Family grows with new additions to PT’s public art | Guest Viewpoint

Michael D’Alessandro
Posted 6/10/21

Public art carries with it a utility that is often overlooked. 

Whether providing a marker for a gateway or a point from which to gather, artworks designed for the purpose of public …

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Family grows with new additions to PT’s public art | Guest Viewpoint

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Public art carries with it a utility that is often overlooked. 

Whether providing a marker for a gateway or a point from which to gather, artworks designed for the purpose of public installation change the way we look at spaces, create a story for our towns and cities, and lend a certain esotericism that sparks not only controversy but plaudits.

Recently Port Townsend received the Creative District designation from a new initiative of the State of Washington’s State Arts Commission, ArtsWA. 

The Port Townsend Creative District comprises the Historic Uptown and Downtown as well as the Lifelong Learning Campus at Fort Worden. With this designation comes a lasting contemporary series of public artworks by local sculptor and designer Jonah Trople. There are five sculptures, carved out of reclaimed heavy fir trunks, and allowed to weather with minimal treatment; each mark the boundaries of the Creative District, and allow a flow through the three distinctive areas. Each carries with them a story, as well as provides the utilitarian function of marking space, and encourages gathering. 

When lined up, the five stelae or monoliths appear to be a family of individual personalities, much like our city’s collection of public art. Separately, in their individual locations, they stand as sentinels or gate keepers in the landscape, long after the gathering has taken place, holding that space of the Creative District for a long time to come.

With public art installations, a story may unfold in the art piece itself, or its pure abstraction accents the space it inhabits, becoming a familiar fixture. 

Many examples exist of gateways and gathering places in the most utilitarian of public art: the fountain. Trevi Fountain in Rome marks the ancient Roman site of an aqueduct terminus, which fed certain baths, and over time, in the spot where three roads intersected, a fountain was erected and re-erected. Our own Haller Fountain in Port Townsend is a gathering place, and along with the steps from the bluff above, it acts as the primary pedestrian gateway to the 19th century waterfront. As much as a fountain’s utility lies in its being a feature of many functions, not least of which is gathering, sculpture has provided another phenomenon in the context of public spaces. 

The modern concept of sparing 1 percent of an appropriated budget to provide a piece of artwork that inhabits a public space is a concept that we covet in an era where art is often sidelined by economics. 

Outside of museum complexes, or designated, privately funded parkland, public sculptures and installations are more difficult to pull off, and we in Port Townsend are fortunate to have an eclectic family of public artworks. 

One famous example of a 1 percent for the arts project is Claes Oldenburg’s mammoth steel clothespin installed outside the railway station in Philadelphia. Not an imbedded, meaning-driven piece, nor a nod to a garment district, but simply a public gift to the city on its bicentennial, marking space, and open to interpretation. You either love it, or you hate it. 

But does it have to be so polar, the reception of the newest piece of public art? As with any new edition to a family, it’s best to get to know the artworks first, live with them a bit and interact with them.

In Port Townsend already we have many public art pieces that mark space, provide a gateway, and adorn our community, as well as spark that curiosity and controversy. 

The most recent addition of a gateway piece in “For Willene,” by Russell Jaqua, brings a contemporary sculpture which activates both pedestrian and auto traffic into town, and adds a larger scale to the sculpture family. In Pope Marine Park received, a sculpture that has an iconic form, by Gerard Tsutakawa, suggests a piece of rigging or disembodied part of a nautical vessel, again open to interpretation but marking that spot as another gateway in Port Townsend to a different view. The F Street markers or Milestones, designed by local artist Sara Mall Johani, crop up along an itinerary path, and speak to another altogether different concept of engagement through participation. Much of that participation has played out in how much we talk about these sculptures as a community. 

With such an eclectic collection of public art, Port Townsend deserves a contemporary addition in the five pieces by Jonah Trople. 

As you approach the marker in the recently completed Tyler Street Plaza, the anthropomorphic form appears to move about with the gathering crowds that amble and rest to enjoy a coffee or listen to a busker. Set slightly off-center on the pavement, it leans into the crowd, and becomes part of its activity. 

These five new additions to the Port Townsend public art family will provide us with the utility of marking our new Creative District, and add a contemporary set of pieces to the art collection. Welcome to the family.

For more information about the Port Townsend Creative District and the unveiling day, from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 15, visit ptcreativedistrict.org.

(Michael D’Alessandro is a curator and designer, and the Exhibits Director at Northwind Art.)

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