one for you.

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Overview of the Jellyfish mural on Fordyce Street, painted by J. Mike Kuhn. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

When I went to Fordyce Street to investigate, what I found surprised me.

Art and Community

I have recently been writing many articles about art in Ashland. The Fordyce Street mural artists with whom I spoke believe in the power of visual art to elicit smiles, to bring people together, even to change lives for the better. They believe, as I do, that art within the community is important. Going to an art museum is a rare experience for most people, and a “never” experience for many. On the other hand, driving or bicycling or walking around our community is an everyday experience for almost everyone.

Artist J. Mike Kuhn echoed what I have heard from many other Ashland artists, when he told me: “It’s so cool how we can connect and inspire others. I may never get to meet some of the people that I inspire, but I think it’s interesting that you can really do that.”

Not just one fence mural

I found the 25’ jellyfish; it’s a mural painted on a fence. It is hard to miss! Then I started walking around the neighborhood and pretty soon I had a photographic collection of not two, not three, but six colorful fence murals, along with creative yard art and other beautiful sights.

As I was walking back to my car, I stopped to look once again at the longest fence mural of all. This was at 573 Fordyce Street. At that moment, in a small example of the “WalkAshland serendipity” I experience again and again, the homeowner Peter Paul Montague and his daughter came out of their front door. As they were about to get in their car, I said “Hello” and introduced myself.  I asked him if he knew who painted the mural on his fence, and he replied, “I did.” He was on his way to pick up another child, so we agreed to meet another time for an interview. Before I tell you about the artists, here are some other highlights of Fordyce Street.

Let’s begin our Fordyce Street walk at the corner of East Main Street 

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
This street sign marks the south end of Fordyce Street, where it meets East Main Street. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

At its south end, Fordyce Street meets East Main Street. To the north, it ends after about six blocks at private property that overlooks and extends to Bear Creek. If you want to reach a trail to North Mountain Park from here, turn left on Munson Drive, right onto Village Square Drive, and keep an eye out for the trail that leads into the park.

Ashland as a mill town?

As I started my walk, I met Denise, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1980. She described Fordyce Street of that time as a gravel road with only six or seven houses along it. She remembers a sawmill wigwam burner still present in the neighborhood, a magnet for young boys to play in, though the sawmills had all closed. In the photo below, you can see a wigwam burner in the background that was at another sawmill just a couple blocks away.

Sawmill, Ashland Oregon
Lithia Lumber Mill at 1155 East Main Street, which is now the site of the Ashland Police Station. The mill operated from the 1940s to the 1960s under three different names. (photo from “An Introduction to History of the Rogue Valley: with a focus on the Ashland area,” December 2012 edition.)

Most people who have moved to Ashland during the past 40 years don’t know that Ashland was a mill town not so long ago. There were at least nine sawmills operating here during the mid-20th century.

Sawmill, Ashland Oregon
Taylor Brothers Mill on Hersey Street, now site of the Hersey Street Business Park, open 1947 to 1960, (photo from “An Introduction to History of the Rogue Valley: with a focus on the Ashland area,” December 2012 edition.)

The Oregon Sawmill site was along Fordyce Street from 1956 to 1967. Lithia Lumber Mill had been located two blocks away, where the Ashland Police Station is now, from the 1940s to the 1960s. A third sawmill called Workman Mill was across East Main Street from the early 1950s to early 1960s. Now you know why the college student housing located at its former site is called Old Mill Village. 

Creative art along Fordyce Street

In addition to beautiful murals, I found other creative and interesting art to share on our walk from the south end to the north end of Fordyce Street. 

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
This is a beautiful slate or stone fence on Fordyce Street at Calypso Court. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Detail of a beautiful slate or stone fence on Fordyce Street at Calypso Court. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
And now, a word from a local comedian. Morgue gallows humor? (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Here is some Fordyce Street art in metal and wood, designed by Kerry KenCairn. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
This gate on Kirk Lane is metal art at the same house that has the large metal and wood artworks around the corner on Fordyce Street. This gate is also by Kerry KenCairn. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Right across the street from this metal and wood gate is a colorful gate painted by Peter Paul Montague, who also painted the fence on both sides of the gate.

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Gate detail of the Sol LeWitt inspired mural on Kirk Lane by the corner of Fordyce Street, painted by Peter Paul Montague. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Another artistic gate on Fordyce Street. This one was designed by Mardi Stone. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

This house at 540 Fordyce Street has several creative artworks that I stopped to admire.

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
540 Fordyce Street. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
This fascinating sculpture and stained glass is at 540 Fordyce Street. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Detail photo of a fascinating sculpture and stained glass at 540 Fordyce Street. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
I like the artistry of this fence at 540 Fordyce Street. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
More creativity at 540 Fordyce Street. This design of pavers is in the driveway. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
This yard art on Fordyce Street is exceptional. Somehow it combines simplicity, complexity, cuteness and cleverness in one humble jumble of driftwood and stones. I love it. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Fordyce Street, Ashland
520 Fordyce Street. This house replaced one that burned in a fire September 2018. A neighbor out walking her dog told me the first floor walls of the new house are made with straw bale construction. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
What’s cuter: the saying or the statue? What’s wiser: the saying or the tree? (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Coming to the north end of Fordyce Street, with Bear Creek below and Grizzly Peak above. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
When I saw this old fence and the old tree stump beside it, I couldn’t figure out whether to call it art or nature. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Introducing the mural artists

Peter Paul Montague painted five geometric murals. J. Mike Kuhn painted the dramatic jellyfish mural. I interviewed both Peter Paul Montague and J. Mike Kuhn so I could do justice to their artwork and their artistic stories.

Peter Paul Montague’s artistic background

Before Montague entered his current profession of nursing, he supported himself for many years as a craft artisan, batiking on organic cotton clothing. 

He had played with paints as a child, but didn’t get serious about art until after graduating from college with a degree in Sociology. During a one month hiking trip in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, he learned about batik art from a friend who had trained in Kenya. Spending a summer travelling with his friend, Montague learned the basics of the East-African Batik tradition.   Montague would spend the next 14 years making and selling Batik clothing as Nakupenda Batik.  He focused on sustainable practices, using only organic cotton clothing, beeswax, and specializing in natural indigo dye.

Here is an example of a Peter Paul Montague batik shirt. (photo courtesy of Wendy Eppinger)

Made from the Indigo plant, this natural dye has been used for thousands of years. Note however that blue jeans and most other indigo dyed clothing are now made from synthetic indigo dye. Montague’s largest batik art was a 9′ by 9′ wall hanging, but what put food on his table for many years was his batik clothing.

“Philadelphia, where I grew up, is full of public art.”

Peter Paul Montague

“I grew up with public art,” he told me. His hometown of Philadelphia is known as the City of Murals. According to their website, “Mural Arts Philadelphia is the nation’s largest public art program, dedicated to the belief that art ignites change. Mural Arts has created over 4,000 works of public art through innovative collaborations with community-based organizations, city agencies, nonprofit organizations, schools, the private sector, and philanthropies.”

He was inspired and influenced by…

When I walked Fordyce Street with Peter Paul Montague, he told me the names of two artists who influenced his mural painting style. Sol LeWitt inspired him to experiment with bold colors and geometric designs on large “canvases” (such as fences). Isaiah Zagar, mosaic artist in the Philadelphia South Street neighborhood, inspired him to be imaginative.

Here’s an example of one of LeWitt’s large pieces.

Sol LeWitt mural
A mural by Sol LeWitt at Columbus Circle Station, New York City. (photo from Wikimedia Commons, 2017)

Here’s a peek at Zagar’s mosaic work in Philadelphia. 

Isaiah Zagar Magic Gardens
A detail from Isaiah Zagar Magic Gardens, 1020 South Street, Philadelphia. (photo from Wikimedia Commons, 2012)

Peter Paul Montague’s murals and process

“My goal is for people to feel movement when they view the paintings, even though they are static.”

Peter Paul Montague
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Overview of the Sol LeWitt inspired mural on Kirk Lane by the corner of Fordyce Street, painted by Peter Paul Montague. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

The first fence he painted was his long fence along Kirk Lane, with a boldness and color palette inspired by Sol LeWitt’s work. The long fence provided 60′ to work with. He created outlines for the curves using string and a pivot point, and filled in the outlines with high quality wood stains to provide color.

His property has a LOT of fence, and his second painting was done on a continuation of the first long painted fence. In this one, he got more creative with his shapes and chose a theme of “circle and waves” for the mural. 

A neighbor volunteered his fence for Montague’s third fence painting. This attractive art has a new theme: “rivers and mountains.” You’ll notice a variety of blues and greens for the flowing river and browns and reds for the stylized mountains. 

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Overview of the “rivers and mountains” themed mural on Fordyce Street, painted by Peter Paul Montague. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Montague shared some of his in-process design and painting photos with me. It is fascinating to see glimpses of how it was created.

Another neighbor liked the designs so much that they asked if he would collaborate with them to create a design for their fence. The result has a theme of “interlocking circles.” Notice how each band of color changes as it moves from one circle to the next. That really impressed me.

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Overview of the “interlocking circles” themed mural on Fordyce Street, painted by Peter Paul Montague. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Detail of the “interlocking circles” themed mural on Fordyce Street, painted by Peter Paul Montague. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Finally, there is a smaller design in Montague’s front yard. He called it a “color study,” since he experimented with color blending by using a second, dry brush to create subtle gradations of color.

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Overview of the “color study” themed mural on Fordyce Street, painted by Peter Paul Montague. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Jellyfish mural by J. Mike Kuhn

It’s not often that one sees a 25’ long jellyfish in Ashland. Unless of course you live in the Fordyce Street neighborhood! This fence mural was painted by local artist and graphic designer J. Mike Kuhn in 2020. 

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Overview of the Jellyfish mural on Fordyce Street, painted by J. Mike Kuhn. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“I thought it would be cool to donate a more permanent mural to the town. A lot of my other work has been painting murals on vehicles, 13 or 14 since I moved to Ashland.”

J. Mike Kuhn

Why a jellyfish?

Kuhn grew up in New Jersey, where he would spend summers at the Jersey Shore. If you spend time on his website, you will see the themes of ocean and wave and flow. You will see many colorful artistic versions of the creatures who live under the waves. 

His brand name is FEEESH, a play on words. Playful yet serious. 

Mike told me that FEEESH stands for “Forever Energetically Entering Endeavors Spreading Happiness.” 

How many people are able to capture in six words not only their approach to art, but also their aspiration for a life well lived and their desire to uplift others in the community? I gained a tremendous respect for this young man when I took a few minutes to consider seriously his eccentric brand name.

Making the jellyfish mural

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Here is the Jellyfish mural in-process, prep work done on the fence but before painting. (photo courtesy of J. Mike Kuhn)

Kuhn described many layers of meaning in the design and execution of this jellyfish. With bamboo growing behind the fence, he wanted the light green base of the mural to emulate and blend with the ever-changing greens of bamboo leaves reflecting the sun. In addition, the flowing jellyfish blends with the flowing nature of bamboo moving in the wind.

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Here is the Jellyfish mural in-process, early in the painting. (photo courtesy of J. Mike Kuhn)

A deeper conceptual thought embodied in the mural was inspired by Xavi, a mural artist Kuhn worked with and learned from in 2019 (see more about Xavi below). Kuhn sees the jellyfish coming out of tumultuous times, as expressed in the color selection and design on the left end of the mural, and going in to a calmer area.  

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Here is the Jellyfish mural in-process, as darker green paint is being applied. (photo courtesy of J. Mike Kuhn)

On the first day, he painted the entire background. The larger light green section received one coat to age faster and the multiple hue section was double coated to endure longer. On the second day, he painted the jellyfish using mostly darker tones of spray paint in order to last longer against sun fading and to offer stronger contrast.

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Closer view of the Jellyfish mural on Fordyce Street, painted by J. Mike Kuhn. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

From the beginning, he thought about the life of the mural. He pointed out how light moves across the mural throughout each day. It gets full sun in the morning, then partial sun, then full shade late afternoon. Because of the full sun, he expects the light green paint to fade more quickly than the spray paint. Over time, the wood’s natural grain will begin to show through the light green paint around the jellyfish, and the relationship of the jellyfish to the fence will gradually change. Seeing the wood’s natural grain in this mural will also reference the nearby murals by Peter Paul Montague, who used stain colors that allow the underlying wood grain to become part of the design.

Here is an artist’s detail I would not have noticed. The gray color in the jellyfish is actually chrome spray paint, not gray. Chrome is basically a gray color, but it reflects more sunshine to add a bit of shimmer on sunny mornings. As the day goes on, it becomes a normal flat gray color.  

Fordyce Street, Ashland Oregon
Artist at work. J. Mike Kuhn is shown painting the Jellyfish mural. (photo by Emily Dunckle, courtesy of J. Mike Kuhn)

The neighborhood mural artists meet

As Kuhn was working on his jellyfish mural, Montague (who lives a block away) stopped by to watch and talk. Kuhn appreciated this, and added, “I was lucky enough to give him a compliment in person, since I love his pieces. I think they’re beautifully sophisticated and so well executed. I thought I had to do a good job just to do justice to his work.” 

I asked Kuhn, “When did you become an artist?”

“That police officer is one of the reasons I am now a professional artist!”

J. Mike Kuhn

“I’ve been creating with paints or Legos since before I knew it was a thing,” he replied. “When I was in high school, I had a legal issue because some friends and I painted the entire inside of a large warehouse [illegally]. During a terrifying interrogation, a police officer’s advice to me was that I had talent and I was wasting my time breaking into places doing art for free. I should go to school for this. At the time, I was planning to go to college for chemistry, since I was fascinated with science. That police officer is one of the reasons I am now a professional artist!”

After high school, Kuhn went to a local community college for graphic design. He followed up by attending and graduating from an intensely competitive arts college in Manhattan, the School of Visual Arts. Exceptionally artistic students from all across the world go there to study advertising, design, fine arts and more.  

He has done hundreds of patterns as a graphic artist working for companies as well as working on his own. He creates patterns and designs art for hammocks, chairs, t-shirts, shoes and more.

He was inspired and influenced by…

“Have an intention behind each stroke.

Xavi Panneton

Internationally known, local mural artist Xavi Panneton took nine months to paint the entire exterior of the Kids Unlimited building in Medford during 2019. While assisting Panneton with the main entrance area, Kuhn was deeply influenced by Panneton’s art and his mentoring. 

Kids Unlimited, Medford Oregon
The entire Kids Unlimited building in Medford was painted as a mural by Xavi Panneton. J. Mike Kuhn assisted him with part of it. (photo from Kids Unlimited website)

“Working with him for a couple months was unbelievable. I remember asking him about my work at the time. He said, ‘Your studio work looks like you’re doing it illegally [rushed].’ Xavi was the one who taught me to slow down. He gave me the most amazing line: ‘Have an intention behind each stroke.’ Now with my paintings I try to think about the color interactions. He even influenced how I speak about my work.” 

Cannabis aficionado, food lover, BMX rider

Kuhn came originally to Southern Oregon to work a few months during the marijuana harvest season, which provided some income to help him focus on art the rest of the year. While here, he began to make friends with people who were creating art and supporting art. I was surprised when he told me why he decided to move here. “The reason I really stayed and moved here was the food. The food in this area is exceptional. You can’t go to a food store in New Jersey and get what you can at the Food Coop. Between the agricultural diversity and the natural beauty of this area, I couldn’t resist moving here.”

He added: “I’m also a BMX rider, so I really enjoy the skate parks in this area. It’s kind of a unique thing in the country that Oregon has such large skate parks. You couldn’t legally build a skate park like you have in Oregon in New Jersey, because of insurance laws. For me, it’s a treat to be able to ride these big cement sculptures, basically. That’s actually where I’ve met at least half of the owners of buses I have painted.”  

“I was 25 when I first saw the Milky Way. In New Jersey you can count the stars. Now seeing the Milky Way most nights blows my mind. To me, it’s such a treat.”

J. Mike Kuhn

When he gets homesick

Most of Kuhn’s family still lives in New Jersey. He gets homesick for them sometimes. I laughed when he told me what he does. “I go to Jersey Mike’s when I’m feeling homesick, because the photos in the Jersey Mike’s shop are of my mom’s neighborhood.”

Art in the Ashland economy

Large gatherings in Ashland have been shut down for nearly a year as this article is being written. With no clear end in sight, there has been much discussion about how to diversify Ashland’s economy to depend less on the economic power of Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). It’s not a matter of “instead of OSF,” since I believe we will always have OSF here. It is definitely a matter of “in addition to OSF.”  

Artist J. Mike Kuhn put it to me this way. “I think personally the town needs to invest more in visual arts. In times of fire and other awful situations [like COVID-19], you can’t always have performance art, but visual arts will always stand. A mural is still enjoyable in the smoke, or when people are limited to walking around their neighborhood.”

He expanded his vision of the impact of visual arts to include not only tourists, but also the children who grow up here. “I see this town as developing into even more of an arts community. If we did more street murals and things like that, I think it would be a great space for children to grow up. I try to inspire kids with the idea that you can do something cool. You can change your community.”   

Finally, why the name Fordyce Street?

Usually I have no idea why a street was given its particular name. In the case of Fordyce Street, we have a story from a man who wrote a booklet in 1951 about Ashland street names. According to the author Henry C. Galey, he named Fordyce St. in memory of Asa G. Fordyce, who came to Ashland with his family in 1853. Fordyce got a 320 acre donation land claim along Bear Creek, including what is now North Mountain Park and the Fordyce Street neighborhood. Fordyce sold his land to Frank Carter in the late 1880s and it became part of the Carter Land Company cattle operation. 

Fordyce Street, Ashland
Asa G. Fordyce photo. (from the Find a Grave website)

Asa Fordyce was well respected in the community. As evidence, here is a story about the first elected school board in Ashland. School classes were first taught in Ashland in 1854 at Eber Emery’s house, with Miss Lizzie Anderson the teacher. This informal arrangement continued until April 3, 1857, when the small community held a meeting to elect three school directors and a clerk for the just-formed Jackson County School District No. 5. John P. Walker (for whom Walker School and Walker Street are named) was chosen, along with Asa G. Fordyce and Bennett Million, while Robert B. Hargadine was the clerk.

If you would like to learn how a three-year-old was responsible for the creation of School District No. 5 in 1857, please read this article. 

I hope you have enjoyed my article about Fordyce Street and its beautiful murals. If you would like to read other articles about artwork in Ashland, here are a couple of suggestions. 

References:

Anon. “An Introduction to History of the Rogue Valley: with a focus on the Ashland area.” North Mountain Park Nature Center Brochure. Version 4, Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, December 2012. 
https://www.ashland.or.us/Files/HistoryBackgroundBookWeb1-3-13.pdf

Darling, John. “Fire strikes twice,” Medford Mail Tribune, September 26, 2018.

Galey, Henry C. with Geo. W. Dunn and Rose D. Galey. “Information on Ashland Streets, April 5, 1951,” at SOU Hannon Library. 

Kids Unlimited website, accessed February 27, 2021.
https://kuoregon.org/mural/

Kuhn, J. Mike. Interview and personal communications, October 2020 and other dates.

Montague, Peter Paul. Interview and personal communications, October 2020 and other dates.

Mural Arts Philadelphia website. (accessed February 11, 2021)
https://www.muralarts.org/about/

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens website (accessed February 11, 2021).
https://www.phillymagicgardens.org/about-us/

Painted Utility Boxes, Part 1 (2009)

45 photos of 7 utility boxes!
Outdoor painting on hot July days.
Public Arts Commission at work.
Ashland Public Art series.

Have you noticed the bright, colorful utility boxes around town?  I love the way these gray metal boxes have been transformed into colorful works of art. This article will feature mostly photographs, including fun “before and after” photos of the utility boxes.

In 2009, after consultation with the City utility department, the Public Arts Commission (PAC) invited artists to submit designs for paintings on seven utility boxes in and near the Railroad District area. PAC’s Call for Entries document stated in part: “The theme for Phase 1 of this project is Reflections of Ashland. Artists are invited to submit designs that are suitable to the theme of Reflections of Ashland. These may include but are not limited to designs that reflect Ashland’s natural beauty, cultural offerings, history and distinctive charm.” 

Artists were required to submit a two dimensional representation of what their design would look like on the three dimensional utility box. As an example, artist Zelpha Hutton submitted the design below. PAC chose six artists to paint the first seven utility boxes.

Painted utility box Ashland
Design submitted by Zelpha Hutton for utility box on Second Street in front of U.S. Bank entrance. (photo from Public Arts Commission, Designs Submitted, 2009)

When the Public Arts Commission was created in 2003, it began with lofty ideals and no consistent funding source. Money was still tight in 2009, so funding had to be found for the utility box project. A Mail Tribune article described the supporters of this project. “In addition to support from the city government and Ashland Public Arts Commission, the utility box project was made possible by a $1,500 grant from the Jackson County Cultural Coalition and donations of paint and services from Miller Paint Co., The Party Place and Meyers Painting.”

Following this map, you can create your own Art Walk of these first seven painted utility boxes. Follow along as you read this article on your mobile phone, or get some fresh air on a sunny day after you have read it.

Painted utility box Ashland
Map of the seven utility boxes in and near the Railroad District that were painted in 2009, approved by the Public Arts Commission. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)

Box 1: North Second Street (“Dogs and Bikes”)

The first box on the map is located on North Second Street near East Main Street, in front of the entrance to U.S. Bank. Zelpha Hutton is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Dogs and Bikes.”

Hutton was an art teacher and owner of Paisley Yarn Shop in Ashland for many years. According to the Mail Tribune, the design came to her “when she noticed several dogs tied up at the nearby Agave restaurant while their owners dined. A bicycle was also outside. The scene — often repeated at cafés all around town — inspired Hutton to create a playful design featuring dogs tied to a table with a bowl of water and a bicycle nearby. The utility box she painted is in front of U.S. Bank on Second Street.”

I’ll begin with the before and after photo, share two more photos taken in 2009, and then add three that I took in January 2021.

Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Second Street “before and after,” in front of U.S. Bank entrance. Painted by Zelpha Hutton. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Second Street in front of U.S. Bank entrance. Being painted by Zelpha Hutton in 2009. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Second Street in front of U.S. Bank entrance. Painted by Zelpha Hutton in 2009. Its getting dirty in 2021, but still a scene that brings a smile to my face. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Does this pup bring a smile? Detail of utility box on Second Street in front of U.S. Bank entrance. Painted by Zelpha Hutton in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Box 2: North Second Street (“Poppies”)

The second box on the map is located on North Second Street near Lithia Way, in front of Trinity Episcopal Church labyrinth. Kathleen Taylor is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Poppies.” This photo collection also includes the before and after photo, two more photos taken in 2009, and then three that I took in January 2021.

Along with Taylor’s poppy flower design submittal, she wrote, “I am inspired by the beautiful springtime flower here in Ashland.” 

Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Second Street “before and after,” near Trinity Episcopal Church labyrinth. Painted by Kathleen Taylor. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Second Street near Trinity Episcopal Church labyrinth. Being painted by Kathleen Taylor in 2009. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Second Street near Trinity Episcopal Church labyrinth in 2021. Painted by Kathleen Taylor in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Painted utility box, Ashland
More flowers on the other side! Utility box on Second Street near Trinity Episcopal Church labyrinth in 2021. Painted by Kathleen Taylor in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Box 3: Lithia Way (“Mountains and Trees”)

The third box on the map is located on Lithia Way at the west end of C Street. Pokey McFarland is the artist, and his title for the artwork is “Mountains and Trees.” The theme was a natural for the artist, since McFarland was a hiker, trail runner, mountain biker and skier. 

When McFarland submitted his design for the utility box to PAC, he wrote: “I feel that Ashland is a unique area, naturally beautiful and hidden in among mountains and forests. I feel many come here for that isolated feeling. The natural beauty here is one of a kind, wonderful! When I reflect on Ashland, I think mountains, trees, rivers, natures’ beauty…” 

In a 2011 article, the Ashland Tidings said, “McFarland previously was one of the winners of a city contest to paint drab utility boxes in colorful designs. He also makes posters for bands and music festivals, designs T-shirts and does art projects for businesses.

A staff member at the Lithia Springs Boys Home, he likes to take troubled youngsters out into nature. They sometimes team with Ashland Parks and Recreation Department workers on projects.”

Below you’ll find the before and after photo, one more photo taken in 2009 as the box was being painted, and then two that I took in January 2021.

Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Lithia Way “before and after,” near west end of C Street. Painted by Pokey McFarland. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Lithia Way near west end of C Street. Being painted by Pokey McFarland in 2009. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Lithia Way near west end of C Street in 2021. Painted by Pokey McFarland in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Side and top view of utility box on Lithia Way near west end of C Street in 2021. Painted by Pokey McFarland in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Box 4: Oak Street (no longer painted)

Box 4 was located on Oak Street in front of the Recology Ashland office. Sadly, it is no longer there. The utility box was replaced and not repainted. Here is a photo showing how the box, painted by Kathleen Taylor, looked in 2009, and a 2021 photo showing how it looks now.

Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Oak Street in front of Recology Ashland office, just after being painted by Kathleen Taylor in 2009. Note: this utility box is no longer painted.(photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Oak Street in front of Recology Ashland office. It was painted in 2009, but the painted utility box was replaced with this one. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Box 5: Oak Street (“Ashland Activities”)

Box 5 is located on Oak Street near the Old Ashland Armory. Judy Bryant is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Ashland Activities.” This painting is full of detail. After the two photos from 2009, I included a number of close-up photos taken in 2021 to show some of that detail.

With Bryant’s design submittal, she wrote, “When I was giving thought to a design for Reflections of Ashland I kept thinking of all the activities we as locals get to enjoy right outside our front doors any day of the year.”

Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Oak Street “before and after,” near Old Ashland Armory. Painted by Judy Bryant, 2009. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Oak Street near Old Ashland Armory. Being painted by Judy Bryant, 2009. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Oak Street near Old Ashland Armory in 2021. Painted by Judy Bryant, 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Oak Street near Old Ashland Armory in 2021. Painted by Judy Bryant, 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Oak Street near Old Ashland Armory. Painted by Judy Bryant, 2009. Detail of OSF Elizabethan Theater. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Oak Street near Old Ashland Armory. Painted by Judy Bryant, 2009. This detail shows an Ashland City Band concert at the Lithia Park bandshell. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on Oak Street near Old Ashland Armory. Painted by Judy Bryant, 2009. Detail of Southern Oregon University. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Box 6: A Street (“Clouds and Grapes”)

Box 6 is located on A Street near the Ashland Food Coop. Adrienne Bailin is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Clouds and Grapes.”

Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on A Street “before and after,” near Ashland Food Coop. Painted by Adrienne Bailin. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on A Street near Ashland Food Coop being painted by Adrienne Bailin in 2009. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Utility box, Ashland Oregon
Utility box on A Street near Ashland Food Coop in 2021. It was painted by Adrienne Bailin in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Utility box, Ashland Oregon
Utility box on A Street near Ashland Food Coop in 2021. It was painted by Adrienne Bailin in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Utility box, Ashland Oregon
Detail of utility box on A Street in 2021. It was painted by Adrienne Bailin in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Box 7: A Street (“Return of the Swans”)

Box 7 is located on A Street near Fourth Street. Ann DiSalvo is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Return of the Swans.” I interviewed DiSalvo, so I’ll share a little of her experience painting the utility box and some of her insights about public art. I found out that she also painted three other utility boxes around town between 2010 and 2016, so you’ll see her name come up in future articles.

DiSalvo got her degree in art at the University of Wisconsin, and has worked as an artist most of her professional life. Since moving to Ashland in the early 1990s, she has been active in the Ashland Gallery Association, including editing their annual Gallery Guide for more than 15 years. 

Hot, hot, hot

She remembers the July days in 2009, when painting was done, as extremely hot. PAC rented canopies for the artists to work under, which helped a bit. The artists picked up their paint supplies (exterior acrylic paint from Miller Paints) the first morning in the Elks Club parking lot and headed for their individual utility boxes. Each box had been thoroughly cleaned by city staff in preparation for painting. Later, after artists finished their painting, city staff added a UV clear coat to prolong the life of the outdoor artwork.

DiSalvo described the challenge of working with the outdoor acrylic paint under these conditions. “Because of the heat, the acrylic paint would dry so quickly. In under a minute it would be dry, and my brushes would be caked with paint because it was drying on the brush. The metal was so hot [in the afternoon] that when the paint hit the metal, it would be stiff within seconds, and it was hard to make a good flowing stroke. It wasn’t so bad in the morning.” She added that utility box painting in subsequent years was done in the spring or fall to avoid these hot summer temperatures.

The value of public art

Ann expressed one of the benefits of creating public art on site – community members get to interact with an artist at work. “A Street is a pretty busy pedestrian street in the summer. A lot of people came by and commented, and that was nice. In addition, a neighbor brought me a cup of iced lemonade while I was painting.”

Regarding the value of public art, she added: “When I go to another city and I see their public art, it really speaks to me of what they consider valuable. Public art shows the imagination and care the community has, not just for residents but for visitors too. There is a sense of humor in much of it. If a city were a person, this would be its facial expression.” She also believes that public art, because it is visible, inspires other artists to want to live in that community. “They feel like they belong in a city that loves art.”

In addition to visual arts like sculpture and murals, I would extend Ann’s thought to include theater art, music, dance and other creative endeavors. All of these art forms, especially theater, currently attract people to both visit and live in Ashland. I think expanding public art in Ashland, because it is both very visible and freely accessible, would be one way to build our community’s economic engine.  

Photos for box seven will begin with Ann’s design for the box, followed by two photos from 2009 and four that I took in January 2021.

Painted utility box Ashland
Design submitted by Ann DiSalvo for utility box on A Street near Fourth Street. (photo from Public Arts Commission, Designs Submitted, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on A Street “before and after,” near Fourth Street. Painted by Ann DiSalvo, 2009. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on A Street near Fourth Street as it was being painted by Ann DiSalvo in 2009. Ann is talking with her friend Tom Houston and his daughter Olivia. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on A Street near Fourth Street in 2021. Painted by Ann DiSalvo in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on A Street near Fourth Street in 2021. Painted by Ann DiSalvo in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on A Street near Fourth Street in 2021. Painted by Ann DiSalvo in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on A Street near Fourth Street in 2021. Painted by Ann DiSalvo in 2009. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

More utility boxes

I hope you enjoyed this “walk” around the Railroad District to visit the first group of painted utility boxes sponsored by Ashland’s Public Arts Commission. Quite a few more have been painted since 2009. I will visit more in another article.

References:

Aldous, Vickie. “Map showcases Ashland Watershed,” Ashland Tidings, July 28, 2011.

Anon. “Artists paint Ashland utility boxes,” Medford Mail Tribune, July 23, 2009.

DiSalvo, Ann. Interview, January 2020.

Etling, Bert. “Beautifying the boxes,” Ashland Tidings, July 24, 2014.

Public Arts Commission. “CALL FOR ENTRIES: Reflections of Ashland: Utility Box Beautification Project (Phase I),” Public Arts Commission, 2009. (accessed January 26, 2021)
http://www.ashland.or.us/Files/5%2004%2009%20extended%20with%20photos.pdf

Public Arts Commission. “Reflections of Ashland: Utility Box Beautification Project,” Presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009. (accessed January 26, 2021)
http://www.ashland.or.us/files/utilityboxslideshow.pdf

Public Arts Commission. Designs submitted, 2009. (accessed January 29, 2021)
https://www.ashland.or.us/Files/Design%20Selection%20Panel.pdf

“Rio Amistad” mosaic honors our sister city

A river of mosaic tile.
Rio Amistad = River of Friendship.
Art on the Calle Guanajuato stairway.
29 photos.
Artist: Sue Springer.
Ashland Public Art series.

“The Rio Amistad project was just the beginning of an important transition toward recognizing the importance of public art in our community.”

Sue Springer

Origin of the “Rio Amistad” mosaic

Following the flood of New Year’s Day 1997, the Calle Guanajuato corridor required extensive rebuilding. After years of work, the improved flow of Ashland Creek through downtown reduced (but did not eliminate) the danger of another flood damaging Plaza buildings. The redesign also had the goal of making the new pathways and vegetation more park-like and pedestrian friendly. As the Calle Guanajuato stairway was repaired, a new Calle Guanajuato overlook was built at the top of the stairway on Granite Street, where High Street ends at Granite.  

Rio Amistad mosaic by Sue Springer
Rio Amistad mosaic along Granite Street, on the overlook at the top of the Calle Guanajuato stairway. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Ashland residents donated public art to the city as long ago as 1910. However, Ashland did not have a formal public art program until 2002, when the Public Arts Commission was created. The commission identified the overlook above Calle Guanajuato as a good spot for an artwork. In 2005, the Rio Amistad mosaic was the first public artwork installed after the creation of the Public Arts Commission.

As she participated in the dialog for what might go there, Sue Springer knew she wanted to incorporate a water theme and also honor Ashland’s sister city relationship with the Mexican city of Guanajuato. In her 2004 proposal for the artwork, she wrote: “I propose creating and installing a ceramic mosaic ‘river’ that would flow through the overlook area in a circular pattern. The ‘creek bed’ itself would be comprised of ceramic mosaic in shades of dark blue to dark grey to represent water.” Her idea was to “honor the natural flora and fauna of Ashland, Oregon and also of Guanajuato, Mexico,” as will be described in more detail below.

Sister Cities: Ashland and Guanajuato

“The visionary behind the ties between the two cities is known in Guanajuato and Ashland as Señora Chela, a professor emerita of foreign languages and literature at Southern Oregon College (now Southern Oregon University—SOU) who saw similarities between the two cities, including impressive mountain settings, rich cultural legacies and top-notch theater.”

Ashland Amigo Club website

The sister cities of Ashland and Guanajuato share much in common. Both are university towns. Founded in 1732, the University of Guanajuato has nearly 34,000 students on multiple campuses within the state of Guanajuato. Southern Oregon University traces its roots to 1872 and currently has about 6,200 students. With student exchange programs between the two campuses since 1969, “more than 1,000 students, faculty members and others have participated in exchange programs and some families have been involved for three generations. More than 80 marriages have united partners from Ashland and Guanajuato.” [SOU 3/26/2019]

Both cities are cultural centers. “Guanajuato’s counterpart to Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is the International Cervantes Festival (Festival Internacional Cervantino), an annual three-week celebration that features artists from around the world. The festival is considered one of Latin America’s most important cultural events, just as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of the most prestigious regional theaters in the United States.” [Ashland Amigo Club website]

Both cities have a history of downtown flooding. The river that flows through Guanajuato flooded the growing town periodically in the 1700s and 1800s. The solution was a network of tunnels. “The longest of the tunnels, the “Túnel La Galereña”, was originally excavated in the early 19th century to divert the “Rio Guanajuato” (Guanajuato River) that flowed through the heart of the city. The diversion was required during the wet season, around August, as the river commonly swelled and caused significant flooding. The tunnel was blasted out using dynamite, using the skills and expertise mastered during the many years of mining operations. The river diversion prevented flooding in Guanajuato since the construction.” [from guanajuatomexicocity.com]

Guanajuato, Mexico tunnel
Guanajuato drainage tunnel in 1907. (photo courtesy of SMU Central University Library, from Wikimedia Commons)

After dams were built on the Rio Guanajuato in the 1960s, the long tunnels beneath the city were converted to roadways for cars and buses.

Guanajuato, Mexico tunnel
The drainage tunnels underneath Guanajuato are now used as roads. (photo from Wikimedia Commons, 2009)

The sister city relationship began formally in 1969 with student exchanges between the two universities. Large celebrations were held in both cities in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the strong sister city bond.

Ashland 4th of July parade 2019
Ashland-Guanajuato 50th anniversary of being sister cities at the 2019 Ashland 4th of July parade. (photo by Peter Finkle)

Rio Amistad’s similarity to other Ashland public art

Sue’s proposal reminds me of other public artworks in town. I recently wrote articles about the three public art sculptures on Bandersnatch Trail, located in the Ashland watershed just above Lithia Park. All three honor the flora and fauna of the watershed. Through that theme, they aim to remind trail hikers of the watershed’s value for Ashland’s past, present and future. 

This similarity with Rio Amistad’s theme becomes clearer when you learn that Sue Springer, along with Stef Seffinger and Pam Marsh, led the effort to place the Bandersnatch trail sculptures.

Rogue Valley creatures, with a twist

Sue incorporates local Rogue Valley creatures, but with a twist. As she wrote in her proposal, “Appearing intermittently in and along the ‘water’ would be the plants and animals that inhabit the Ashland Creek drainage. The animals and plants would be depicted in the rich tradition of Mexican design, in honor of Ashland’s ties to our sister city, Guanajuato.” Here again is the two-fold concept embodied in this artwork: our relationship with nature and our relationship with our sister city Guanajuato. This concept grew to represent a “river of friendship” – “Rio Amistad” in Spanish, as the artwork was named.

Rio Amistad public art
Frogs and other animals represent the Ashland and Guanajuato watersheds. The design choices also represent both countries. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Building the mosaic begins with clay

The first step is making the ceramic tiles, each one hand-made.

The process starts with about 300 pounds of clay mixed with 150 pounds of water in a big industrial mixer. When the clay is the right texture, it gets rolled into slabs. The thickness is critical. Each slab has to be rolled to the right thickness for the project. Since clay shrinks as it dries, that has to be accounted for. 

Any detail work or patterns added to the tiles is done on the clay before it dries. With an animal, the design is drawn on paper first, which is laid over the fresh, wet clay. The thin clay is cut into sections following the lines of the drawing. For larger animals or designs, all the pieces are numbered on the back, following a complex system, in order to put them back together in the design later in the process. 

For the textured pieces and tiny animals and plants seen in pieces of tile, the design is pressed into damp clay before the first firing.

Heat and more heat – 1,800° and 2,200°

These damp tiles get fired in the kiln for the first time, at about 1,800° F. At this point, when the clay is hard but slightly porous, it is colored or glazed. The glaze base is generally made of silica-alumina. 

As a color example, look at the blue “river water” in Rio Amistad. The tiles are darker blue through the center of the “river” and lighter blue towards the edges. Adding cobalt to the glaze gives the color blue in ceramic tiles. The darker blue tiles have more cobalt, the lighter blue tiles have less.  

Glazed tiles are fired in the kiln for a second time. This one is an even higher temperature, almost 2,200° F. The second firing brings the color out as the glaze and the clay merge together. It also makes the clay extremely hard and tight (no longer porous). For the larger slabs, you take a hammer to them at this point and break them up. 

Rio Amistad mosaic in process
At bottom of photo are broken mosaic tiles of different colors. Above them are sections of Rio Amistad being laid out in the studio. (photo by Sue Springer)

The finished tiles were organized in the studio, where they made panels of mosaic tiles, each roughly three or four feet in length and width.  Within each panel, most of the tiles were attached to tile-setting mesh using thin-set cement. However, in spots where panels met or where tiles curved, tiles were cemented on site. This involved more numbering, mapping and keeping track of hundreds of small pieces! 

Here’s what you see

Sue hopes that each time you walk by Rio Amistad, “you will slow down and see something you haven’t seen before.”

Rio Amistad public art
Rio Amistad herons. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Since the flowing lines of the mosaic represent a river, local river animals predominate. The largest animals depicted are herons and steelhead.

Rio Amistad mosaic art by Sue Springer
Steelhead mosaic detail. (photo by Sue Springer, 2005)

Smaller river critters include turtle, snake and salamander. But that’s not all. Sue told me her goal was to engage people, so “we put all sorts of little surprises in it.” This is a busy stairway that people use to walk from Granite Street and north-west of the Plaza into the Plaza and Lithia Park area. Therefore, many people walk by, or even walk right over, the Rio Amistad artwork multiple times each week. With so much detail in the mosaic, Sue hopes that you will stop and see something new each time you walk by.

Rio Amistad public art
Rio Amistad salamander and hand-pressed border tiles. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

There is plenty to see as you stop to view the mosaic. It ended up covering about 320 square feet of the overlook. In that 320 square feet, there are hundreds of tiles imprinted with tiny animals, plants and motifs. As she was designing and making the mosaic, she thought, “What is going to have meaning for the people who are going to interact with it?”   

Rio Amistad mosaic art by Sue Springer
Textured tiles, some with a hand-pressed design. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Notice the variety of tile colors, shapes, designs and textures. I didn’t realize until talking with Sue that the textured tiles have a purpose other than visual interest. They are scattered throughout the mosaic for safety, to reduce the chance of anyone slipping. Also notice the tiles along the border of the mosaic river. Their design is hand-pressed, based on a classic Mexican water movement motif.

The frogs

frog sculpture in Guanajuato, Mexico
Frog sculptures in Guanajuato’s Plaza Hidalgo. (photo from Wikimedia Commons, 2019)

If you have are familiar with Rio Amistad, you may be thinking to yourself, “Why hasn’t he mentioned the frogs?” Here you go. Sue explained, “Those frogs that are in the mosaic, those odd-looking frogs, they are pre-Columbian frogs. Guanajuato is known as ‘the city of frogs.’ They have frogs everywhere.”

Rio Amistad mosaic in process
Pre-Columbian frogs for Rio Amistad being made in the studio. (photo by Sue Springer)

The story goes that the name “Guanajuato” comes from an indigenous language that described the area as “hilly place of frogs.” The frogs in Rio Amistad honor the people who lived in the area before the Spanish arrived.

Rio Amistad mosaic art by Sue Springer
Pre-Columbian frogs in the completed mosaic. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

The Rio Amistad team

This was a big tile project, so Sue had three or four people working on it with her. She said, “I had a great crew. I think we had two weeks to set the tiles in site.” Her primary helper for Rio Amistad was Karen Rycheck, who was working for Sue’s company Illahe Tileworks at that time.

Karen was already a talented mosaic artist. According to Sue, she did a huge amount of the work on this project and a few others. In addition, Karen did a lot of the design work for the tile blocks prepared on tabletops at the studio. You will find a link to Karen’s own public artwork in Ashland, called “Water is Life,” at the end of this article. 

Dedication on November 4, 2005

Rio Amistad mosaic dedication
Dedication of Rio Amistad took place November 2005. (photo provided by Sue Springer)

It was raining the last few days before dedication was scheduled. The team was on the homestretch of completing the mosaic, but working in the rain slowed everything down. They set up tents and tarps over the work site so they could continue laying tile. Sue laughed as she told me they had to keep pushing the water off the tarps as it collected above them, so it wouldn’t come pouring down on their heads. 

Finishing went down to the wire. According to Sue, “We literally were still grouting and trying to clean it up the morning of the dedication. The dedication, as I recall, was at 1:00 in the afternoon. We got it all finished, tarps removed, all cleaned up — just in time. With the dedication planned for 1:00, at about 12:45 the clouds parted and the sun came out. It was perfect timing.” 

Rio Amistad mosaic and boy
Cute photo of boy playing in the “river” during the dedication. (photo by Sue Springer)

Sue Springer’s artistic journey

Art was not encouraged in Sue’s family or in her schools as she grew up. Her B.A. college degree was in foreign language and education. Years later when she lived in Portland, she worked a variety of jobs, including restaurant work. It was here that she first took pottery-throwing classes about 1971 and began to experiment with making pottery at home. She learned to love clay. Her passion grew into a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Oregon and a small business that through the years became a larger business.

From 1979 to 1992, her home and studio were in the tiny town of Illahe, Oregon. Illahe is located within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest about 43 miles up the Rogue River from Gold Beach. The name Illahe “derives from the Chinook Jargon word ilahekh or iliʼi, meaning “land”, “earth” or “country.” [McArthur 2003]

“Illahe” may sound familiar to you, even if haven’t heard of the town. Sue owned Illahe Tileworks in Ashland for about 25 years. For years she owned a tile factory and warehouse on Mistletoe Road. She also opened a showroom and gallery at 4th and B Streets, which my wife and I visited many times to see the beautiful tiles displayed there. In addition to selling custom made tile to high end tile shops nationwide, Illahe Tileworks had public and private art installations throughout the Rogue Valley and Oregon. 

Illahe Tileworks tile

In 2015, Sue closed the Illahe Gallery in Ashland so that she could move to Seattle and be closer to her daughters and a grand-daughter who live there. She was also ready to retire from the grueling work of owning and managing a store and factory, while trying to make art a profitable business. Sue described the life of an artist as a constant balancing act, creating the art that you want to create, while also creating art that people want to pay for, so you have money for food, housing, clothing for your children, employee salaries, business rent, workers comp and unemployment insurance, electric bills and so much more.

She has now retired from running a factory, but she has not retired from being creative. Her new work, as of 2020, features whimsical hand built ceramic sculptures that speak to the challenges of our time. If you’d like to see what she is creating now, this page on her website shows many of her new pieces.

Value of public art

“A lot of people think art is not important, it’s just for beautification. I think it says a whole lot more. So my goal is to always listen to my client, which in the case of Rio Amistad was the City of Ashland.”  

Sue Springer

Created in 2002, Ashland’s Public Arts Commission is relatively young. Rio Amistad was the first installation of the new commission. Sue Springer wrote: “The Rio Amistad project was just the beginning of an important transition toward recognizing the importance of public art in our community. Public art, by its very nature, is artwork created for everyone – from the very young to the very old and everyone in between.  It is accessible.  And it’s something that everyone in the community can feel ownership in.”

When I talked with Sue, she took the idea of public art way back in time. “Public art reflects the community in a number of different ways. It goes all the way back to cave paintings. People felt the importance of telling stories very early in human civilization.” In late Middle Ages Europe, you could think of gothic churches as public art telling stories of those communities.

Art is most often thought of these days as something people have in their homes, or something that lives in museums. Sue wants us to expand our conception of art to include community. “I think there’s a real value in drawing people together and saying, ‘this is what we are about, this is what we think is important.’ As our culture gets more homogenous, it’s harder to express our specific community stories. Because of this, I always had a practice of going to whatever group commissioned the artwork, whether it be a hospital, a municipality or an organization. I would try to understand what they were about.” 

Involving the community in the creation of a piece of public art can help the artwork have more meaning to the community. When Sue led the creation of the “Peace Fence” artwork in front of the public library, it was almost all done by community volunteers, including many elementary school students and their teachers. “I think that if a kid comes in when they’re seven and they see this project being made in their home town, when they grow up and they have kids of their own, that artwork means a lot more to them than if it just appeared out of thin air.”

Good public art connects people with their own memories and with each other. Mosaic art is also about connections, Sue explained. “All these bits of tile are put together to make a whole. My goal is to have someone be able to access the public art, and to have something in that piece mean something to them, beyond ‘it’s a pretty picture.’” 

Rio Amistad public art
Rio Amistad is a river of mosaic tile, a “river of friendship,” and an attempt to touch the minds and hearts of Ashland residents and visitors. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Some comments on designing and building public art

Designing a public artwork involves a lot more than just the art itself. The artist takes the location into account, and so much more. Sue appreciated the help she needed and got from the City of Ashland Public Works staff as she designed and built Rio Amistad. Here are a few of the planning factors Sue described to me.

Freeze-thaw: As described in Sue’s proposal: “The ceramic elements used to create this celebratory art would be designed and fabricated in the Ashland production studio of Illahe Tileworks, and would be made from high fired stoneware clay. This clay has been developed to withstand wide variations in temperature and humidity in exterior locations. It has been specifically tested to withstand the freeze/thaw cycles particular to Ashland.”

Water run-off: Since this mosaic is on the ground, it had to be designed and built so that water would run off of it.

Level ground: You will notice that the mosaic is level with the surrounding sidewalk. The concrete sidewalk construction crew worked with Sue to make that happen. Plywood in the shape of the mosaic was laid over the overlook site’s graded dirt. The concrete sidewalk was poured up to the edge of the plywood, leaving room for the mosaic tiles to be laid flush with the sidewalk.

Earthquake or earth movement

Rio Amistad mosaic in process
Rio Amistad ceramic tile was attached to this Ditra brand orange underlayment. (photo by Sue Springer)

Concrete naturally expands and contracts over time, especially in an outdoor setting where it gets wet. If ceramic tile were laid directly on top of concrete sidewalk, the cracking of the concrete would cause the attached tile and grout to crack within a few years. An underlayment product called an “uncoupling membrane” stops that from happening. Sue used Ditra brand underlayment for the large Rio Amistad mosaic. She told me, “This photo shows bright orange tile-setting fabric underneath, which keeps everything from shifting in case of earthquake or earth movement.”  The design also included an expansion joint, where the mosaic can flex or move when expansion and contraction of the base occurs.

Other artworks by Sue Springer

Sue has a number of artworks in Ashland, including several other mosaics in the city’s public art collection.

Peace Fence mosaic

One much-loved artwork is the Peace Fence mosaic, a collaborative mosaic installed in front of Ashland Public Library, in which Sue “facilitated other people’s art.”

North Mountain Park is filled with nature, history, and art. Two mosaics at the park show Sue’s commitment to involving the community in creating public art. 

“Compass Rose” at North Mountain Park
Compass Rose public art
Overview of the Compass Rose mosaic, looking north. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Compass Rose mosaic is in Ashland’s public art collection, so I will give a brief introduction now, and write a full article about it later. Installed in 2011, Sue designed this colorful story telling mosaic for North Mountain Park. She described it on her website: “The mosaic includes mountains, landmarks and rivers of the surrounding landscape and helps visitors and students alike orient themselves in the natural world.

Compass Rose public art
This detail in the Compass Rose mosaic shows Grizzly Peak, Bear Creek and local flora and fauna. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“A workshop was held at the Nature Center in August of 2011 which allowed community members to make pieces representing plants and animals which were then included in the mosaic.”

Compass Rose mosaic
Sue (in the middle) with helpers are laying tile to make Compass Rose, on site at North Mountain Park. (photo provided by Sue Springer)
Recology Mosaic at North Mountain Park
Recology mosaic dedication
In 2013, Ashland Chamber of Commerce dedicated the Recology mosaic in North Mountain Park. (photo by Pam Lott)

Recology Ashland hired Sue to create a mosaic that honors recycling efforts in our community. As a result, it is made primarily with recycled materials. This mosaic is a lot of fun to study closely. The round colorful “tiles” are wine bottle bottoms, while other round “tiles” are tin can lids and ends. 

Recology mosaic
Keys, bicycle chains, glass bottle bottoms, steel lids! (photo by Pam Lott)

The city provided bags of old keys no longer in use. Recology offered old electronics and other recyclables. Sue described old bicycle chains as the “coolest thing ever” when she found a way to incorporate them into the mosaic. 

Head on over to North Mountain Park and see what else you can find in the mosaic.

An “art walk” on the Calle Guanajuato stairway

Now take an art walk to the Guanajuato stairway, where you will find Rio Amistad and two other public artworks, Inorganic Compound and Fall Splendor (links to articles below). Read the three articles and then enjoy viewing the three artworks.

Link to the Ashland Public Art Collection web page

https://gis.ashland.or.us/publicart/

Link to Water is Life, public art by Karen Rycheck
References:

Anon. Ashland Amigo Club website. (accessed November 30, 2020) 

Anon. “Ashland, SOU mark 50 years of Guanajuato ‘sister’ relationships,” March 26, 2019 Press Release, SOU website. [accessed 11/30/2020]

Anon. “Guanajuato Tunnels.” (website accessed November 12, 2020)

http://guanajuatomexicocity.com/Guanajuato-guide/guanajuato-tunnels.html

Kitchen, Valerie and Springer, Sue. “Mosaic Public Art Flows through Ashland,” Ashland Magazine, Winter 2006. 

McArthur, Lewis A., and McArthur, Lewis L. (2003) Oregon Geographic Names, seventh edition. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press. (accessed on Wikipedia November 19, 2020)

Schluter Systems website, information about Ditra brand. (accessed November 19, 2020)

https://www.schluter.com/schluter-us/en_US/Membranes/Uncoupling-%28DITRA%29/c/M-U

Springer, Sue. Interview and personal communications, November 2020.

Springer, Sue. Website SueSpringerArt.com. (accessed November 23, 2020)

Springer, Sue. Website SueSpringerSculpture.com. (accessed November 23, 2020)

https://www.suespringersculpture.com

“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.

“Inorganic Compound” – Art on the Calle Guanajuato stairway

Learn how it was made, step by step.
Rock + Steel = River?
Bonus: Stained glass masterpieces.
Artist: Kevin Christman.
Ashland Public Art Series.

“Making an impact that continues to resonate with people long after I am gone, I feel like that’s the highest calling I can think of for what I do.” 

Kevin Christman

How were the rocks wrapped in metal?

Inorganic Compound sculpture
Close-up of Inorganic Compound by Kevin Christman. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Look at those large river rocks. Do you wonder how they were wrapped in steel as you look at the sculpture? I sure do. The sculptor would say, I want you to wonder about that. 

The steel looks like it grew around the large rocks, or perhaps melted around the rocks. It is all so seamless, so organic looking for a sculpture called “Inorganic Compound.”

If you keep reading, I will tell you what I learned from Kevin Christman.

Impact of the Almeda fire: “It’s as if I’m starting over with my sculpture.”

Kevin told me he wants to create more “public works of art that inspire people, and hopefully you walk away feeling better after you experience it than when you came to it. Part of the impetus of doing a sculpture out of the ashes of this fire is to affect people and have them resonate with it and feel hopeful; you have obstacles in your life, you overcome them, and you’re better because of it.” 

Kevin was in the process of moving from one art and sculpture studio to another. In the meantime, he had packed almost everything from his studio in a large, seemingly safe storage container. Sadly, the Almeda fire destroyed everything he had stored there. Some things, like his tools, can be replaced. Others, like a lifetime of drawings and sketches organized in file cabinets, are irreplaceable. The hardest blow of all is the loss of all his sculpture molds, which allowed him to make and sell additional copies of his most popular sculptures. All are gone.

The massive community loss, combined with his personal loss, stimulated Kevin’s idea to create a public artwork for the Talent/Phoenix area to be made using scrap metals left from homes and businesses destroyed by the devastating Almeda fire. He sees this as a way to both remember the devastation and also to provide hope for rebuilding, renewal and new life.

“Everything Kevin has done, he has done with a community mindset.” I think of these words Libby Edson told me as I marvel at Kevin’s response to this tragedy. 

Kevin’s artistic journey 

“When I was eight, my father signed himself and me up to take the art class with the parish priest. That was my first formal training.” 

Kevin Christman

Kevin loved art from age six. “Everyone in my family knew that I could draw and would give me charcoal and art books for every birthday and holiday gift.”

He continued, “When I was eight years old, I was an altar boy at the Catholic Church in St. Martin, Minnesota, where I grew up. The parish priest there was really good at painting oil paintings of chapels and churches. He had large paintings in his house and he was going to be teaching an art class on how to paint.”

After Kevin took the priest’s art class, all he wanted to do was paint. In high school, he had the keys to the art room. After school, other kids would play sports and then take the athletic bus home after practice ended. Kevin went to the art room every day after school to paint and draw, and then joined the other kids on the athletic bus to go home. 

Kevin’s detour from art

Surprisingly, he took a detour from art. After an engineering degree, he worked in the aerospace industry for a few years. It was exciting to work in the Research & Development Department on the B-2 Stealth bomber at Northrop Corporation. But he wasn’t painting, so there was a huge hole in his life.

B-2 “Stealth” bomber in 2006. (photo from U.S. Air Force, on Wikimedia Commons)

Painting landscapes in every state!

Kevin returned to painting in 1988 through classes at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. When he realized his painting style was not a good fit for the college, he had a crazy idea to travel the United States and paint landscapes in every one of the “lower 48” states – and he did! He and his first wife lived out of a Jeep for a year as he made this crazy idea a reality. Kevin described it as “a real eye-opening year. That’s when I thought, ‘this is the beginning of an art career…this is where it starts.’”

Kevin Christman painting
This photo shows Kevin Christman painting on location in France. He has also painted on location in Italy, Germany and the Caribbean, preselling his paintings to collectors.

Following that cross-country trip, he settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1990 to work in a foundry. He became passionate about sculpture there and eventually apprenticed with many of the finest sculptors in the Santa Fe area. He assisted them in making molds and sculptures, while beginning his own sculpture career.

“Why did you move to the Ashland area?”

In response to my question, Kevin began: “My fiancee’s cousin was involved in the Ashland Elks Lodge. He had settled here and kept saying, ‘You have to come to Ashland. You have to check it out. It’s really a beautiful place.’”

Kevin married in 1997 and the newlyweds visited the Oregon coast for their honeymoon. Afterward they stopped in Ashland for a few days and were struck by the sense of safety in town, which was very different from their experience of living in Santa Fe.

They moved to Ashland the following year. In the years since then, Kevin has lived both in Ashland and Talent. He currently resides in rural Talent and loves the community. To him, “It feels like home.” 

Kevin laughed as he told me, “I was sort of reluctant to move to Talent, only because when you are corresponding with artists outside the area, or in New York, for an artist to live in a town named ‘Talent’ is just a little too cliché.” But he has made his peace with that “problem.”

I will tell Kevin’s complete story of the “why” behind his move to Ashland in another article. 

Public art along this stairway

I previously wrote three articles about three Ashland public artworks located along the “Bandersnatch Trail art walk.” I discovered another three-piece public art walk in Ashland, on the Calle Guanajuato stairway between Ashland Creek and Granite Street. 

(#1) Inorganic Compound by Kevin Christman is located along the stairway, towards the bottom. (#2) Fall Splendor by Annette Julien is located along the stairway, towards the top.  (#3) Rio Amistad by Sue Springer and Karen Rycheck is at the top of the stairway, next to Granite Street.

Inorganic Compound sculpture
This is Inorganic Compound. Further up the Calle Guanajuato stairway, you will find two other Ashland public artworks. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“What does the sculpture mean to you?”

Kevin replied that he likes public art that relates to its environment. He doesn’t like artists who tell viewers what they “should” see in the artwork. However, he thinks it can provide a richer experience for the viewer to know how the artist sees the artwork. As Kevin said, in addition to the natural setting, “I am part of the context of the piece.” 

Kevin gave me two ways that he sees the sculpture. One is that is looks like a molecular compound, the living microscopic world blown up using rock and stone for us to see in the macro world. 

Inorganic Compound sculpture
The Inorganic Compound sculpture in process, in the studio. (photo by Kevin Christman)

He was also influenced by the natural setting along Ashland Creek. He told me, “With this piece in particular, it’s the feeling of the river flowing by. So the stones sort of represent the rocks that are sitting in the river and the metal encasing them is like the water flowing over them.” 

How the Inorganic Compound sculpture was made

Drawing on that inspiration, the rocks in this sculpture are actual river rocks. Kevin found them on a friend’s property along Carberry Creek in the Applegate valley. The metal is mild steel that was forged around the stone. 

Inorganic Compound sculpture
River rocks were collected for Inorganic Compound, then wrapped in steel. (photo by Kevin Christman)

If you are like me, you might be wondering right now how Kevin got steel and rock to flow together so tightly.

Kevin said he took the steel and “bezeled it on to the stone.” When I looked up the word “bezel,” the descriptions I saw referred to setting a gem or design in fine jewelry. Ten pound stones are a little bigger than fine jewelry!

The mild steel was weld-forged onto the stone. This is how Kevin described the process. “I started off with a 2” wide strap of metal and clamped it to the stone. Then I heated it with a torch until it turned red and pounded it to the contour of the stone until I came all the way around. After I formed it and welded it, I had a narrow bezel.”

“Then I would add another band on the side of that. I’d weld as I’d go. There are three or four strips of metal, all welded together.” I interrupted Kevin at this point, “Wait a minute. That’s a lot of welding. I can’t even see any of the weld marks.” He replied, “That’s good. It’s sort of a mystery. I wanted it to feel like jewelry as well, with the bezel. But how do you wrap 1/4” thick steel around a stone? I wanted it to be from a technical standpoint somebody would look at it and think, ‘How did they do that?’”

Dedication, public art and community

Inorganic Compound was installed and dedicated in 2009. Kevin’s sculpture was first considered as part of a rotating art plan for the Calle Guanajuato stairway. The idea was to have artwork on loan from artists for a year or two along the stairway. Though a good idea, it was too complicated to make it work in practice. I spoke with Libby Edson, who was on the Public Arts Commission at that time. She told me she suggested that the city buy Inorganic Compound because of the quality of the sculpture, which was done.

Libby added to my understanding of public art as we talked. We discussed the impact of where public art is placed, as well as the impact of public art on community. For Libby, both of these elements are crucial for a deep understanding of Inorganic Compound. 

She sees the sculpture’s placement along Ashland Creek as a perfect fit. The sculpture expresses the connection with nature through river rocks, but the way they are stacked and wrapped in metal expresses the intersection of humans and nature. She sees Inorganic Compound as representing “people living in harmony with nature, with a strong bond to protect nature.”  

In our discussion, Libby kept coming back to the importance of community. It takes community to realize the value of public art and to preserve it through the decades and centuries. It takes community to realize the value of the natural world that surrounds us and to preserve our environment. Art reminds us of these values.

The concept of community also ties in with the placement of this piece, per Libby. “It is on the Calle Guanajuato, which represents our relationship with our sister city in Mexico. It represents those community bonds as well.”

How to find the sculpture 

map
Arrow shows the location of Inorganic Compound along the Calle Guanajuato stairway, between Calle Guanajuato and Granite Street. (map from google maps)

You can reach the Inorganic Compound sculpture from 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, another piece in the Ashland public art collection. Near the bottom of the stairway, you will find Inorganic Compound.

From Calle Guanajuato, cross Ashland Creek to the path on the west side of the creek. You will see Inorganic Compound from the path, situated near the bottom of the stairway.

Other art by Kevin Christman

St. Mary’s School Chapel

St. Mary's School Chapel
St. Mary’s School Chapel exterior. (photo by Ezra Marcos)

The new chapel at St. Mary’s School in Medford is the most meaningful artwork of Kevin’s long artistic career. He told me it took “five years of work all in one building.” For this huge project, he created 32 stained glass windows and 16 bronze bas-relief sculptures! Here is a taste of the beauty there. 

Kevin Christman stained glass
St Mary’s School Chapel stained glass by Kevin Christman. This panel is called “The Parable of the Sower and the Seed.” (photo by Ezra Marcos)

My wife and I had an opportunity to visit the chapel in person on a sunny day. The sun’s rays lit up Kevin’s brilliant colors of stained glass on three sides of the intimate building. 

Kevin Christman stained glass
St Mary’s School Chapel stained glass by Kevin Christman. This panel is called “The Resurrection”. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

The 16 bronze bas-relief sculptures are not as bright as stained glass windows, but like the windows they invite extended viewing to look for meaningful details. 

Kevin Christman sculpture
St Mary’s School Chapel bronze bas-relief by Kevin Christman. This panel is called “St. Damien of Moloka’i.” (photo by Ezra Marcos)

A beautiful book has photos of the stained glass windows and bronze bas-relief sculptures, plus a description of each one and an “artist’s statement” about each one. It is available for $35.00 by contacting Bethany Brown, Director of Advancement at St. Mary’s School. If you would like to see St. Mary’s School Chapel for yourself, please contact Bethany Brown first to set up an appointment. Bethany’s email address is bbrown@smschool.us.

Havurah Shir Hadash stained glass window

Kevin Christman stained glass
Stained glass window representing the Tree of Life, at Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland. Artist is Kevin Christman. (photo by Havurah Shir Hadash)

Another work of religious art, at the Havurah in Ashland, also has deep meaning to Kevin. “When I did the stained glass window for the Havurah, the feedback I got from that, knowing that people were spiritually affected by a work of art that I did, was really impactful. It was an eye-opener to the power of art in a public setting and how it can affect people well beyond my lifetime.” 

“Making an impact that continues to resonate with people long after I am gone, I feel like that’s the highest calling I can think of for what I do.” 

Ashland Public Art on the Bandersnatch trail (three articles)

You can read about the Elevation sculpture here.

Read about the Pacific Fisher mosaic here.

My article about the four-level Water is Life mosaic is here.

References:

Note: The feature photo shows sculptor Kevin Christman with his public artwork “Inorganic Compound” in October 2020. (photo by Peter Finkle)

Christman, Kevin. Interview and personal communications, October 2020. Kevin graciously shared some of his personal photos with me.

Edson, Libby. Interview and personal communications, October 2020. (Libby Edson is a former member of the Ashland Public Arts Commission.)

St. Mary’s School. The St. Mary’s Chapel: The Jewel Box of St. Mary’s School, L&R Publishing, 2020. 

Old Willow Lane photo essay

Mickey Mouse.
Mosaic rock designs.
“Science is Real” signs.

I found Mickey on Old Willow Lane

Old Willow Lane, Ashland, Mickey yard art
Here’s Mickey, next to the sidewalk on Old Willow Lane. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

This lawn art was a fun surprise on my short walk. I almost walked right by it, because I wasn’t looking down at the grass. I have learned: When I am “walking Ashland,” look everywhere! You never know what you will find.

What I did not find was an “old willow.” If I missed it, someone please tell me where it is.

First impressions

Old Willow Lane, Ashland

To find Old Willow Lane, take East Main Street to Fordyce Street. Heading north on Fordyce, Old Willow Lane will be the fifth street on your left. Here’s what it looks like from Fordyce Street. I was happy to find it filled with interesting sights in its one block length. At the end of the street is a large open field. I expect Old Willow Lane will be much longer someday when that field is developed for housing.

field at the end of Old Willow Lane
Old Willow Lane ends in this large field. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Big truck on small street

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
Here is the roof truss delivery truck that caught my eye. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

As I walked the street in October 2020, the first thing that caught my eye was a truck filled with prefab roof trusses. The truck was delivering to a house under construction near the end of the street. 

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
On the right is the house being constructed, waiting for a roof. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

As you can see from the photos, Old Willow Lane is lined with street trees. The truck driver faced a challenge – how to lift the trusses to the house construction site without damaging any street trees. Before I finished walking the street, he had figured it out. His first roof truss lift is shown in the photo below.

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
An impressive lift, on a smoky day. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Old Willow Lane
A week later, the roof trusses are on the house – and the sky is blue. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Signs of the times

I keep my eye out for yard signs as I walk Ashland’s neighborhoods. Many are copies of the same popular signs. Sometimes I find a sign that is home made and unique. This house has a combination of both kinds of “Science is Real” signs.

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
“Science is Real.” (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Old Willow Lane, Ashland
Purchased sign and home made sign make the same point. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Yard art variety

Ashland is full of creative people. Some show and share their creativity in front yard art. This is a good reason to have a camera at the ready on your walks. Old Willow Lane is especially rich in yard art for being only one block long.

Old Willow Lane, Ashland, rock mosaic
Overview of the rock art mosaics. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

You won’t miss this one if you are walking on the sidewalk. It is mosaic art, all done with colored pebbles. Each of the three designs is subtle, balanced and beautiful.  Below are close-up photos of the three designs.

rock mosaic, Old Willow Lane, Ashland
Old Willow Lane, Ashland, rock mosaic
rock mosaic, Old Willow Lane, Ashland

I did a double-take as I approached 1269 Old Willow Lane. I have seen many Canada geese flying over town and I was momentarily fooled. 

Old Willow Lane
Are Canada geese visiting this neighborhood? (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

I love this metal art and stone front yard at the end of the street. 

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
Yard art on Old Willow Lane. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Gate and tree

I found one unique and interesting gate on Old Willow Lane. I haven’t noticed a metal gate like this before.

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
Unique gate on Old Willow Lane. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

One massive tree caught my eye and seemed worth sharing with you. 

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
This is a beautifully proportioned tree. (photo by Peter Finkle)

End of street

There is a large field at the end of Old Willow Lane. All I see there is an unusual small barn (pictured). It will be interesting to see what kind of housing develops here in the future.

barn
This is the barn visible at the end of Old Willow Lane. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

I noticed a short path at the end of the street, so of course I followed it to see where it leads. It is a pedestrian shortcut to Village Park Drive and another neighborhood.

path
Path between Old Willow Lane and Village Park Drive. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Photographic highlight

Walking the short path, one sight caught my eye. Rough, wavy, golden wood grain, black knothole, delicate pink flower on a slender stem, all adds up to a photographer’s dream. Here it is for you.

Old Willow Lane, Ashland, flower
My artistic photo for the day. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Old Willow Lane is one of many short, quiet streets off Fordyce Street. I will have an exciting article about Fordyce Street for you soon.

“Water is Life” – Mosaic Art on the Bandersnatch Trail

Karen Rycheck’s amazing artistic journey.
Honoring watershed animals.
29 photos!
Artist: Karen Rycheck.
Ashland Public Art series.

“In this sculpture, I was trying to make people aware of all the life that is supported by the Ashland watershed; how important it is to keep it clean, not just for our use but also for the wildlife in the area.” 

Karen Rycheck

Try the Bandersnatch Trail art walk

“Water is Life” is a dramatic sight as you ascend the Bandersnatch trail from Lithia Park up the hill toward the Siskiyou Mountains. It is the third, largest, and most complex sculpture you will see on this art walk. If you don’t know the Bandersnatch trail, I give instructions to the trail at the end of this article.

Water is Life on the Bandersnatch Trail in Ashland. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“When did you first create art?”

Artist Karen Rycheck replied: “I’d say before pre-school. I started taking art classes when I was five with the local art association. My dad was instrumental in that, because he was an amateur photographer.” In her Oklahoma K – 12 schools, she didn’t get much support for art. For example, the art teacher was a football coach and they had to bring their own art supplies from home. 

During her high school years, she thought she would become an architect. Jon Keith Swindell, a professor and mentor at University of Kansas, inspired her to pursue fine art. She also pursued furniture making for a while.    

“How did you become a mosaic artist?”

Karen’s response turned into a fascinating story. “I kind of fell into mosaic art,” she told me. “There was a guy in St. Louis who was a sculptor. He was also a real estate mogul, which is how he supported being an artist. He would buy up old buildings, rehab them and flip them. In the process, he bought a 10-story building that had been vacant for a long time.” The photo below shows the 10-story building after he developed it into a museum.

St. Louis City Museum
Exterior of the St. Louis City Museum. Notice the full size school bus “driving” off the roof. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I interrupt the story of Karen’s artistic journey for a brief description of this no-longer-vacant building from the City Museum website: “Housed in the 10-story, 600,000 square-foot warehouse of the International Shoe Company, City Museum is a mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of found and repurposed objects. The brainchild of internationally-acclaimed artist Bob Cassilly, a classically trained sculptor, City Museum opened for visitors in 1997.” I looked at the website and wished I could transport myself to St. Louis to see the astounding place they have created. If you want to see it, including a drone video tour, here is the link: https://www.citymuseum.org

In Karen’s words, “He turned the building into a huge art experience. People started donating materials to him. A large donation came from a ceramic factory in Oklahoma, which donated two full truckloads of tile, seconds from the factory, all different colors and shapes and sizes.” What to do with them? The warehouse floors were cement, like a parking garage. Cassilly decided to mosaic the huge expanses of floors, thousands of square feet. Initially a couple women with some ceramic tile experience began laying the donated tile on the floors, a little each day. 

St. Louis City Museum
Intricate mosaics at the St. Louis City Museum. (photo from St. Louis City Museum website)

This brings the story back to Karen Rycheck. One day in 1997 she was waiting by the elevator to go to an upper floor and paint the ceiling. Cassilly saw her there and said, “Hey, have you ever done this mosaic thing?” Rycheck replied, “No, but it looks really cool. I’d like to try it.” He said, “Then go over there, where they are laying tile.” And for the next year and a half she laid mosaic tile every day, 8 to 12 hours a day. It was an intense learning-on-the-job experience, and she has loved working with mosaic tile ever since.

That brings us to Karen’s creative mosaic sculpture called Water is Life.

How “Water is Life” was chosen for this site

Karen submitted a design idea to the Watershed Art Group for a sculptural mosaic piece. She highlighted flora and fauna that are present in the Ashland watershed, especially animals and plants that people might not notice. Her proposal was accepted and she built the piece over the next year or so.

“I like to look at the big picture, and also focus on the tiny little critters and plants that we take for granted or don’t even know are there.”  

Karen Rycheck

This was only Karen’s second sculptural mosaic artwork! Her first sculptural piece, a reclining nude made in 2010 or 2011, is displayed at Paschal Winery in Talent (and is for sale). 

Karen and her “Reclining Nude” mosaic tile sculpture.

Meaning of the sculpture

I asked Karen about the overall meaning of the Water is Life sculpture. She replied, “I was trying to make people aware of all the life that is supported by the Ashland watershed; how important it is to keep it clean, not just for our use but also for the wildlife in the area. [The watershed] supports a lot of plants and animals, many of which are not found anywhere else in the United States. The Siskiyou region is a really unique area biologically, so protecting the land here is really important.” 

Each of the four levels of the sculpture depicts different plants and animals. Let’s learn in Karen Rycheck’s own words what she portrays in each level, starting with the bottom.

Bottom (first) level

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
Water is Life, bottom (first) level. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“The bottom layer is imagery of the forests and mountains. I moved here from the Midwest, the flatlands. We went to the mountains on family vacations. That’s where my love of the mountains originated, so I wanted to have that as a base.”

The bottom level shows the Ashland watershed’s “greater ecosystem, a forested mountainous area.”   

Second level