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Unwinding by playing at art critic

Water Street

Water Street

Life has been full over the last few days.  Encouraging folks in the North Bay to attend the recent Urban Community Partnership/StrongTowns/Urban3 meetings in Santa Rosa, participating in the meetings myself, and beginning the foundation for next steps, all while feeling a bit under the weather.

There’s a need to begin talking about those next steps, but not today.

Instead, I’m going to give myself a break by undertaking a job for which my qualifications are remarkably limited.  The job of art critic.

Like a growing number of communities, Petaluma requires many types of development to include public art.  Some developers prefer not to enter the art procurement business, so instead make in lieu payments to the City.  Those funds are to be spent by the Petaluma Public Arts Committee in acquiring and installing public art in the community.

Water Street from the Balshaw Bridge

Water Street from the Balshaw Bridge

As the result of several developers making in lieu payments in recent years, the funds have grown and the committee has been working toward selecting an art project.

For a location, the committee picked Water Street, along the bank of the Petaluma River a short block from the heart of downtown.  The location is appropriate, with Water Street representing the long history of Petaluma from the days when most commerce was conducted by river, through the time when railroad tracks, still in place, carried freight trains to waterfront warehouses, to the present in which Water Street has been gussied up for public use but still needs more businesses fronting on it and more people walking about.

After winnowing more than a hundred submittals down to progressively more manageable numbers, the committee recently convened to see presentations from the final four artists.

At the urging of a couple of committee members, I sat in the audience for the presentations.  And like any citizen, I soon found myself assessing and weighing the competitors.

Icarus from the Argus Courier

Icarus from the Argus Courier

The local newspaper, the Argus Courier, provided photos that I’ve copied here.  Here are my thoughts, in the order the presentations were made.

Icarus: I enjoy whimsy in public art.   Icarus, with the two legs extending upward from the water, fighting to find balance, is easily the most whimsical of the final candidates.  But the choice of fiberglass as a material didn’t impress me and I agreed with the concern of another observer that the legs would become an inviting target for senior class pranks.

However, my biggest concern was the artist’s vision that legs should float up and down with the tide.  I agree with the vision, indeed I’d consider it essential, but with the river becoming nearly a mudflat at low tide, the mechanics of floating the legs becomes problematic.  Even as the artist was speaking, the engineering part of my brain was thinking of solutions involving stilling wells, float switches, and positioning motors.  But the logistical and maintenance issues would be significant.

Whirlibird from the Argus Courier

Whirlibird from the Argus Courier

Those concerns, plus the jurisdictional issues of installing improvements within a public waterway, sank Icarus for me.

Whirlibird: With forms based on the wing of a clapper rail and the drift pattern of a maple seed pod, there was much to like about Whirlibird.  But it felt too fine-featured for a setting that was more bustling and robust in its history.  And including gearboxes so pedestrians could slowly rotate the art didn’t help the feeling of prissiness.  Whirlibird might be my favorite piece in a museum, or even in a reduced scale in my parlor, but it didn’t feel right on Water Street.

Sculptural Knots from the Argus Courier

Sculptural Knots from the Argus Courier

Sculptural Knot Forms: Sculptural Knot Forms was the far extreme from prissiness with a robust depiction of the knots that represent the marine history of the river.  But the work felt too simple, lacking the intrigue of the other contenders.

Vertical River: I quickly fell in love with the plastic chain mail to be used in Vertical River, supposedly developed to meet the costumer designer’s need for “The Lord of the Rings”.  A video of the material in use at a Los Angeles installation closed the deal.

Vertical River from the Argus Courier

Vertical River from the Argus Courier

And, nearly as quickly, I was unsold.  The proposed installation alignment, offset from the current railing and running over the river, is an improvement over the initial thought of hanging the material below the concrete deck, but still seems too isolated from the pedestrians on Water Street.  It would provide a fine experience to kayakers on the river and walkers on the nearby Balshaw Bridge, but I don’t want public art that plays to only a portion of the target audience.

My Favorite: When I first began thinking back over the four contenders, I expected to pick Whirlibird as my favorite.  But as time passed, my thoughts increasingly turned toward Sculptural Knot Forms.  Although not completely sold on the work, the simplicity eventually spoke to me, telling me that it was consistent with the setting.  This became a time when I chose to trust my slowly mulling subconscious over my first impression.

Other Thoughts: I picked a favorite because it seemed the honorable thing to do.  But I could still dream about the plastic chain mail of Vertical River; perhaps something like rings of chain mail mounted on the perimeters of platforms below the knots, simultaneously evoking the human endeavor of marine commerce and the eternal wind-rippled surface of the river that sustains it.  But it’s beyond my pay scale to suggest artistic collaborations.

The Public Weighs In: A week ago, the Argus Courier asked Petalumans for their thoughts on the four alternatives.  After I finished with my comments above, I checked the results.  More than half of the respondents voted to toss all four and to start anew.  The paper’s editorial concurred.

Given that the committee began with more than a hundred submittals before winnowing the field to the final four, I find it naïve to suggest that better alternatives are out there.  I suspect the public vote says more about art needing time to be savored, much as it took me a week to decide that Sculptural Knot Forms was my favorite.

As long as they avoid the problematic Icarus, I’m fine with the committee selecting any of the other three.  Regardless of the choice, the public will likely develop fondness over time.

Next time, I’ll offer my thoughts in the aftermath of the Santa Rosa meetings, both about the meetings themselves and about next steps.  On the latter topic, I suspect the meetings dislodged some boulders from the top of the suburban paradigm slope.  Now, it’s up to us to decide if we wish to stand at the top of slope, watching the boulders bounce toward the valley floor, or to begin prying more boulders loose, in hopes of triggering a paradigm-shifting rockslide.  Not surprisingly, the latter is my preference and I hope others will agree.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at

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