Of dragons and loss
Latest downtown art bench has an interesting tale to tell
On March 14, 1877, four ranch workers and residents of Chico’s Chinese community—Ah Gow, Ah Lee, Ah Quen and Shu In—died from gunshot wounds to the head inflicted by intolerant locals in a racially charged event known as the Lemm Ranch Murders.
On Sept. 18, 2004, a 24-year-old Chico woman named Andrea Spessard was killed by a drunk driver.
And on Jan. 25 of this year, a new art bench commissioned by Spessard’s boyfriend, Adam Rix, and her many friends and family, was installed in downtown Chico on the corner of Third and Main streets to jointly memorialize the tragically ended lives of the murdered Chinese men and Spessard.
The Chinese characters for “remember,” “suffering” and “heal” appear on the largely red, black and gold bench featuring a brilliant, fire-breathing dragon fleshed out in mosaic tile across the top of it.
Mary Gardner, the city’s art projects coordinator, recalled the genesis of the Chinese Dragon Bench, as the beautiful new mosaic bench is called: “Adam saw the [existing downtown art] benches on a visit to Chico and called me. … He was interested in donating a bench in memory of Andrea. I told him that the Arts Commission was interested in placing art benches that honored some aspect of Chico. I also told him that if he was donating the bench, the choice of artist was up to him.”
Rix chose local mosaic artist and graphic designer Christen Derr to create the Chinese Dragon Bench because he liked the look of her “Chico Luminaries” mosaic bench at the corner of Second Street and Broadway, which honors actor Errol Flynn. Rix also chose the Lemm Ranch murders as the Chico historical event that he wished to memorialize after reading Chico State Political Science professor Michele Shover’s book Chico’s Lemm Ranch Murders and The Anti-Chinese Campaign of 1877.
The 37-year-old Derr, seated in the comfortable confines of the South Chico home she shares with her husband Scott and their 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter Hazel, recalled when Gardner first contacted her about creating a second bench.
“Mary said she’d met this guy who’s got this idea,” Derr began. “Immediately she said it’s going to memorialize the Lemm Ranch murders … and commemorate the Chinese contribution to Chico.”
Derr, who professes a fondness for Asian culture, immediately thought of featuring a dragon as the main motif on the bench.
“I envisioned it right when Mary told me about it,” Derr said. “The dragon is the sun of the Chinese zodiac. “It had to be a dragon. And I definitely thought high-gloss black with red and gold. I had two pages of sketches before I ever met with Adam.
“When [Adam] showed up … I pulled out my sketches and he said, ‘This is exactly what I was thinking about,'” Derr continued, using the word “serendipity” when talking of the perfect fit between her and Rix’s idea of the look of the bench.
Rix told her what a strong, positive life force his girlfriend was to everyone she touched. He was also familiar with the Lemm Ranch Murder story.
“The tie-in [between the two] being the suffering and the needless loss. That’s definitely the common thread between his loss and that loss over a century ago,” Derr said.
Spessard, who was a dancer at Centerfolds, went by the stage name of Jade, “so there is [green tile depicting] bamboo in the bench,” Derr elaborated. “Andrea was born in 1980, the Year of the Monkey, and Adam called her ‘Little Monkey,’ so there is a monkey in the right front foot of the bench.”
To complete the circle of coincidences, both Derr and her husband, who were born in 1968, and their daughter, born in 2004, were born in a Year of the Monkey.
It took Derr three and one-half months from when she was commissioned in September 2005 to create the 1,500-pound bench, a little longer than Rix—who had set his sights on a Christmas installation date—had hoped. The delay was in part due to a rain-imposed extended “curing process,” or drying time for tiles to set once attached to the bench which, because of its large size, was assembled in the driveway adjacent to Derr’s backyard studio.
“It was definitely a little dance with the weather,” Derr laughed. “Dancing around the weather for several months. … [The bench] was under a tarp a lot of the time.”
Derr spoke glowingly of the people who helped her bring the Dragon Bench from sketches and specs to reality. A neighbor who is a contractor built the mold, poured the concrete and bent the rebar for this bench, as he did for Derr’s Errol Flynn bench. Ceramic artist Donna Andersen gave Derr access to her “huge slab roller” to flatten out clay to a uniform height—"critical” in the making of some of the handmade tiles in the bench.
Another neighbor, Kit Kelly, put Derr in touch with his brother Doug, who works for the U.S. State Department in China, to help her with the Chinese translations on the bench, which include the names of the four slain ranch workers.
“All I did was e-mail him,” Derr said gratefully of Doug Kelly. “He was ultra-enthusiastic. He’s been to Chico, and loves this town.”
Derr said she didn’t know whether to use simplified or traditional Chinese and said Kelly sent her e-mails about the difference.
“He passed [the issue] around the consulate and other people gave opinions. How fantastic to have such an enthusiastic partner around the world. I like it that this big-wig government official took such an interest in this project.”
Derr also conferred with author Michele Shover who, besides directing Derr to read her Lemm Ranch Murders monograph for background, proofread the plaque before it was installed.
Shover, for her part, is very pleased with the end result.
“I just thought she did a beautiful job,” Shover said of Derr’s work. “It’s a beautiful piece of art, one that is really appropriate for Chico because Chico arts and monuments haven’t included the Chinese, who were so important to the economy, the society, to law and politics. … I think it’s really wonderful that [Christen] put the names of the Chinese on the bench. Since they paid such a high price, it’s lovely to have their names in a permanent place, and in Chinese.”
Rix reflected: “After Andrea had passed away, I knew that I wanted to do something extra for her. … I realized that [Christen and I] had the same vision. …And Christen went the extra mile researching the Cantonese and reading the back history. I was very happy with the overall process. And I got to put a couple of personal touches on it—the monkey, and there’s a picture behind pressed glass on one leg of me and Andrea. She was such a wonderful person in my life.”