When Merriam resident Sam Matier recently saw an illustration for the city’s latest public art piece, he had an immediate reaction.
He dubbed the piece: “Worm and pile of rocks.”
“My personal opinion is the artwork is ugly,” said Matier, who attends every city council meeting and posts video, a newsletter and sometimes cranky blog comments that frequently criticize city actions.
Matier's blog post about the project, which has a budget of about $100,000, has prompted an online debate about this latest art piece. The city is considering installing it next to Waterfall Park and beside a walking trail on Merriam Drive.
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But the artist, Boulder, Colo.-based sculptor Joshua Wiener, says it's premature to judge the project from a sketch, and his work is well received all over the country.
"When information gets released to the public before the artwork is installed, it tends to be just a sliver of it," Wiener said in a telephone interview.
"My work is often uplifting," he added. "I try to focus on positive content to really help cultivate a sense of place and an articulation of a community's highest aspirations."
The Merriam City Council has not yet approved this art piece, but has authorized the city to negotiate with Wiener. The proposed contract is expected back to council May 14.
This would be the third art piece out of five that Merriam anticipates for its public art program. In 2015, the city council agreed to spend about $500,000 in capital improvement dollars over five years to enhance downtown.
The first piece was installed at the intersection of Johnson Drive and Merriam Drive and the second at Merriam Marketplace, also on Merriam Drive.
In a written submission for the latest piece, Wiener said it depicts a caterpillar contemplating a “cairn” — a mound of stones built as a memorial or landmark — with a butterfly on top. It’s about identity, he explained.
“The caterpillar’s inquisitive expression suggests it is finding a connection with the cairn and the butterfly,” he wrote, adding that it's intended to enhance the area near the park's soccer fields and the trail.
So far, critics outnumber supporters on Matier's blog.
“Forget the ugly art and hire more cops!” one person commented.
“OK that is just plain weird and ugly,” another wrote.
But a third countered that the point of art is to get a reaction, and it’s already working: “I love anything with pollinators, so I love it! Maybe the city could plant some milkweed and sunflowers around the art.”
City Councilwoman Christine Evans Hands, who sits on the resident-led arts committee, says public art almost never inspires united agreement. But the committee thought this was a great piece.
“I am very supportive of it,” she said. “I think it has a whimsical take if you look at it.”
The caterpillar would be 9 feet tall, carved from dolomite stone. The cairn would be a series of granite river boulders, and with the aluminum butterfly would stand 12 feet tall. It's not intended for children to crawl on but they could possibly sit on the caterpillar.
It's intended to appeal to both children and adults.
“We don’t have any children on the committee but all the adults liked it,” Hands said.
The committee did a national call for interested artists and received 65 responses. It ultimately culled the list to three out-of-town finalists, who each got a modest stipend for create a site-specific proposal. Wiener’s was chosen.
Wiener, who has been sculpting for 25 years and doing public art for 14, said he spent more than an hour with the committee months ago and supplemented the sketch with video and samples of his work.
"I had all kinds of things that helped them connect the dots," he said.
Still, Wiener was not present at the April 23 city council meeting, where council members were sharply divided over the merits of this project.
In an informal vote, four council members supported negotiating the contract, while three were opposed. Councilman David Neal abstained and Mayor Ken Sissom didn’t take a position.
Neal, who was elected last November and took office in January, said this is the first time he’s considered a public art piece.
He was disappointed that he didn’t have any information, or the illustration, until the meeting. He would have preferred a chance to review the proposal ahead of time, and to have a more deliberative process, including public testimony.
“I was surprised at the way this was presented, and felt like it would be better served if we had more time to delve into it,” he said.
Hands agreed council members should have had more information ahead of time and said that was an oversight.
Still, she is confident the project has sufficient council support and the city will proceed with the artwork.
If Merriam approves the contract, a preliminary schedule calls for it to be installed next spring.
Matier said he doesn’t see the point and questions the cost as a waste of taxpayer money. He sometimes walks his golden lab dog on the trail near the designated art site.
And he has a different suggestion for those funds.
"I'd like to see them spend the money on a dog park."