A WalkAshland VIDEO! (Painted Utility Boxes video tour)

Peter leads a Railroad District art + history walk.
Video by Sailor Boy Media.
Here’s how it happened. Ashland Public Art video.

If you want to go straight to the video, click the image below. If you want to read my story about how the video came to be, keep reading.

In the video, you will meet artist Ann DiSalvo

Ann painted two of the utility boxes we will see on our video tour, including this one showing the swans that used to live in the Lower Duck Pond at Lithia Park.

Painted utility box, Ashland
Utility box on A Street near Fourth Street as it was being painted by Ann DiSalvo in 2009. (photo from Public Arts Commission presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009)

In the video, you will learn Ashland history highlights

Here is one of the spots we visited during the video walking tour.

My photo essay led to this video

On February 3, 2021, I published an article about painted utility boxes in the Railroad District. I learned that in 2009 Ashland’s Public Arts Commission had initiated this project to brighten the town by commissioning artists to paint some of the drab, dark green utility boxes. It was a good story. I did research and found “before and after” photos of all seven utility boxes that were painted in July 2009. I walked the streets and took my own photos, then published the story as a photo essay. CLICK HERE to see that photo essay.

Keegan Van Hook said, “Are you interested…?”
I said, “Yes!”

Videographer Keegan Van Hook read my article and was intrigued by the possibility of turning my photo-essay walk into a video walk. After asking him a few questions and seeing some of his work, I replied with an enthusiastic “Yes.”

A graduate of the Southern Oregon University Digital Media program, Keegan founded Sailor Boy Media with his friend Tripp White. They have an active website and YouTube channel that specializes in video interviews with local people on issues of the day. CLICK HERE to visit their website.

Filming the video

I met Keegan and Tripp at 11:00 am on February 24 to film the video. Keegan asked me questions and Tripp did camera work. I had notes with me, but I spoke extemporaneously at each utility box and at our historical sites. We walked and talked for two hours, including having the bonus interview with artist Ann DiSalvo.

After the filming, I sent Keegan several historic photographs that enrich the video’s Ashland history sections. Tripp and Keegan edited the two hours into an enjoyable, educational and interesting 24 minute video. Here, again, is a link to the video on YouTube. Thanks for watching, and I hope you enjoy it.

References:

Sailor Boy Media website: https://www.sailorboymedia.com

“We Are Here” Honors Native Americans (Part 3 of 3)

(Part 3 of 3: Wood carving at SOU Hannon Library, 
stories from 2012 to 2020)

38 photos!
How the 20′ tall sculpture was moved.
Every carving on sculpture described.
Quotes from Grandma Aggie.
Ashland Public Art Series.

Summary of “We Are Here” – Parts 1 and 2

“We Are Here” is a sculpture that honors the First Nations of the Rogue Valley. In addition to a sculpture, it has been called a wood carving, a Spirit Pole and a Prayer Pole. The bronze replica is located where North Main Street and Lithia Way meet, a very visible location just one block from the Plaza. 

This article (Part 3 of 3) is about the original wood carved prayer pole, which was moved from North Main street to Southern Oregon University Hannon Library in December of 2012. This map shows the location of Hannon Library.

"We Are Here" Ashland
Map showing location of “We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. (map from Google)

“I felt very honored to work with Matthew Haines and Russell Beebe, and it was a great honor to be able to do this for our people, for the Old Ones.”

Grandma Aggie

Local attorney and arts patron Matthew Haines funded the wood carving after he felt a calling to have it made. Russell Beebe, of Anishinaabe Native heritage, was the sculptor (wood carver). 

Russell Beebe (standing) with Matthew Haines (right) and Grandma Aggie at the “We Are Here” dedication in 2006. (photo from the Russell Beebe collection)

Grandma Aggie performed ceremonies for the tree and then the Prayer Pole, including at the original September 30, 2006 dedication. Within a few years, Beebe and Haines realized that the soft alder wood of the sculpture would deteriorate irreparably if it continued to be exposed to the elements for many years. There was only one way to save “We Are Here” — to move it indoors. But that meant losing this visible, public location for an artwork that honors Native people of the Rogue Valley.

Bronze sculpture artist Jack Langford was hired to make a bronze replica of the wood prayer pole. Because of the size and complexity of “We Are Here,” it took 55 small flexible molds to capture every detail of the wood. Each of the 55 flexible molds was transformed in a multistage process into heat-resistant fused silica molds. These were filled with molten bronze at 2,000 degrees F, after which the 55 bronze pieces had to be fit together seamlessly. The entire process took Langford nearly a year. The bronze replica was installed on North Main Street in May 2013.

"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” bronze replica on North Main Street. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2013)

“We Are Here” alder carving moved, December 18, 2012

On December 18, 2012, “We Are Here” was moved from North Main Street to the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Ashley Powell, co-chair of the SOU Native American Student Union, smudges before it is lifted from its site on North Main Street. (photo by James Royce Young)

Matthew Haines had asked Grandma Aggie’s permission for a bronze replica of “We Are Here” to replace the wood sculpture outdoors at the “Ashland Gateway” location. She said yes and suggested that the original wood statue be moved to the Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University. The City and University agreed, and the move took place on December 18, 2012. 

As a photo description of that snowy morning put it: “A fresh snowfall caused the lifting crane to be one hour late. The schedule, planned to the minute, became completely irrelevant and we were on Indian time the rest of the day. It was a beautiful morning.” 

This photo shows “We Are Here” being lifted from its site on North Main Street. (photo by James Royce Young)

The crane lowered it onto a huge steel-railed rolling dolly, where it was tightly chained on a flatbed truck for transport to SOU Hannon Library. I spoke with Dan Wahpepah, who coordinated the move. He said that “We Are Here” was strapped in the U-shaped dolly with come-alongs on both sides, so they had flexibility to maneuver the large statue through the library doors and then on to the new base installed in the library. Come-alongs are winches that incorporate ratchets for better control. Once in the library, it was bolted to a hinge on the concrete base and then lifted. Lifting it upright from the dolly took careful planning, clear guidance, chains, strong ropes, three wooden poles and many strong hands. 

“We Are Here” being moved into the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. This photo shows the invocation before the final lift into position at Hannon Library. (photo by James Royce Young)
“We Are Here” being moved into the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. This photo shows one of the two pulling teams on the second floor. (photo by James Royce Young)

Wahpepah told me the move followed Native American traditions. With an important move, it is traditional to stop four times to honor the four directions. Assisting Wahpepah were community members and students of the SOU Native American Student Union. 

A new base for “We Are Here” at library

“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. This photo shows the 5,000 pound concrete base being moved into position. (photo by James Royce Young)

A new base was created for the library location of the “We Are Here” wood prayer pole, beginning with a 5,000 pound foundation of concrete. After “We Are Here” was in place on this concrete, Jesse Biesanz began the process of adding a round dome of mortar and river rocks to complete the prayer pole base. He had a short window of time in January to complete the project, when students were on break.

“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. This detail shows Jesse Biesanz creating the base mound of river rocks. (photo by James Royce Young)

He experimented with different colored mortar mixes to find a warm color that would complement the color of the wood. At the bottom, he began with rectangular stone. Then he inserted river rocks of various colors and sizes. Finally, he embedded four animals carved in sandstone at the four cardinal directions of the base.

"We Are Here" Ashland
Looking down on the base of “We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Russell Beebe’s three carved benches, as well as two of the animals he carved from the creation story, can be seen in this photo of the base. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

A creation story on the base

The carvings on the base depict four animals from the Anishinaabe creation story. Russell Beebe, who carved the wood prayer pole, also carved the four animals in sandstone. Beebe is of Anishinaabe tribal heritage. You can read his description of the creation story on the wall of the library near “We Are Here.”

“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. This detail shows Russell Beebe carving the HellDiver from the Anishinaabe creation story. (photo by James Royce Young)

Carved wood benches for “We Are Here” at library

Russell Beebe
Russell Beebe with tree trunk section that will be used to carve one of the benches for SOU Hannon Library. (photo from Russell Beebe collection)

Beebe carved the three beautiful benches by the statue in Hannon Library from the trunk of one large pine tree. One is Bear, one is Cougar (or Mountain Lion) and one is Salmon.

Grandma Aggie wrote in her book: “Russell carved eight-foot benches for people to go and meditate or to have any type of classes there; they would have room. … So he has carved these big eight-foot benches around the spirit pole, and I thought that way people could come and pray, or you could have some sort of a program here about the tree where people could come and sit quietly or whatever.”

Symbolism in “We Are Here”

Here is a brief introduction to the animals and people carved in the “We Are Here” statue. For thousands of years, Southern Oregon tribes lived a sustainable lifestyle in balance with the land, animals and plants of the region. Because it was a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the local population remained small and spread out. Each tribal group had slightly different beliefs and ceremonies. However, all felt a kinship with the animals and plants they depended on for their survival. Russell Beebe brought that sense of kinship into his carving of “We Are Here.”

Grandma Aggie expressed the concept of kinship in her book. She wrote, “The First Nations include not only the Takelma, Shasta, Tututni and other tribes, but also the Salmon Nation, the Bear Nation, the Tree Nations, and all the species of life in this region.” She had a true “big picture” perspective embracing all of life. 

Ashland’s North Mountain Park online pamphlet about local Native American history gives an insight into the importance of animals in their daily life. “Animal parts, including hides, fur, claws, hooves, teeth, bones and antlers were critical in the manufacture of needles, awls, wedges, fishhooks, digging stick handles, scrapers, bow strings, arrows quivers and ceremonial decorations, among other items.” This list doesn’t even mention that animals provided food, clothing and shelter for the people.

Here is a brief description and photo of each human and animal carved on the prayer pole. 

Beebe told me that he only had room to represent two of the local tribes, and he chose the Takelma and the Shasta. The Takelma woman and Shasta man each have a child, who represent the future.  

Takelma Woman and child
Grandma Aggie in front of “We Are Here” on dedication day, September 30, 2006. The Takelma woman on “We Are Here” is modeled on Aggie when she was in her 30s. (photo by James Royce Young)

Russell Beebe used Grandma Aggie as a model for the Takelma woman. He carved her as she looked in her 30s, wearing her regalia clothing. Beebe told me with a laugh, “I got the blessing from her daughter Nadine. She came out one day and looked at my depiction of the 30-year-old [Aggie]. She said, ‘That’s mom.’ So I got it right.”

The Takelma people lived primarily along the Rogue River and to the south as far as what is now the Ashland area. They were a small tribe in the 1850s when settlers arrived in the Rogue Valley. However, they and other ancestral tribes had lived in the area for at least 10,000 years before they were forcibly removed in 1856 to the Siletz Reservation in northwest Oregon. 

"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” detail of the Takelma child. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2006)

Grandma Aggie and many other Native Americans have moved back to Southern Oregon. This sweet photo taken at the original dedication of “We Are Here” in 2006 shows four generations of Grandma Aggie’s family.

Four generations! From left, Chantele Liratos, Aggie’s great-granddaughter; Grandma Aggie; Nadine Martin, Aggie’s daughter; Tanya Narvrez, Aggie’s granddaughter; bottom right is Felicia Florindo, friend of the family. Taken September 30, 2006. (photo by James Royce Young)
Shasta Man and child
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Detail of the Shasta man and child. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

The Shasta people lived primarily in Northern California, though in their northern territory they shared the Bear Creek drainage (now the Ashland/Medford area) with Takelma bands. American settlers James Cardwell and Thomas Smith visited the Ashland area in the winter of 1851-1852. They described a Shasta winter village of perhaps 100 people along Ashland Creek, near the current location of Ashland Plaza.  

With spring and summer warm weather, both Shasta and Takelma would spread out in smaller bands at higher elevations to hunt meat and gather wild foods. The two tribes fought at times, but also intermarried, traded and shared hunting grounds.

Canada Goose
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. This detail shows the Canada goose. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Canada geese are easy to see – and hear – in the Rogue Valley at certain times of the year. Geese and ducks were among the animal foods hunted and eaten by Rogue Valley Native Americans. 

Stag (Deer)
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. This detail shows the stag with its antlers, the little bird and the Takelma woman. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Deer provided food, clothing and tools. Shirts, hats, buckskin trousers, skirts and moccasins were all made from deer or elk. 

According to Karen Rose in her 2002 essay, “The Takelma would light fires in the shape of a horseshoe to drive deer toward the bottom of the semi-circle where the women stood rattling deer bones and the men waited to shoot them. They also would use this method to drive the deer into elaborately constructed brush fences where they could be taken in snares. The Takelma also regularly burned their hunting area to produce better grass with which to attract wild game and maintain their habitat by reducing the underbrush.” 

Edward Sapir gave another version of the Takelma deer hunt, writing that deer were often hunted by groups of men with the help of dogs. They would be driven towards a fenced area with traps to entangle the deer’s legs, so they could be killed. For long-term food storage, “hard dough-like cakes of the [deer] fat were put away for use in the winter.”

Bird in Grandma Aggie’s hand

The bird in Grandma Aggie’s hand represents her connection with nature and the web of life.

Eagle
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Detail of the eagle. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

In her book, Grandma Aggie described the eagle. “Same way with the eagle. It’s a messenger. Long before Congress made it the national bird for us, our Native people throughout the land had already had the eagle that way because he could fly the highest and see the farthest and carry our messages to the Beloved. It was already one of our totems.”

“You know it’s unusual, but you know that the Creator let me know that we’re in the right place, doing the right thing. Like when they dedicated this mountain up here after me. Five eagles up there. Bless you, Grandfather. Whoa! That’s great.” Read more about the mountain dedication below in the section about Dragonfly.

Russell Beebe was given the honor of placing an Eagle feather high on “We Are Here” at the 2006 dedication. If you go see “We Are Here” in the SOU library, you will see an Eagle feather hanging from the Shasta man’s headband and several Red-Tailed Hawk feathers hanging from Grandma Aggie’s hand.

Dragonfly 

“Every place I have been around the world – I have traveled a lot – the dragonflies always come. I always say it is the Creator’s messengers.”

Grandma Aggie
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Detail of dragonfly. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Sculptor Russell Beebe told me why there is a dragonfly on the prayer pole. “The dragonfly was put there just for Aggie, because the dragonfly is one of her spirit animals.” Grandma Aggie wrote in her book that “dragonflies have been a phenomenal thing in my life.” “Like when they named the mountain over here at Ashland Taowhywee Peak, there was dragonflies all over my head, and five eagles. Every place I have been around the world – I have traveled a lot – the dragonflies always come. I always say it is the Creator’s messengers.” 

Taowhywee Point, elevation 3,707 feet, is located four miles to the northeast of Ashland. The peak was formally named for Pilgrim’s great-grandmother. In her book, Grandma Aggie explains who she was. “As I said, my Native name, Taowhywee, was given to me a long time ago through my great-grandmother Margaret, whose name was Morning Star. She was a great shaman of the Takelma people here in Southern Oregon.” 

Salmon

“In 2007, the [salmon] ceremony was moved to the place where it was held for thousands of years: the Tilomikh (Powerhouse Falls), on the Rogue River near Gold Hill, Oregon.”

National Park Service website
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Detail of salmon. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

The most important animal foods for Rogue Valley Native Americans were river fish such as salmon and trout. They were caught using nets, fishing lines made of plant fiber or long spears. Traditionally, ceremonies were conducted each year at the beginning of the salmon hunt.

We turn to Grandma Aggie once again. She was the driving force behind restoration of an ancient salmon ceremony. The National Park Service (NPS) website says in an article about the Takelma tribe: “In the 1970’s, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians began to reorganize. The confederation arose out of the tribes that had been relocated to the Siletz reservation as one, larger, intertribal group. Their first elected chief was George Harney, a full-blooded Takelma. George Harney’s granddaughter, Agnes Baker-Pilgrim, continues to educate others about her heritage.”

Grandma Aggie
Grandma Aggie sitting in the Story Chair by Ti’lomikh Falls on the Rogue River, near the village site of her Takelma ancestors, 2012. (photo by Stephen Kiesling)

“In 1994, for the first time in over 140 years, an ancient ceremony took place to welcome and give thanks for the returning salmon, on the Kanaka Flats of the Applegate River. People of all heritages were welcomed at the annual Salmon Gathering on the Applegate River until 2006. In 2007, the ceremony was moved to the place where it was held for thousands of years: the Tilomikh (Powerhouse Falls), on the Rogue River near Gold Hill, Oregon. Since then, the ceremony has taken place annually in its traditional location, demonstrating that the Takelma culture is alive and will continue into the future.”  

Bear
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Detail of bear. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Bear provided food and clothing. Men’s fur hats were made of bear or deer heads, with the ears reportedly left on for decoration. Fur was used for clothing and wintertime blankets.

The bear is also a totem animal. Aggie again: “Like when I am really tired and how that bear medicine comes through. I think, god, I just can’t stay up another minute, but I do. So I attribute it to – it comes from the bear power.”

Coyote
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Detail of coyote. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

The native-languages.org website describes Coyote as “the trickster figure of the Takelma tribe. As in other Northwestern mythology, Takelma coyote stories range from light-hearted tales of mischief and buffoonery to more serious legends about the nature of the world.” 

Beaver

“Beaver are nature’s ecosystem engineers….”

Aaron Hall
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Detail of beaver. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Beavers were once abundant in Oregon. Due to demand for beaver pelts in Europe and the Eastern United States, they were nearly trapped to extinction in the 1800s. They have now become reestablished along streams throughout the state. 

Beavers are such an important part of a healthy stream ecosystem that Native Americans would have held them in high regard. According to aquatic biologist Aaron Hall, “Beaver are nature’s ecosystem engineers, felling trees and building dams, and changing waterways for their own benefit. But they also benefit other species in the process, including humans as well as many species that are now in jeopardy at least in part due to the historic loss of beavers. Their dams help to control the quantity and quality of water downstream, which both humans and animals use. Their ponds and flooded areas create habitat for many plants and animals, such as fish, birds, insects, and amphibians. In fact, some species only live near beaver ponds.” 

Snake

When Beebe removed the bark, he was amazed to see a small companion alder tree winding its way up the old alder, almost like a vine. The snake was carved from this vine-like companion alder.

"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Detail of snake. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Dennis Gray wrote: “A number of animals were specifically not eaten by the Upland Takelma, such as porcupines, weasels, civet cats (either a spotted skunk or “ring-tailed” cat), screech owls, coyotes, wolves, eagles, snakes, and frogs. It was also stated that certain people would not eat bear meat (Drucker 1940:294). Most of the above mentioned animals, which were not eaten, were associated with supernatural spirits.” According to some sources, the rattlesnake was considered a guardian spirit, but possibly one that inclined people toward evil.

Cougar or Mountain lion
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Detail of cougar (mountain lion). (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Like the beaver, mountain lions are an important part of the natural ecosystem. They were essential to keep the population of smaller animals in balance. 

According to anthropological reports, they were also a minor part of the Shasta tribe diet. I imagine that most other animals were much easier to hunt and kill! 

Raven spirit figure
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” in the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. Detail of Takelma child and Spirit Raven. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Raven stories are found in many tribes of the Pacific Northwest, primarily along the coast. In many of the stories, Raven is involved in creation or in bringing light to the people. 

"We Are Here" - Russell Beebe signature
Russell Beebe’s signature on “We Are Here” wood carving prayer pole. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Closing words

I will let Grandma Aggie have the closing words, from her book Grandma Says: Wake Up World!. She wrote: “I felt very honored to work with Matthew Haines and Russell Beebe, and it was a great honor to be able to do this for our people, for the Old Ones. That’s why I wanted it – for them to be recognized in my background. It was a good feeling. The artist’s name and my name are there to this day. So there it stands, the carving in bronze. I feel very honored that, when I go to the Star Nation, that there will be that spirit pole because, as I say, Ashland is a threshold and there is nothing Native out there. Now we have the bronze that will show there were residents of First Nation people there. I feel very good to have it standing there.” 

Grandma Aggie has now gone to the Star Nation. She will be missed. She will also be remembered whenever someone views the bronze “We Are Here” on North Main Street or the original alder wood “We Are Here” in the SOU library.

Heartfelt thanks

My heartfelt thanks go out to:

Grandma Aggie (Agnes Baker Pilgrim): Inspiration for “We Are Here.” (1924 – 2019) 

Grandma Aggie (Agnes Baker Pilgrim), In Memoriam
In Memoriam sign for Grandma Aggie at the Hannon Library of Southern Oregon University. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Grandma Aggie
Grandma Aggie’s hands, during Dedication Day, September 30, 2006 (still photo taken from Julie Norman’s video of the event)


Russell Beebe: Wood carver of the original alder tree “We Are Here” prayer pole.
Jack Langford: Artist of the “We Are Here” bronze replica.
Lloyd Matthew Haines: He felt the calling for “We Are Here” to be created, then funded both the original wood carving and the bronze replica.
The First Nations Old Ones who lived in this area for thousands of years.
Everyone who helped make “We Are Here” possible in both of its forms. 
Those who generously talked with me, shared their photos with me, or reviewed the article for me. They are listed in “References” below.

Part 1 of this series of articles about “We Are Here” described the creation of the original wood carving prayer pole, and its dedication on September 30, 2006.

LINK TO PART 1 ABOUT “WE ARE HERE”

Part 2 of this series of articles about “We Are Here” described the bronze replica that was crafted and now stands on North Main Street.

LINK TO PART 2 ABOUT “WE ARE HERE”

References for Parts 1, 2 and 3:

Aldous, Vickie. “Downtown sculpture to be cast in bronze,” Ashland Tidings, April 18, 2012. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Aldous, Vickie. “Native people sculpture will move to SOU,” Ashland Tidings, November 3, 2012. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Anon. “Native Americans of the Rogue Valley,” North Mountain Park Nature Center, Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, Version 4: May 2010.
http://www.ashland.or.us/Files/Native%20American%20Background%20Booklet.pdf

Anon. “We Are Here,” Book Marks, Hannon Library Newsletter, Volume 24, No. 1, Fall 2013.

Anon. “Takelma Tribe,” NPS.gov.(accessed January 10, 2021)  https://www.nps.gov/orca/learn/historyculture/takelma-tribe.htm

Anon. “Takelma Legends,” native-languages.org website. (accessed January 17, 2021)
http://www.native-languages.org/takelma-legends.htm

Ayers, Jane. “‘Grandma Aggie’ leaves a lasting impact,” Ashland Tidings, December 3, 2019. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Beebe, Russell. Interview and personal communication, June 2, 2020 and other dates. Thank you, Russell, for sharing your photos with me.

Beebe, Russell. Website. (accessed May 14, 2020)
http://www.russellbeebe.com/index.html#

Bernhagen, Jaimie. “‘We Are Here’ Event with Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” Red Earth Descendants website, October 14, 2012. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Biesanz, Jesse. Interview and personal communication, August 2020.

Cardwell, James, “Southern Oregon Pioneers,” Oregon Sentinel, Jacksonville, July 8, 1882, page 3, from http://truwe.sohs.org/files/cardwell.html

Darling, John. “‘Grandma Aggie’ dies at 95,” Ashland Tidings, November 27, 2019. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Doty, Thomas. Website. (accessed May 14, 2020)
https://www.dotycoyote.com/culture/sculpture_installation_1.html

Gray, Dennis J. “The Takelma and Their Athapascan Neighbors,” University of Oregon Anthropological Papers, No. 37, 1987.

Haines, Lloyd Matthew. Interview and personal communication, May 13, 2020 and other dates.

Hall, Aaron. “Exploring with Beavers, Nature’s Ecosystem Engineers,” Defenders of Wildlife website, September 28, 2016.
https://defenders.org/blog/2016/09/exploring-beavers-natures-ecosystem-engineers

Kuiryamf. “‘We Are Here’ statue relocated to Hannon Library,” The Siskiyou, January 15, 2013. (accessed May 14, 2020)
https://siskiyou.sou.edu/2013/01/15/we-are-here-statue-relocated-to-hannon-library/

Langford, Jack. Interview and personal communication, May 20, 2020 and other dates. Thank you, Jack, for allowing my wife and me to be present at a bronze casting.

Martin, Nadine. Many thanks for reviewing the articles.

Norman, Julie. Interview and personal communication, August 2020 and other dates. Thank you, Julie, for sharing your photos and videos with me.

Paris-Stamm, Glen. 31-minute Video. “Artist on Your Doorstep presents: Jack Langford, Sculptor, ‘We Are Here'(prayer pole now in bronze),” City of Ashland website. (accessed January 18, 2021)
http://www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=18059
Also available directly on YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eD73OiZBf6Q

Pilgrim, Agnes Baker (Taowhywee). Grandma Says: Wake Up World, Blackstone Publishing, 2015.

Pilgrim, Agnes Baker. Website. (accessed May 14, 2020)
http://www.agnesbakerpilgrim.org/Page.asp?PID=108

Rose, Karen. May 25, 2002. “Takelma Indians: An Essay on Native Americans in the Rogue River Area,” Hugo Neighborhood Association & Historical Society, Hugo, OR. For the entire essay, go to http://www.hugoneighborhood.org/takelma.htm

Sapir, Edward. “Notes on the Takelma Indians of Southwestern Oregon,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 9, No. 2, April-June, 1907.

Valencia, Mandy. “We Are Here,” Ashland Daily Tidings, December 21, 2012.
https://ashlandtidings.com/archive/-we-are-here–04-27-2018

Valencia, Mandy. 5-minute Video. “We Are Here Dedication Ceremony,” Ashland Tidings website, May 24, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
https://kzclip.com/video/9d5d_FoTkq4/we-are-here-dedication-ceremony.html

Valencia, Mandy. 4-minute Video. Russell Beebe carving eyes in the bronze We Are Here statue, Ashland Tidings website, April 2, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TqrdKFuu-E

Valencia, Mandy. 3-minute Video. Color heating of the We Are Here bronze statue (Jack Langford and Russell Beebe), Ashland Tidings website, April 15, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fB4eP7F88M8

Wahpepah, Dan. Interview, August 10, 2020.

Young, James Royce. James took many of the photos from the creation of “We Are Here” in both wood and bronze, as well as photos of the 2006 dedication and the 2012 move to SOU Hannon Library. I thank James for sharing so many of his photos with me.

“We Are Here” Honors Native Americans (Bronze Replica, Part 2 of 3)

(Part 2 of 3: Bronze replica on North Main Street, 
stories from 2011 to 2020)

Honoring Rogue Valley Native Americans.
Making of the bronze replica. 
34 photos.
Artist: Jack Langford.
Ashland Public Art Series.

“The ‘We Are Here’ sculpture has had a healing effect on the valley.” 

Russell Beebe

Summary of “We Are Here” – Part 1

“We Are Here” is a sculpture that honors the First Nations of the Rogue Valley. In addition to a sculpture, it has been called a wood carving, a Spirit Pole and a Prayer Pole. The bronze replica is located where North Main Street and Lithia Way meet, a very visible location just one block from the Plaza. 

"We Are Here" location map
The red arrow points to the location of “We Are Here” (#1) on North Main Street near where Lithia Way joins it. Other numbers on the map indicate additional additional public artworks. (map from Ashland Public Arts Commission page at City of Ashland website)

Local attorney and arts patron Matthew Haines felt called to have the wood carving made from an alder tree that was cut down. He hired Russell Beebe, of Anishinaabe Native heritage, to be the sculptor (wood carver). The late Takelma elder Grandma Aggie (Agnes Baker Pilgrim) was the model for Takelma woman on “We Are Here,” shown in the photo below.

"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” prayer pole, Takelma woman modeled on Grandma Aggie (photo by Peter Finkle, 2009)

Grandma Aggie performed ceremonies for the tree and then the Prayer Pole, including at the original September 30, 2006 dedication. Within a few years, Beebe and Haines realized that the soft alder wood of the sculpture would deteriorate irreparably if it continued to be exposed to the elements for many years. There was only one way to save “We Are Here” — to move it indoors. But that meant losing this visible, public location for an artwork that honors Native people of the Rogue Valley.

From wood to bronze, the story continues

After discussing alternatives, Haines and Beebe decided that a bronze casting of the sculpture would be ideal. However, they faced two daunting challenges: first, find the money for a bronze of this size, and second, find someone local with the skill to cast a bronze from this huge, complicated wood carving. As often happens in happy-ending stories, everything clicked into place. Here is the story as I heard it.

Haines, Pilgrim and Beebe, October 29, 2004
Lloyd Matthew Haines, Agnes Baker Pilgrim and Russell Beebe, October 29, 2004 (photo by James Royce Young)

This was not a simple bronze casting. The statue was not only 19’ to 20’ tall, it was also complex. The carved branches of the tree and the details of the carving called for years of experience with bronze work. It also meant a very large budget. 

As Haines was mulling these problems, a buyer unexpectedly appeared for one of Haines’ buildings that was not even for sale! The purchase took place and he had some extra money. 

Jack Langford

Jack Langford, a local bronze artist, has been a professional sculptor since 1980. He has operated bronze foundries in Israel, Maine and now in Southern Oregon.

At the same time Haines was trying to determine who would have the skill locally to cast a bronze of this size, Langford was hit with a one-two punch that rocked him. He had just completed the complex and expensive process of moving his entire sculpture studio from Talent to Ashland. After only one week in the new studio, the building owner told him to leave, and to clear out within a week! He came out of the meeting with the building owner reeling both mentally and emotionally. His friend Jesse Biesanz, a stone worker, happened to be there visiting. Jesse heard his plight and said, “I have an idea.” The next day, Biesanz brought Haines to meet with Langford.

Jack Langford
Jack Langford (left) and Kevin Christman at a bronze pour at Jack’s studio. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Langford’s extensive experience working with bronze met Haines’ need. Haines offered Langford the “We Are Here” commission. Soon after, Langford found space at Jackson Wellsprings where he could work on it. The bronze casting project was underway.

Bronze casting of “We Are Here” 

Jack Langford worked on the bronze casting of “We Are Here” for almost a year. With his son as assistant, he began in June 2012 by erecting a scaffold around the wood statue and making a mold of it. Writing “making a mold” oversimplifies the complex process. With a statue this large, they could only create molds a small section at a time. “We Are Here” required 55 molds all together to create the bronze replica!

Starting at the bottom, they made each mold by painting a flexible polyurethane material over the wood of a small area.

This material captured every detail of the wood carving – cracks, knots and all – without harming it. They then applied a rigid epoxy-like material over the flexible layer. 

This photo shows flexible polyurethane molds in Jack Langford’s studio. Note: These molds are for a different sculpture, not “We Are Here,” but the process is the same. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
"We Are Here"
“We Are Here,” Jack Langford applying polyurethane flexible molds. (still photo from Glen Paris-Stamm video)

After the two layers were removed together, each flexible mold was transformed through many steps into a rigid mold made of fused silica powder.  Fused silica molds could withstand the heat of liquid bronze. Each individual bronze casting is a complex, multi-stage, labor-intensive process. It is an art and a science, and both have to be balanced every step of the way. 

Finally, Langford would have to reassemble the 55 small bronze castings back into one sculpture. We will get to that in a moment. 

The rigid ceramic molds are made, through a multi-step process, in this room of Jack Langford’s studio. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

2,000-degree melted bronze was poured – very carefully, wearing padding and face protection – into each of the 55 silica molds!

Jack Langford
Kevin Christman (left) and Jack Langford are carrying a ceramic crucible filled with liquid bronze, melted at about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Note: This bronze is for a different sculpture, not “We Are Here,” but the process is the same. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Jack Langford
Photo of liquid bronze being poured into ceramic molds. Note: These molds are for a different sculpture, not “We Are Here,” but the process is the same. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Brief video of liquid bronze being poured into ceramic molds. Note: These molds are for a different sculpture, not “We Are Here,” but the process is the same. (video by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Hammering freed each bronze casting from its silica mold. I winced when the hammering began. Jack assured me, with a laugh, that he was not damaging the sculpture.  

Jack Langford
Jack Langford is breaking the rigid ceramic mold off of a cooling bronze casting. Note: This mold is for a different sculpture, not “We Are Here,” but the process is the same.(photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

The photo below shows what the bronze looked like just out of the mold, with lots of silica sand still stuck to it. Precision sandblasting removed every bit of the silica.

"We Are Here"
“We Are Here” bronze casting process. Shortly after this piece was removed from the silica mold, some of the white silica is still attached to the bronze.(still photo from Glen Paris-Stamm video)

Finally, the molds were combined back into one piece. It took a surprising amount of  pounding, clamping, tacking, welding, torching, grinding and polishing to get the bronze “We Are Here” that we see at North Main Street and Lithia Way today.  

Here is a peek at the welding.

Here is torching of the sculpture. Langford used a patina torch to apply a concentrated flame to the entire surface of the bronze replica. Then, while the bronze metal was still hot, he and Beebe ground the entire surface with small wire brushes to smooth out rough spots. The patina torch and wire brush sanding were both done twice.

"We Are Here"
“We Are Here,” Jack Langford applying patina torch to bronze. (still photo from Glen Paris-Stamm video)

The final step was polishing the entire surface of “We Are Here” with carnauba wax, followed by buffing with a soft cloth. This was also done twice.

Two changes from the wood sculpture to the bronze replica

Before Langford began his work, he and carver Russell Beebe met at the wood statue. Langford explained that in the transition from wood to bronze, he could make adjustments to the statue if Beebe wanted any. Beebe considered this and requested two changes.

The first change was thinner wings for the Canada goose at the top of the statue. As he was carving the tree, Beebe kept the wings thicker than he would have liked in order to be sure the wood didn’t crack or break. For the bronze replica, Langford made molds for only the outer side of the wings. Then Beebe came to Langford’s studio and sculpted thinner, more detailed wings in clay for the bronze casting.

"We Are Here"
“We Are Here” – Russell Beebe is carving the clay mold for Canada goose inner wings on bronze replica. (still photo from Glen Paris-Stamm video)

These two photos show the comparison. Wings on the bronze “We Are Here” are much thinner, with beautiful detail that is missing from the original wood statue. We as viewers benefit from the close cooperation between the wood carver artist and the bronze worker artist.

Second was another detail I had never noticed. Because of the shape of the tree in the original carving, Beebe had to carve the stag (deer) antler connecting with the Canada goose, as if it were goring the goose. When the bronze casting was created, Beebe and Langford made a slight adjustment in this area so the stag antler is free standing and no longer appears to be goring the goose.

You can compare the two for yourself by viewing the original wood “We Are Here” prayer pole at Southern Oregon University Hannon Library and the bronze replica on North Main Street one block from the Ashland Plaza. Currently (April 2021), the SOU library is closed to non-students. However, “We Are Here” is placed near a large window. You can’t walk all around it and see it up close, but you can see it through the window.

"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” at SOU Hannon Library. This is the original wood sculpture. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2015)

A memorable day

One of Langford’s most memorable days creating the bronze was October 29, 2012. On that day, Oregon Shakespeare Festival hosted an evening event featuring Grandma Aggie, Russell Beebe, Dan Wahpepah, Brent Florendo and others. Grandma Aggie gave a talk about the Oregon Trail of Tears in 1856.  

After dark, Langford poured bronze into a mold, as Grandma Aggie and 80 other people looked on. This was his final bronze casting for “We Are Here.” Fittingly, this casting was of Grandma Aggie’s face near the top of the sculpture. 

This photo shows Grandma Aggie and her daughter Nadine Martin looking on as Russell Beebe uses a hammer to remove the ceramic mold from the bronze casting of Grandma Aggie’s face. As mentioned above, this was the final bronze casting for the bronze replica of “We Are Here.” (photo by James Royce Young)

The bronze replica base

Jesse Biesanz made the base for the bronze replica, and also used his boom truck to lift the bronze sculpture into place on the base. This base has a theme of river rocks, as does Biesanz’s base for “We Are Here” in the SOU library. 

"We Are Here" Ashland
River rocks on base of “We Are Here” bronze replica, base created by Jesse Biesanz. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“This is about healing.”

Grandma Aggie

Installation and Dedication, May 2013

"We Are Here" bronze replica dedication
At the dedication for “We Are Here” bronze replica in May 2013. From left, Jack Langford, Dan Wahpepah, Matthew Haines, Grandma Aggie. (still photo from Mandy Valencia video, May 24, 2013)

The bronze replica of “We Are Here” was installed and dedicated in May of 2013. Continuing the theme of ceremony associated with “We Are Here,” there was a small blessing ceremony with Grandma Aggie, her daughter Nadine Martin, Matthew Haines and Jack Langford when the sturdy steel band to anchor the sculpture was bolted into place. More ceremony, with offerings and songs, took place at the bronze replica dedication.

"We Are Here"
“We Are Here” bronze replica is being installed at its site, May 2013.(still photo from Glen Paris-Stamm video)
James Royce Young took this wonderful photo of wood carver Russell Beebe shaking hands with bronze artist Jack Langford at the dedication of the “We Are Here” bronze replica. Russell Beebe carved the original wood “We Are Here” from the alder tree. It is now at SOU Hannon Library. Jack Langford made the bronze replica from the wood original. (photo by James Royce Young)

Langford did not work closely with Grandma Aggie on the bronze replica, as he did with sculptor Beebe. However, Langford told me he was deeply moved by Grandma Aggie’s words to him the day his bronze replica of “We Are Here” was installed. She told him that she felt the presence of Spirit just as strongly in the new bronze replica as she did in the original alder tree prayer pole.

When the bronze replica was installed at the site, Grandma Aggie said, “What a gift Jack has. I want to praise and thank him too. My name is Taowhywee, my Native name. My English name is Agnes Baker Pilgrim, and I’m the oldest living descendant of the Takelma Indians that once lived in this valley for 22,000 years that we know of. I’m very proud to stand here today and honor this statue that they’ve done, that the bronze man Jack has done. What a beautiful spiritual thing it is to my heart. It will touch the lives of people that come by. Now this will be here into perpetuity. It is a great honor to the ancient people of this land that lived here for over 22,000 years.”    

Detail photos of bronze replica

See some details of the bronze replica below. When I view it up close, I am amazed by how many details of the wood carving – including cracks and knots in the wood – are captured by the bronze replica.

Part 1 of this series of articles about “We Are Here” described the creation of the original wood carving prayer pole, and its dedication on September 30, 2006. Click on the image below to read Part 1.

Part 3 of this series of articles about “We Are Here” will describe the challenge of moving the original wood carving from North Main Street to Southern Oregon University Hannon Library. Here is a preview photo.

PREVIEW photo: “We Are Here” in the process of being moved to SOU Hannon Library, December 18, 2012. (photo by James Royce Young)

References for Parts 1, 2 and 3:

Aldous, Vickie. “Downtown sculpture to be cast in bronze,” Ashland Tidings, April 18, 2012. (accessed 5/21/2020)

Aldous, Vickie. “Native people sculpture will move to SOU,” Ashland Tidings, November 3, 2012. (accessed 5/21/2020)

Anon. “Native Americans of the Rogue Valley,” North Mountain Park Nature Center, Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, Version 4: May 2010.
http://www.ashland.or.us/Files/Native%20American%20Background%20Booklet.pdf

Anon. “We Are Here,” Book Marks, Hannon Library Newsletter, Volume 24, No. 1, Fall 2013.

Anon. “Takelma Tribe,” NPS.gov. (accessed 1/10/2021) https://www.nps.gov/orca/learn/historyculture/takelma-tribe.htm

Anon. “Takelma Legends,” native-languages.org website. (accessed January 17, 2021)
http://www.native-languages.org/takelma-legends.htm

Ayers, Jane. “’Grandma Aggie’ leaves a lasting impact,” Ashland Tidings, December 3, 2019. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Beebe, Russell. Interview and personal communication, June 2, 2020 and other dates. Thank you, Russell, for sharing your photos with me.

Beebe, Russell. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
http://www.russellbeebe.com/index.html#

Bernhagen, Jaimie. “’We Are Here’ Event with Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” Red Earth Descendants website, October 14, 2012. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Biesanz, Jesse. Interview and personal communication, August 2020.

Cardwell, James, “Southern Oregon Pioneers,” Oregon Sentinel, Jacksonville, July 8, 1882, page 3, from http://truwe.sohs.org/files/cardwell.html

Darling, John. “’Grandma Aggie’ dies at 95,” Ashland Tidings, November 27, 2019. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Doty, Thomas. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
https://www.dotycoyote.com/culture/sculpture_installation_1.html

Gray, Dennis J. “The Takelma and Their Athapascan Neighbors,” University of Oregon Anthropological Papers, No. 37, 1987.

Haines, Lloyd Matthew. Interview and personal communication, May 13, 2020 and other dates.

Hall, Aaron. “Exploring with Beavers, Nature’s Ecosystem Engineers,” Defenders of Wildlife website, September 28, 2016.
https://defenders.org/blog/2016/09/exploring-beavers-natures-ecosystem-engineers

Kuiryamf. “’We Are Here’ statue relocated to Hannon Library,” The Siskiyou, January 15, 2013. (accessed May 14, 2020)
https://siskiyou.sou.edu/2013/01/15/we-are-here-statue-relocated-to-hannon-library/

Langford, Jack. Interview and personal communication, May 20, 2020 and other dates.

Martin, Nadine. Many thanks for reviewing the article.

Norman, Julie. Video of the dedication day and dedication ceremony.

Norman, Julie. Interview and personal communication, August 2020 and other dates.

Paris-Stamm, Glen. 31-minute Video. “Artist on Your Doorstep presents: Jack Langford, Sculptor, ‘We Are Here'(prayer pole now in bronze),” City of Ashland website (accessed January 18, 2021)
http://www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=18059

Also available directly on YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eD73OiZBf6Q

Pilgrim, Agnes Baker (Taowhywee). Grandma Says: Wake Up World, Blackstone Publishing, 2015.

Pilgrim, Agnes Baker. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
http://www.agnesbakerpilgrim.org/Page.asp?PID=108

Rose, Karen. May 25, 2002. “Takelma Indians: An Essay on Native Americans in the Rogue River Area,” Hugo Neighborhood Association & Historical Society, Hugo, OR. For the entire article go to http://www.hugoneighborhood.org/takelma.htm 

Sapir, Edward. “Notes on the Takelma Indians of Southwestern Oregon,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 9, No. 2, April-June, 1907.

Valencia, Mandy. “We Are Here,” Ashland Daily Tidings, December 21, 2012.

https://ashlandtidings.com/archive/-we-are-here–04-27-2018

Valencia, Mandy. 5-minute Video. “We Are Here Dedication Ceremony,” Ashland Tidings website, May 24, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
https://kzclip.com/video/9d5d_FoTkq4/we-are-here-dedication-ceremony.html

Valencia, Mandy. 4-minute Video. Russell Beebe carving eyes in the bronze We Are Here statue, Ashland Tidings website, April 2, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TqrdKFuu-E

Valencia, Mandy. 3-minute Video. Color heating of the We Are Here bronze statue (Jack Langford and Russell Beebe), Ashland Tidings website, April 15, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fB4eP7F88M8

Wahpepah, Dan. Interview, August 10, 2020.

Young, James Royce. James took many of the photos from the creation of “We Are Here” in both wood and bronze, as well as photos of the 2006 dedication and the 2012 move to SOU Hannon Library. I thank James for sharing so many of his photos with me.

“We Are Here” Honors Native Americans (Part 1 of 3)

(Part 1 of 3: Original wood carving on North Main Street, 
stories from 2004 to 2012)

Honoring Rogue Valley Native Americans.
Creation of the original wood carving.
Introducing Grandma Aggie.
The 1856 Oregon Trail of Tears
Sculptor: Russell Beebe.
Ashland Public Art Series.

Setting the scene

Grandma Aggie speaks to the Gateway Alder, October 29, 2004. (photo by James Royce Young)

“On October 29, 2004 Agnes Baker Pilgrim met with a small gathering of people at the base of the Gateway Alder [tree]. There she led us in a ceremony that was the beginning of a path. Grandma Agnes began the ceremony by offering tobacco and lighting fires, one fire for each of the Four Directions, in tins around the Gateway Alder. She then asked for blessing and guidance from the Sprits of the Four Directions as she communed with the tree. Here she is seen speaking directly to the Gateway Alder.” 

James Royce Young
"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” prayer pole detail, Takelma woman modeled on Grandma Aggie (photo by Peter Finkle, 2009)

What is “We Are Here?”

On his website, Russell Beebe wrote: “From the Blessing of Ashland’s Gateway Alder Tree has emerged a 20 foot monument to the First Nations of Southwest Oregon. The tribes honored in this work are the Shasta (male figure) & Takelma (represented by the inspired likeness of Agnes Baker Pilgrim) Nations. The sculpture is titled ‘We are Here.’ Designer and Sculptor is Russell Beebe – of Anishinaabe Native heritage. Special thanks to Lloyd Matthew Haines.”

“We Are Here” is a sculpture that honors the First Nations of the Rogue Valley, and is part of the City of Ashland public art collection. In addition to a sculpture or statue, it has been called a wood carving, a Spirit Pole and a Prayer Pole. 

When American settlers arrived in the early 1850s, they found the Shasta, Takelma and other tribes living in the Ashland area and throughout Southern Oregon. When Hargadine and Helman made the first donation land claims in January 1852 in what is now Ashland, there was a Shasta winter village called K’wakhakha at the site of the Ashland Plaza. 

The late Grandma Aggie said that her people, the Takelma, had performed a sacred Salmon ceremony on the Rogue River for 22,000 years. “We Are Here” remembers the Native Americans who lived on this land before the settlers came and “claimed” it.

Between 1852 and 1856, there were four years of conflicts and broken promises as local Native Americans tried to defend their ancestral land. Suffering from diseases and hunger, as well as deaths from the fighting, the remaining Shasta and Takelma were forcibly marched in 1856 to the Siletz Indian Reservation, 150 miles north along the Oregon coast. Through the years, Native Americans have moved back to Southern Oregon, some like the Shasta and Takelma because it is their ancestral homeland.

Where is “We Are Here?”

"We Are Here" location map
The red arrow points to the location of “We Are Here” (#1) in downtown Ashland, on North Main Street near where Lithia Way joins it. (map from Ashland Public Arts Commission page at City of Ashland website)

We Are Here is located where North Main Street and Lithia Way meet. It is a very visible location at the west gateway to downtown Ashland, one short block from the Plaza. 

The first challenge

Lloyd Matthew Haines owned the sort-of-triangular lot where North Main Street and Lithia Way come together, which you can see on the map above. He wanted to build there, but it was challenging. Two groups of people opposed his plan. One loosely organized group opposed just about any downtown development, and they were very vocal. The second group objected to cutting down the large 53-year-old alder tree on the property.

Alder tree cut for "We Are Here"
The Gateway Alder tree before being cut down, October 29, 2004. (photo by James Royce Young)

Haines instructed his architects to try to design the building around the tree, thus saving it. The architects concluded that the lot was too small for that to work. They said the tree had to go.

An inner calling

Haines felt an inner calling that the tree should be made into “a piece of art that represented the Native American people and their presence in the valley.” As he put it, he knew “that’s what I needed to do.” He contacted wood carver Russell Beebe, of Anishinaabe Native heritage, and Takelma elder Grandma Aggie (Agnes Baker Pilgrim) to ask for their help. 

How Matthew Haines first met Russell Beebe and Grandma Aggie 

Haines knew the two of them from a tree carving project at his house a few years before. An oak tree had died from old age. Rather than cut it up for firewood, Haines thought of honoring the tree and the land by carving something from it. He contacted the Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild to see if someone would be interested in the project. Russell Beebe responded, and within two days of seeing the tree he came to Haines with a plan for a sculpture that was eventually called “My Relatives.” 

Russell Beebe carving
Russell Beebe is shown carving the sculpture called “My Relatives” from a white oak tree, 2003. (photo montage by James Royce Young)

Russell Beebe wrote of his design for “My Relatives”: “At first glance the big tree gave me an indication of how my design would evolve, from the juncture of the first large branch down to the base. The very uniform trunk offered freedom to create while the divergence of the branch above would dictate form. This and Mr. Haines’ desire that the sculpture honor the Tree, our Wildlife and the Native Peoples who once lived in the area gave me the spectrum to create.”

Beebe introduced stone worker Jesse Biesanz to Haines at this time, and Biesanz later went on to build the stone base for each “We Are Here” sculpture.

When “My Relatives” was complete, Beebe invited his friend Grandma Aggie to see the carving. This was when she and Matthew Haines first met.

Opposition and resolution

Now back to the alder tree and the proposed building at North Main Street and Lithia Way. There was still the large group opposed to new downtown development, with enough power to have stopped several other downtown projects in previous years. The building project was appealed to the City Council by opponents. Appeals like this tend to be contentious. 

At the Council meeting, Russell Beebe presented plans for the alder tree carving. Grandma Aggie followed him and spoke on behalf of the project. She said that Haines’ plan for the “We Are Here” sculpture was a small but important step toward honoring Native people. Haines and Beebe both told me they could feel the entire energy of the room shift as Grandma Aggie was talking.

“This is about healing.”

Grandma Aggie

She reminded council members and the audience that people whose ancestral lands these are were nearly wiped out. Since then, Native people have been consistently ignored and marginalized for more than 150 years. Despite the painful history, she said, Native people have returned to the Rogue Valley and Ashland.

Then she said something that cut through all the bickering. “You wouldn’t know that we exist. There’s nothing visible of Native people anywhere here except Dead Indian Road.” Beebe described that moment to me: “Everyone was stunned and that was the end of the protest.”

After her talk, the City Council approved the building and sculpture with little opposition.

Russell Beebe envisions “We Are Here” design

Russell Beebe wrote in 2006: “The original design for this sculpture evolved in just a few hours as I sat by the living alder tree. With Mr. Haines’ thought of ‘family’ in mind, the ‘story of old’ came through in my sketches and remained constant regardless of changes made. All I had to do was visualize and understand what the tree showed me, then let my hands do their work.” Beebe felt that his design represents “the story told by the old ones about our duty to walk in balance with nature.” 

When I interviewed Beebe in June of 2020, he added to the story. He told me he was sitting in a bar and restaurant by the alder tree that day. “So I got a hamburger and I sat at the table and just looked at the alder. By the time I finished the hamburger, I had my design figured out. It was that quick.”

Blessing the alder tree

Haines asked Grandma Aggie to perform a ceremony of blessing and thanks for the alder tree before it was cut down (see first photo above). A few people gathered with her on October 29, 2004 for ceremony and prayer. 

Haines, Pilgrim and Beebe, October 29, 2004
Lloyd Matthew Haines, Agnes Baker Pilgrim and Russell Beebe at the initial blessing ceremony, October 29, 2004 (photo by James Royce Young)

She wrote in her 2015 book that “we talked with that tree about what we were going to do with it, that it is going to be made into perpetuity. ‘We are going to carve on you, we’re going to make you beautiful. You’ll live forever, but we’re going to move you up here.’ We talked to it like a human being.”

This intentional beginning with ceremony started “We Are Here” on the path to be more than just a statue. When the wood carving was installed on North Main Street in 2006, there was ceremony in the context of a community celebration. When the wood carving was moved to Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University in 2012, there was ceremony. When the bronze replica was installed on North Main Street in 2013, there was ceremony. 

"We Are Here"
Grandma Aggie blessing the finished sculpture of “We Are Here” during installation September 19, 2006. (photo by Julie Norman)

Why is the Alder tree referred to as “mother?”

According to Beebe, the alder is not a long-lived tree, but it plays an important role in the natural process of regeneration, a role so valuable that it is called “mother.” Alder trees grow along streams all over the world. When flood or fire destroys the stream-side landscape, alders are among the first large plants to grow back. They grow quickly and spread their branches and leaves. Slower growing trees and plants then get established beneath the protection of the “mother.” With a smile, Beebe ended this story: “And after about 60 years, she says ‘okay children, you’re on your own.’ Then she’s done.”  

Moving the alder tree to Russell Beebe’s studio

When the alder tree was cut, it turned out that it was near the end of its short life. According to the arborist who took it down, it had about ten years to live. 

Beebe said, “When they cut the tree down, they were going to lower it down on to Main Street, so they stopped traffic for a bit. When they lowered it down on to the street, whoever was at the controls [of the crane] let go a little too quick, so they kind of thumped it on the street. When they did that, it broke a big branch off, one that was going to be part of my design. So, what to do? My original design was quite different.”

“Faced with this tree with a broken limb, my original design was gone,” Beebe continued. “I had to go with what was given me. So everything changed and evolved, and was way better because of that broken limb. Now everything kind of emerges from the tree, represents the soul of the tree.”  

Russell Beebe carves the alder tree

This is how the alder tree looked when it arrived at Russell Beebe’s studio.

Alder tree used for "We Are Here"
The Gateway Alder tree at Russell Beebe’s studio, before carving, November 30, 2004. (photo by James Royce Young)

I had the honor of being able to spend several hours with Beebe at his rural outdoor studio. When I visited, he was nearing completion of an Iroquois teaching pole carving for someone in upstate New York. Here is a photo of it in process. 

Russell Beebe sculpture
Iroquois Teaching Pole, carved by Russell Beebe. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Unlike the straight Iroquois teaching pole that was laid on its side for carving, the “We Are Here” sculpture with its large branches was carved with the tree upright. Beebe set up scaffolding around the tree and began carving from the top down.

"We Are Here" - Russell Beebe carving, 2005
Russell Beebe stood high on scaffolding as he began carving “We Are Here.” This photo shows him carving the stag, February 21, 2005. (photo by James Royce Young)

The Shasta Man and Takelma Woman are both toward the top of the sculpture. Before he started on the Takelma Woman modeled on Grandma Aggie, Beebe asked Aggie to bring him traditional Takelma garb, a cradle board and whatever else she wanted to bring. He said, “I wanted to get that right.” 

As he was carving the tree, neighbors would stop and look and ask questions about it. “One of my neighbors suggested putting more fish in there,” Beebe told me. At that point, the main salmon was partially carved. The neighbor asked, “Wouldn’t that look cool to have more fish? What do you think about that?” Beebe thought about it, and decided to add more fish. He liked that it became a community sculpture, not just “his” sculpture.

"We Are Here" Ashland
“We Are Here” at SOU, salmon detail showing “more fish.” (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Beebe wrote: “The more than 1,000 hours I spent carving this piece were delightful.” “Emotionally, this work brings forward those ancient ones of my own distant native roots and touches my heart. I feel the steady drumbeat of the seasons.” Through this wood carving, Beebe tried to capture not only the spiritual history (and current presence) of Rogue Valley First Nations people, but also the spiritual history of his own people. 

His grandfather was his first teacher in carving wood, and also introduced him to tribal traditions. Beebe is a descendant of the Anishinaabe tribe in the north central United States and south central Canada. As an adult, Beebe received his “spirit name” Wabashkigamash. He tries to express his Native traditions in his work and in how he lives his life.

Russell Beebe carving "We Are Here"
Russell Beebe carving “We Are Here,” showing the scaffolding that surrounds it, 2006. (photo by James Royce Young)
"We Are Here" - Russell Beebe signature
Russell Beebe’s signature on “We Are Here” wood carving prayer pole. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

What is represented on the alder tree carving

Beebe said, “Where we live now, once were the Takelma, the Shasta and many other tribes. I couldn’t put them all on here, but I included those two.” The Shasta Man and Takelma woman each have a child, who represent the future.  

Representing the Takelma is Grandma Aggie as she looked in her 30s, wearing her regalia. Beebe told me with a laugh, “I got the blessing from her daughter Nadine. She came out one day and looked at my depiction of the 30-year-old [Aggie]. She said, ‘That’s mom.’ So I got it right.”

Then he included many animals without whom the Native people would not have survived: the deer (stag), the eagle, the salmon, bear, beaver, coyote, snake and cougar. The spirit figure of Raven is included. “The dragonfly was put there just for Aggie,” he added. The dragonfly is one of her spirit animals.

Grandma Aggie wrote, “The First Nations include not only the Takelma, Shasta, Tututni and other tribes, but also the Salmon Nation, the Bear Nation, the Tree Nations, and all the species of life in this region.” She had a true “big picture” perspective embracing all of life, as I learned when I attended her deeply emotional memorial service in 2019.

"We Are Here"
The dragonfly is one of Grandma Aggie’s spirit animals. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

The Native people had ceremonies for all of these animal nations. Beebe asked if I was familiar with the Salmon Ceremony, which Grandma Aggie reestablished in the Rogue Valley in 1994 for the first time since the 1856 Trail of Tears. I told him I had seen a video about the Salmon Ceremony during Grandma Aggie’s 2019 memorial service. He said, “That’s all part of Indian life, everybody having a few bites of the first salmon caught, and then returning the skin and bones back to the river. There’s a thank you in that, a reverence, which is what this [sculpture] is all about.” 

“We Are Here” is a Spirit Pole and Prayer Pole  

“Attaching an Eagle feather to this really turned it into a Spirit Pole, as Aggie terms it. For us, seeing the Eagle feather on there also turned it into a Prayer Pole. Individuals would pray there. Sometimes we would have ceremony.”            

Russell Beebe

Russell Beebe was honored by being asked to place a sacred Eagle feather high on the sculpture. Traditionally, the presence of an Eagle feather is what transforms this wood carving into a spirit pole or prayer pole.

"We Are Here" eagle feather
“We Are Here” eagle feather, hanging on Takelma Woman’s hand on the wood carving at its original site. (photo from Russell Beebe collection, circa 2006)

Grandma Aggie wrote: “Our Native students that are going to come to Southern Oregon University, they need something here to show them that there’s been Native people here on this land.” “Also, to remember the ancient ones of the land would be this tree, to stand in perpetuity in honor of the First Nation people.” “So there is now a spirit pole in Ashland that came through an attorney, Matthew Haines.”

“We Are Here” was called “a memorial to the First Nations” by Matthew Haines, who funded it. Through the presence of the Eagle feather and ceremony, it has become much more than a memorial.

Beebe described the meaning of spirit pole to me. It honors the spirits of the Native people and wildlife who lived in this area long ago. But it is not just about remembering the past. He added, “In our minds, they are still here.” The spirits of those who are gone, both people and Creation, are still with us in the present day.

When the Eagle feather is attached, “We Are Here” is also a living place of prayer, as much as any church or temple. Through the years, many community prayers and ceremonies have taken place at this prayer pole. Native people also come individually or in small groups to offer prayers here.

Installation day photos

"We Are Here" installation
“We Are Here” lowered onto its base, September 19, 2006. (photo by James Royce Young)

“We Are Here” was moved from Russell Beebe’s studio to its location on North Main Street on September 19, 2006. The move included ceremony by Grandma Aggie and Dan Wahpepah.

Short excerpt of Grandma Aggie and Dan Wahpepah singing at “We Are Here” installation on September 19, 2006. (from video by Julie Norman)

Dedication day: September 30, 2006

“Everywhere I go around the world, I pray.
I don’t care what religion you belong to.
My church is the sky and earth, and I pray for all in between the sky and earth.
We’re all part of the fabric.”

Agnes Baker Pilgrim
"We Are Here" dedication day flyer
Flyer for the dedication of “We Are Here” on September 30, 2006. (flyer artwork and photos by James Royce Young)

“We Are Here” was dedicated September 30, 2006, a day the Ashland City Council had recognized as First Nations Day.

The 1856 Oregon Trail of Tears

Beyond the meaning of the sculpture itself, the dedication had special meaning because it was the 150thanniversary of the local native people’s Trail of Tears. Between 1852 and 1856, there were many battles in Southern Oregon between settlers and the Native Americans who were defending their ancestral land. Suffering from diseases, hunger and deaths from the fighting, in 1856 the remaining Shasta and Takelma (as well as other tribes) were forcibly marched to the Siletz Indian Reservation, 150 miles north along the Oregon coast.

In her 2015 book, Grandma Aggie gave emotional resonance to the dry facts listed above. She wrote, “I remember how hard it was when I was a child growing up because in those times, in Lincoln County, there was signs on restaurants and different places where Indians and dogs weren’t allowed. And you know, I grew up from that era, but I am not bitter about it. What was is what was. I know I am limited. I can only change right now. I can’t change anything a minute ago, an hour ago, a week ago, or a year ago, so I know I am limited. So, what I did is I forgave all that in my background, of what happened to our people. The Trail of Tears that started here in Southern Oregon in 1856. They were all gathered up here, then run north. They lived here for over 22,000 years, and they actually felt that the Creator had given them this land, it was theirs eternally, forever and forever, as long as the grass grew and the water flowed. It was a hard time for my people in those times, you know, going up in rough terrain in inclement weather. They were force-marched in stormy weather with just moccasins on their feet. They could take one thing, and most of them just carried food wrapped in what they could carry. So then their moccasins wore out, and the elders fell along the wayside. The young were taught to take care of the elders, so they would run back and pick them up, and they were beaten. The guards told them that if they did that again they’d just leave the elders by the wayside for the animals to eat.

“It was a terrible time for them, over two hundred miles of this land going north and to trails where there was no trails. I can fathom how hard it was. And then, after all that journey, when they did get up to Siletz, the agent had used up a lot of the money, so there wasn’t enough blankets to go around. There wasn’t enough food, and many of them perished. It was awful. It’s a wonder I sit here.” 

Grandma Aggie's book
Grandma Aggie’s book from Ashland Library (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Dedication Day gathering and ceremony

Dedication day included a three-hour gathering at Briscoe School, which opened with a song by Whistling Elk Drum circle, led by Dan Wahpepah. 

Whistling Elk Drum group, Ashland
Whistling Elk Drum circle plays at the “We Are Here” dedication September 30, 2006. Dan Wahpepah is wearing the black shirt. (photo by James Royce Young)

Speakers included Robert Owens Greygrass (Master of Ceremonies), Agnes Baker Pilgrim (Takelma elder), Lloyd Matthew Haines (father and funder of the Project), Russell Beebe (sculptor), Kate Jackson (City of Ashland representative), Dennis Martinez (topic: Indigenous Stewardship), Robert Kentta (topic: Trail of Tears and cultural restoration), Thomas Doty (story teller), John Michael Greer (topic: Takilma language), Shelly Vendiola (topic: youth and poverty) and SOU Professor David West (topic: history and the present day). 

Several hundred people then walked from Briscoe School along North Main Street to the “We Are Here” site at the corner of North Main and Lithia Way. A dedication, with prayers and blessing ceremony, followed at the site. Grandma Aggie blessed the sculpture and the assembled people. The ceremony included a Native American tobacco offering.

Grandma Aggie in front of “We Are Here” on dedication day, September 30, 2006. Notice that the Takelma woman on “We Are Here” is modeled on Aggie when she was in her 30s. (photo by James Royce Young)

After he described how meaningful the dedication was, Beebe laughed and told me, “I have a funny story for you. I talked to you about offering tobacco. My son brought a pouch of tobacco [to the dedication] and we started making tobacco offerings at the base of the sculpture. Many of the people gathered had no idea what we were doing, but they wanted to do it also. Soon all the stones at the base of the sculpture were covered with tobacco. I was hanging around after everybody had left. Along comes this homeless guy. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He wasn’t looking at the sculpture at all. He looked at that tobacco, and he was just scooping it up, like ‘Thank you God.’ That was the giving back part; that was just wonderful.”

"We Are Here" Ashland
Tobacco offering at the “We Are Here” dedication on September 30, 2006. (photo by James Royce Young)

Two problems surfaced after a few years

The story of “We Are Here” does not end with the 2006 dedication. After installation, the sculpture was donated to the City of Ashland as public art. Because of its uniqueness, Beebe performed maintenance on the sculpture annually. Within a couple years, he began to see problems.

"We Are Here" maintenance
Russell Beebe performing annual maintenance of “We Are Here” wood carving. (from Russell Beebe collection)

The first problem was unanticipated. Do you remember that a large branch broke off when the tree was “thumped on the street” during its removal process? The site of the broken branch is now the head of a stag in the carving. Beebe didn’t realize until after the carving was completed that due to the “thump,” a crack extended into the center of the tree. He told me “every spring we would see mold developing.”

"We Are Here"
“We Are Here” from above, showing site of crack behind the stag’s head. (photo from Russell Beebe collection)

The second problem is that alder is a soft wood. The crack complicated the problem of maintaining a soft wood out in the elements. It required extensive maintenance, and Haines was the one who funded Beebe to do that. Beebe told me, “Often I had to recarve where it was starting to rot in spots.” 

At some point, Beebe and Haines realized that “We Are Here” would deteriorate irreparably if it were exposed to the elements for many years. It would have to be moved indoors in order to survive long-term. 

"We Are Here"
“We Are Here” showing wear from the elements, and mold growth due to moisture entering the soft alder wood. (photo from Russell Beebe collection)

Haines told the Ashland Tidings in 2012 that “it was important to him to keep some version of the sculpture downtown. He said the sculpture is a symbol of reconciliation and healing.” In this, he was in sync with the vision expressed by both Beebe and Grandma Aggie.

“The ‘We Are Here’ sculpture has had a healing effect on the valley.” 

Russell Beebe

Part 2 of this series of articles about “We Are Here” will describe the bronze replica that was crafted and now stands on North Main Street.

"We Are Here" Ashland
Here is a sneak peak of the “We Are Here” bronze replica, showing a detail of the salmon. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Part 3 of this series of articles about “We Are Here” will describe the challenge of moving the original wood carving from North Main Street to Southern Oregon University Hannon Library. 

References for Parts 1, 2 and 3:

Aldous, Vickie. “Downtown sculpture to be cast in bronze,” Ashland Tidings, April 18, 2012. (accessed 5/21/2020)

Aldous, Vickie. “Native people sculpture will move to SOU,” Ashland Tidings, November 3, 2012. (accessed 5/21/2020)

Anon. “Native Americans of the Rogue Valley,” North Mountain Park Nature Center, Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, Version 4: May 2010.
http://www.ashland.or.us/Files/Native%20American%20Background%20Booklet.pdf

Anon. “We Are Here,” Book Marks, Hannon Library Newsletter, Volume 24, No. 1, Fall 2013.

Anon. “Takelma Tribe,” NPS.gov. (accessed 1/10/2021) https://www.nps.gov/orca/learn/historyculture/takelma-tribe.htm

Anon. “Takelma Legends,” native-languages.org website. (accessed January 17, 2021)
http://www.native-languages.org/takelma-legends.htm

Anon. Ashland City Council Land Acknowledgment, February 2, 2021.

Ayers, Jane. “’Grandma Aggie’ leaves a lasting impact,” Ashland Tidings, December 3, 2019. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Beebe, Russell. Interview and personal communication, June 2, 2020 and other dates. Thank you, Russell, for sharing your photos with me.

Beebe, Russell. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
http://www.russellbeebe.com/index.html#

Bernhagen, Jaimie. “’We Are Here’ Event with Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” Red Earth Descendants website, October 14, 2012. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Biesanz, Jesse. Interview and personal communication, August 2020.

Cardwell, James, “Southern Oregon Pioneers,” Oregon Sentinel, Jacksonville, July 8, 1882, page 3, from http://truwe.sohs.org/files/cardwell.html

Darling, John. “’Grandma Aggie’ dies at 95,” Ashland Tidings, November 27, 2019. (accessed May 21, 2020)

Doty, Thomas. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
https://www.dotycoyote.com/culture/sculpture_installation_1.html

Gray, Dennis J. “The Takelma and Their Athapascan Neighbors,” University of Oregon Anthropological Papers, No. 37, 1987.

Haines, Lloyd Matthew. Interview and personal communication, May 13, 2020 and other dates.

Hall, Aaron. “Exploring with Beavers, Nature’s Ecosystem Engineers,” Defenders of Wildlife website, September 28, 2016.
https://defenders.org/blog/2016/09/exploring-beavers-natures-ecosystem-engineers

Kuiryamf. “’We Are Here’ statue relocated to Hannon Library,” The Siskiyou, January 15, 2013. (accessed May 14, 2020)
https://siskiyou.sou.edu/2013/01/15/we-are-here-statue-relocated-to-hannon-library/

Langford, Jack. Interview and personal communication, May 20, 2020 and other dates.

Martin, Nadine. Many thanks for reviewing the article.

Norman, Julie. Video of the dedication day and dedication ceremony.

Norman, Julie. Interview and personal communication, August 2020 and other dates.

Paris-Stamm, Glen. 31-minute Video. “Artist on Your Doorstep presents: Jack Langford, Sculptor, ‘We Are Here'(prayer pole now in bronze),” City of Ashland website (accessed January 18, 2021)
http://www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=18059

Also available directly on YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eD73OiZBf6Q

Pilgrim, Agnes Baker (Taowhywee). Grandma Says: Wake Up World, Blackstone Publishing, 2015.

Pilgrim, Agnes Baker. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
http://www.agnesbakerpilgrim.org/Page.asp?PID=108

Rose, Karen. May 25, 2002. “Takelma Indians: An Essay on Native Americans in the Rogue River Area,” Hugo Neighborhood Association & Historical Society, Hugo, OR. For the entire article go to http://www.hugoneighborhood.org/takelma.htm 

Sapir, Edward. “Notes on the Takelma Indians of Southwestern Oregon,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 9, No. 2, April-June, 1907.

Valencia, Mandy. “We Are Here,” Ashland Daily Tidings, December 21, 2012.
https://ashlandtidings.com/archive/-we-are-here–04-27-2018

Valencia, Mandy. 5-minute Video. “We Are Here Dedication Ceremony,” Ashland Tidings website, May 24, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
https://kzclip.com/video/9d5d_FoTkq4/we-are-here-dedication-ceremony.html

Valencia, Mandy. 4-minute Video. Russell Beebe carving eyes in the bronze We Are Here statue, Ashland Tidings website, April 2, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TqrdKFuu-E

Valencia, Mandy. 3-minute Video. Color heating of the We Are Here bronze statue (Jack Langford and Russell Beebe), Ashland Tidings website, April 15, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fB4eP7F88M8

Wahpepah, Dan. Interview, August 10, 2020.

Young, James Royce. James took many of the photos from the creation of “We Are Here” in both wood and bronze, as well as photos of the 2006 dedication and the 2012 move to SOU Hannon Library. I thank James for sharing so many of his photos with me.

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.