Gates to community

City’s latest public art project opens doors into Chapman’s ethnic heritages

THE GATEKEEPER Project coordinator Jenny Hale poses next to one of four “Ancestor Gates” during the recent public dedication at the 20th Street Park.

THE GATEKEEPER Project coordinator Jenny Hale poses next to one of four “Ancestor Gates” during the recent public dedication at the 20th Street Park.

Photo By Tom Angel

“Ancestor Gates” View Chico’s newest public art project at the Community Park, East 20th Street and Whitman Avenue (on the Chapman Elementary side of the park).

I sit in a folding chair and watch as children finger the curving metal surfaces and colorful tiles. The bold ones climb the sturdy structures. These four intriguing pieces, literal gates, direct curious visitors inward and through to Chico’s 20th Street Park.

Each piece is a part of a project called “Ancestor Gates,” a work orchestrated by Grass Valley artist Jenny Hale and assisted by local artists Amaera Bay Laurel, Robin Indar, David Barta and Stan McEtchin.

“The initial project came through a partnership with the city of Chico and the Chico Area Recreation and Parks district,” explains Hale, who joins me on this blustery Kite Day to discuss the evolution of the endeavor. “They had a vision to create a public art piece in the 20th Street Park that used recycled materials and involved youth of the Chapman community, which is this neighborhood right here behind us.”

Her involvement in this vision sprang from her background as a community artist, creating pieces that reflect the ideas and values cherished by such groups.

“It was totally open. I had no idea at all what I was going to create. … And so we took a walk through the park, and as we came through this corner of the park, Mary Gardner, from the city of Chico, said, ‘This is a corner where a lot of the residents of Chapmantown hang out.’ And I said, ‘Then I think that that’s where I’d like to do the project.'”

Hale began the project’s planning stages at the Dorothy Johnson Center in the heart of the Chapman neighborhood, where she organized workshops with area children. Brainstorming sessions focused on the meaning of self and of identity: Who are you? What is important?

“I asked them what was important about their neighborhood, and what kept coming up over and over again was that ‘everyone who lives here is different’ and ‘everybody sticks together.'”

Synthesizing feedback from Chapmantown children, Hale decided upon “identity” as an overarching theme for the “Ancestor Gates” project. The gate format came about from its power as a metaphor, “as an opening, as a transition, as a place of transformation. You could see it as a way of entering into another culture, in this case, because it’s a multicultural piece.”

Building upon a foundation of recently established connections with children at the Dorothy Johnson Center, Hale branched out to the area’s parents and grandparents, who in turn formed design groups to identify images that best visually represented the four cultures—Mexican, Asian (Hmong and Laotian), African and Native American—most prominent in Chapmantown. Forged from their collaborative efforts were four gates, each balancing a metal form with bright tile mosaics, each using recycled material.

“The reason why I designed each gate to have a mosaic component was so that the community could actually come and be a part of the creation. We held mosaic workshops, and we had two full weekends when the community [could] come sit with us and work on mosaics. We had over 70 people over the course of those two weekends who were involved with the project.”

The use of recycled material produces an intriguing juxtaposition. “If you look closely at those willow bundles, they are made of industrial rebar. That flicker-feather headdress is made of rusty boiler pipes. So these very ancient, traditional forms are made out of 21st-century contemporary industrial throwaway materials, and I think that there’s a really interesting intersection there conceptually.”

Jenny Hale emphasized the role that CARD played in the creation of this project. "They make these beautiful parks for us to be in, but what’s special about CARD is that they support the vision of placing art in the park setting. That’s unusual—not every park district sees and supports public art. CARD sees the power of public art as a way to organize the community and strengthen the community."