The proposed site for a 30-foot-high sculpture installation as part of a public arts project long in the works came before the Sebastopol City Council at their Feb. 2 meeting, but council members were at odds with the artist and the Public Art Committee over where it should be placed.
The sculpture, to be created by local artist Ned Kahn, will feature seven four-foot cubes spiraling upwards in a helical formation, each face composed of fine lattice work of silvery-grey one-inch-wide by nine-inches-long polycarbonate tubes.
According to Kahn, the hinged tubes will sway in the wind, reflecting the atmosphere while allowing viewers to also see through the sculpture.
“It has a twisted column that’s a register of the atmosphere,” Kahn said. “Whatever the atmosphere is doing, the sculpture reveals it. It awakens people to how beautiful the air is. Because the air is invisible, it’s something we tend to ignore, but making it visible lets people see how beautiful and interesting it really is.”
The sculpture, which was originally commissioned and budgeted for in 2016 and 2017, has faced a number of problems over the years. Planning Director Kari Svanstrom, who was not with the city when the project was originally conceived, said earlier plans to put the sculpture on Caltrans property along Highway 12 became untenable. Svanstrom cited unresponsiveness from Caltrans as the principal obstacle to original plans, however, increased construction costs in the area since the Tubbs Fire as well as tariffs on steel have caused additional budgetary constraints.
Since the setbacks in the earlier vision materialized, the Public Art Committee has been working with Kahn to develop an alternative plan, reviewing potential sites around the city and working to get the project under its original budget. The budget includes $45,000 for Kahn’s work, $5,000 for site modifications.
According to the staff report, “This project is funded by Sebastopol’s ‘percent for art’ fee, where major projects either provide on-site public art, or pay an in-lieu fee which the city uses for public art projects in the community. These monies cannot be used for other purposes.”
Kahn and the Public Arts Committee selected an area across the street from the Community Center near the curve on Morris Street for the location of the sculpture.
Public Arts Committee member Marghe Mills-Thysen argued in favor of the selected site, which committee members worked for months to select following the false start of the original plan.
Mills-Thysen conceded that the proposed site is not ideal, but the committee and artist are eager to get the work installed for the community to enjoy. She said the committee vetted sites all over the city, but hopes to get the piece installed in areas at the entrances to town and other potential sites presented prohibitive challenges. Ultimately, Kahn and Mills-Thysen said the Morris Street site would be the best way to finalize the delayed project.
“It’s not a fantastic site, obviously, but I think it will work.” Kahn said. “I acknowledge that there’s no great place that leaps out and that’s part of the reason it’s been such a saga. It’s really disappointing that Caltrans didn’t want to bother to just do something nice.”
Kahn also emphasized that the structure, which uses a 20-foot steel beam buried a foot underground rather than concrete as its base, could be moved with relative ease if the site doesn’t work. He also suggested the work could be a mobile installation, spending six months in one location around town before being moved to another for six months, for instance.
Kahn and Mills-Thysen argued that by getting the mobile piece installed, even if not at the optimal location, the city could bring art to the community and create momentum for the public arts effort. Mills-Thysen also said future pieces could be installed at potential sites named by the council, such as the entrances to town along Highway 12 and Bodega Highway.
Ultimately, the council decided to investigate potential sites using their connections and know-how that may help them get by regulatory barriers at some locations. Although the project has been a long time coming, council members said a few more months to make the project really shine were merited.
“Let’s give it more visibility if we possibly can—it would be so nice,” Mayor Una Glass said
As for concerns about potential vandals, Kahn said he’s never had a problem with malicious destruction in the over 100 similar installations he’s completed all over the world. Furthermore, the material isn’t the cheap stuff.
“Polycarbonate moving panels are extremely durable—they’re almost impossible to break. You could drive a car over them and they wouldn’t crack. It’s what they use for the face shields for astronauts,” he said.