Neighborhood Project: the Urns and Public Art

The impulse behind public art is a good one, I think. I like the idea of bringing art out into the community, making it part of everyday life and free to experience. And I'm all for paying artists and craftspeople to create their works. But from what I've seen, the process becomes politicized fairly quickly. The call goes out; the artists apply. The committee judges, basing their decision on the object itself, the artist's experience, cost, the durability (sometimes) of the work, and the impact to the community (sometimes). It gets installed. Those who chose it, love it. Those who are surprised to find it have mixed reactions. And there are always disagreements and always a group full of criticism, right or wrong. If it's out in public, that's fair. Occasionally, a neighborhood group takes on a project, to mixed results.

I had a feeling this was coming: a new urn at the triangle park, which is on my daily walking route. At least two were already installed seven years ago. Not exactly public art, but in public and meant to be viewed and enjoyed. It is more like a call-back to history, renovation, and repair, symbolizing everything the original historical project represented.

August 31, 2011, I stumbled across the neighborhood project first being installed. One of several new urns, modeled after one legacy urn. A concrete pedestal had been cast. A crew must have hoisted this person-size urn into place. And a group dedicated it. There was a second one down the street on a traffic island.

The urns surprised me. I thought perhaps they were to honor the Ohlone people, who lived here hundreds of years ago and were displaced by the Spanish and the missionaries in the 1700s. It's easy to think this might be so because the oldest original urn is left standing at the foot of a path called "Indian Trail." I took this photo in 2011, but shortly thereafter, the elderly urn was repaired and given a new collar to match historical photos.

legacy urn, 2011

legacy urn, 2018

But it's not about the Indians at all. Not a tribute to those who were here first. According to the website and the plaque that was installed, this area in the Berkeley hills did not become a public park, which some desired, but was subdivided and developed in 1909 with winding roads and paths and natural elements. "About 20 monumental urns, in the style of Maxfield Parrish, were placed by developers along streets and walking paths," says the sign. So they are random, perhaps of their time. 

One Parrish painting with urns from 1908 is The Garden of Allah based on an "idealized interpretation of a scene from Islamic mythology." How confusing! I think the word "idealized" is probably the key. Idealized nature. Idealized homes. Idealized art. For those who could afford it. If we are to understand the context the urns become a symbol of idealized wealth and perhaps idealized lifestyle. What is so strange about the addition of the urns is that the area is already beautiful. It features abundant and twisty old Live Oaks, Camphor, Magnolia, and other trees, as well as monumental boulders pushed up out of the earth and transported to the area (I wrote about the rocks in this 2016 post). To see the natural beauty is one of the reasons I go walking up there.

One morning recently, I found the urn at Great Stoneface Park had been vandalized. (I think this was related to the legalization of marijuana more than any other statement.)

It has since been cleaned, with no trace of the graffiti left behind.

The 2018 urn at the triangle park should be getting its collar soon.

(Photo addendum: February 11, 2018)

And I just found another, at the top of Thousand Oaks Blvd.

On an aesthetic level, I don't mind the urns. They're pleasant and noncontroversial as objects. But it seems like we are going backward. To me, the concept and meaning behind them don't feel appropriate to life today. What, exactly, do we want to restore when we reach back to history? What are we saying? I think the deeper questions of the art we choose and why we choose it continue to be relevant. It is particularly important now as we are faced with and explore the other question of whether an artist has to be both a good artist and a good person for us to enjoy the works.