The city of Chico’s latest public-art projects combine form and function
As I was walking past the corner of Second and Main streets in front of Zucchini & Vine the other day, a young man with a plastic cup in his hand met my gaze. He was asking for change from passersby, and he asked me if I could spare any of mine.
I looked past him to the bench on which he sat. It was a fabulous mosaic of black and white and swirls of color. Larger tiles, with images of the artist Jackson Pollock at work in his studio, sat nestled among the twists of the smaller tile chunks. “Wow,” I said to the man, “what a cool bench.”
My curiosity about the bench led me to Mary Gardner, Chico’s Art Projects coordinator, who gave me the rundown on how this bench, and four others like it in the downtown area, came or are in the process of coming to be.
It all started back in 2001 when a happy concurrence took place between the Chico Arts Commission and former City Councilman Dan Nguyen-Tan. The commission had been discussing the idea of art benches for some time, and Nguyen-Tan had just come back from a trip to Sacramento and was talking up some compelling art benches he had seen there.
With the process sparked, the Arts Commission came up with the concept of honoring famous people who had some connection to Chico. Five luminaries were picked: the architect Julia Morgan, who designed the former President’s Mansion at Chico State University (it’s now the Albert E. Warrens Reception Center); Pollock, who lived in the area briefly as a youth; Carolyn Spellmann Shoemaker, a famous astronomer originally from Chico; the actor Errol Flynn, who created such a stir when he was here in 1938 to film The Adventures of Robin Hood; and Raymond Carver, the famous writer, who attended Chico State briefly.
A call was put out to Butte County artists soliciting ideas for the benches. A city engineer designed the basic structure of the bench with safety and uniformity in mind. Gardner said about a dozen artists entered proposals, from which five people were chosen: David Barta, Christen Derr, Jenna Mae Hepworth, Robin Indar (wife of CN&R News Editor Josh Indar) and Dylan Tellesen.
The timeline, from the award of the commissions to installation of the bench, ranges from six months to a year. Barta, Hepworth and Indar have completed their benches, honoring Spellman Shoemaker, Morgan and Pollock, respectively.
Morgan’s luminary bench at Third and Main is simplicity itself. The design has three wedges of colors, blue, red and pink, separated by metal inlay representing architectural lines. The bench honoring Shoemaker (sitting on Third Street between Main and Broadway), who is considered one of the world’s leading experts on comets and asteroids, features bas-relief comets, stars and Saturn, complete with rings, on a dark background.
Tellesen’s bench on Carver is in progress, and construction on Derr’s Flynn bench is slated to begin soon after encountering delays.
Warner Bros., which owns the copyright on Flynn as Robin Hood, refused to allow the use of any of the images from the movie poster or of Flynn in the Robin Hood costume. Derr’s original design was based on the movie poster imagery, and when the copyright issues cropped up, a redesign of the bench was in order.
Waiting for the commission to approve the new design was agonizing, Derr said. She didn’t know if she would even get to make the bench. Much to her delight, the new design was approved; it is much more compelling than the movie poster design would have been, she says. Installation is due to take place in March.
Gardner considers the project a great success. The city of Chico gets five functional benches/sculptures by local artists for a relatively small amount—$3,200 each—while local artists gain recognition while drawing attention to those who have already made an impact on Chico. The benches are works of art that anyone can use and appreciate; after all, everyone needs a place to sit sometime.