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Out in the Street 

Public art, from butts to sculptures to graffiti

click to enlarge Empire Squared founding member Donovan Clark
  • Empire Squared founding member Donovan Clark

It's just a butt on a door. Most of Beachcomber Café's patrons either display amusement or remain oblivious -- more concerned with acquiring coffee and a Trinidad Special to notice. Sometimes, co-owner Alice says, folks walking by will do a double-take, stop, point, laugh and "then the camera comes out." But joy and acceptance of the butt wasn't always so.

"Right in the beginning we had some nasty letters," Alice recalled. Some people expressed horror that the naked butt painting faced Trinidad Elementary School -- an especially misguided notion given that the artist, Patty Davis, was a parent of students at the school at the time. (I can see teachers being worried about their charges being distracted into a fit of giggles by the butt on the door across the street -- these are elementary school kids, after all!) One particularly nasty letter with a Los Angeles return address invoked God, who presumably hates both nudity and butts. Someone even violated the poor butt, vandalizing the painting to cover the crack. Fortunately, Davis was able to repair it quickly. More fortunately, the controversy passed relatively quickly.

People spent arguably more time arguing over the gender of the butt -- consensus, male. "The women all said, ‘Ladies don't have butts like that!'" Alice laughed at the memory. The only lingering issue involves people being unwilling to come in the painted door -- they'll walk over to the other entrance, perhaps intimidated by passing through the butt-adorned portal. No worries, though. Drawn by the luscious goodies and sassy atmosphere, customers will not be deterred by the flagrant fanny. "And right from the get-go, people know this isn't just your average coffee shop," Alice said.

In displaying a painting outside their business, the owners of Beachcomber Café entered the world of public art to a degree. They're hardly alone. It's often said that Humboldt County boasts more artists per capita than other areas its size -- certainly the amount of public art displayed supports that theory. Whether city-funded sculpture installations or businesses opting for murals adorning their outer walls, we're not shy about incorporating art into public space.

The citizenry mostly seems to like it, even when a particular piece fails to meet their idea of artistic merit -- but mural-haters do exist, and the horned sculpture thing outside Plaza Design continues to divide those who think, "It's cool," from those who find it so horrific they wonder if perhaps a sublimated childhood trauma is being triggered (apologies to Sierra Pahl).

Less injurious but inciting no less debate: the giant cutouts depicting happy farmers as one enters the Victorian Village of Ferndale. Created to boost awareness of Ferndale's agricultural importance, the pieces are essentially kitschy billboards, which delights some people while offending others. McKinleyville's totem pole has its detractors, even as a majority of Eureka citizens continue to take pride in living in Flatmo-land.

Arts Arcata Institute Director Anne Bown-Crawford grew up in Chicago, a place where "public art" means Picasso and his ilk. "I assumed every town has art all around," she said. Challenging viewers is fine, but she particularly likes when work reflects the space surrounding it: the "big bug" sculpture by Hollie Dilley standing outside Humboldt Brews for example. "It's so playful," she said, "so lively and dancing." Art should be engaging, Bown-Crawford concluded, and most of what we see "really defines our community."

Empire Squared founding member Donovan Clark shared her open-mindedness. "My opinion is not almighty," he said. "What we have symbolizes the artistic area we live in -- if there wasn't so many artists, maybe all this creativity wouldn't be allowed." The proliferation of art out in the open reflects the originality of the community, he continued, "even when it's not my favorite art." In addition to the existing works out there, Clark would like to see more of his own specialty -- graffiti art. Yes, some people still read that as an oxymoron, but plenty of evidence suggests that a stylish graffiti mural wards off the artless scribble tags on blank slates otherwise typically suffering them.

At best, public art enriches the daily lives of the people in the community by beautifying the world around them, providing inspiration in unusual places, sparking dialogue about the merits of particular work. At worst, attempts at creativity remain an improvement over existing in sterility -- right?

When I spoke to Bown-Crawford, she was presiding over an AAI show at the Morris Graves Museum of Art; when I talked with Clark, we were surrounded by a new graffiti installation in the E2 space. In the span of less than a mile, both Eureka's art establishment and established boundary-pushers can be found. Spinning outward from this nucleus, a creative mindset blankets the county, resulting in walls lined with art, both inside and out.

Back to the Beachcomber. Imagining anyone missing the butt on the door is nearly impossible -- but given the need for caffeine and drive toward acquiring whatever delectable goodies await, even those of us who like to think we're clever and observant may forget to look anywhere other than the display case -- and, sadly, our laptop screens. Fortunately I'd lost my laptop charger and, once bagel and beverage were acquired, had nowhere else to look but up. Wow. Nice. In an instant, Bjorn Lundeen's painting, "Metro, Lisbon Portugal," slipped between the colliding thoughts in my head -- you know, the ones about what needs to be done, what should be done, what I want to do, what I haven't done yet, how can I possibly get all this done -- and brought me right into this particular moment, goat cheese and jam on my lips, sun glowing through the window, me through another window altogether, the one that let me, for a moment, stand upon a train in another country. Like books, art can be quick and cheap transportation -- we should all indulge more often. Don't forget to look around.

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Jennifer Savage

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