Photos from the Vault

Not everyone likes public art, and some like it too much

Kate Britton’s “Garnet” statue is an abstract depiction of a breast cancer survivor. The statue was originally located in front of the Village Centre in Arroyo Grande before later being moved to its current home in San Luis Obispo.
Kate Britton’s “Garnet” statue is an abstract depiction of a breast cancer survivor. The statue was originally located in front of the Village Centre in Arroyo Grande before later being moved to its current home in San Luis Obispo. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Critics hated the Eiffel Tower.

Writer Léon Bloy called it “this truly tragic street lamp.

Joris-Karl Huysmans was less kind, calling it “a hole-riddled suppository.”

The role of critic is far easier than creator.

For some reason, critics cry loudly when a sculpture is not a photo-realistic image of, say, a horse or fish.

It is hard to explain why people voice such strong opinions. Perhaps depicting form in a non-representational shape is seen as an existential threat to some.

These days, anyone with a social media account is a published art critic.

It is impossible to imagine Paris without the now iconic tower, but Guy de Maupassant tried to. He often dined at the tower’s restaurant so he did not have to observe the structure command the skyline.

It was Eiffel’s work that captured the imagination of a 33-year-old steel inspector and structural engineer from Pittsburgh.

As the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was planned in the early 1890s, America was desperate to show itself the equal of Europe.

But the Chicago planners rejected the Pittsburgh engineer’s design not once but twice.

Only after he invested $25,000 of his own money on safety studies was the design of George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. accepted.

You may have heard of his wheel, as knockoffs of his design are at fairs and amusement parks everywhere.

The original Ferris’ Wheel could hold 2,160 passengers in 36 rail-car-sized gondolas.

Before powered flight or ubiquitous skyscrapers, few people had been 264 feet off the ground.

Art Walk008
Craig Watson, left, director of the California Arts Council, admires Sandra Kay Johnson’s “Hey Diddle Diddle” sculpture during a 2012 walking tour of public art and cultural venues in downtown San Luis Obispo led by ARTS Obispo program director Jenna Hartzell, center. Also on the tour was City Councilman John Ashbaugh, right. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In San Luis Obispo County, art has had controversial moments.

When Kate Britton’s 6-foot-tall “Garnet” was unveiled in the Village of Arroyo Grande, the critics kibitzed.

Representatives of the local Chamber of Commerce and Village Improvement Association voiced criticism in a Tribune article written by Carol Roberts on Dec. 7, 2000.

The sculpture is an abstract depiction of a breast cancer survivor.

A more accepting view was taken by Anne Ricci, owner of the Village Art store across the street: “All art is controversial, and, if it effects one person one way and another person another way … well either way, then, it’s successful.”

Garnet now resides in San Luis Obispo on Higuera Street next to Old SLO BBQ Co.

Further up Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo has had its own brushes with controversy.

Benches that abstractly depicted the Morros and downtown San Luis Obispo were removed from downtown and now are almost hidden under oaks at Emerson Park. It was said at the time that they were removed for construction, but they never found their way back to a prominent location.

Sometimes, public art is too popular for its own good.

“Hey Diddle Diddle,” the 2-foot-tall cat and fiddle sculpture created by Arroyo Grande artist Sandra Kay Johnson, was the first display piece in the Downtown Association’s revolving art sculpture program.

The sculpture was stolen from the corner of Marsh and Chorro streets only a month after its installation in 2000. It was later recast and replaced.

An Oct. 21, 2000, a story by Leila W. Knox included this quote from San Luis Obispo police Sgt. Pete Hubbard: “It’s a crime against the entire community, because the city has been working diligently to keep downtown as an area that’s easily accessible and where people feel comfortable. These types of items are out there for public enjoyment, and when they are taken, it sort of breaks the trust.”

In 2005 two fiberglass steelhead trout sculptures were stolen as well as the antique rooster weather-vane atop the courthouse.

An even more brazen theft took place in December 1989. A 5-foot-high abstract bronze sculpture of a woman and child once stood in front of Home Savings at the corner of Walnut and Santa Rosa Streets.

It disappeared one weekend. The brazen part?

The statue was across the street from the Police Station.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

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