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Eye of the Beholder 

An observer at the most recent College of the Redwoods Board of Trustees meeting, on June 2, reported afterward that he'd witnessed a troubling thing. During the public comment period, a couple of students stood up. They wanted to know how it was that the Associated Students of College of the Redwoods (ASCR) had been suckered into paying more than half the cost of a big old hunk of metal art, which now resided, they noted, in the very spot in the library where a long-held collection of Native American basketry had been slated to be displayed.

The art, titled "Panorama of Humboldt" -- a three-paneled copper piece 30 feet long and 4 feet high, with sculpted boats, redwood trees, little houses, a sawmill and a railroad jutting out of it -- is by the late Hobart Brown. The piece recently belonged to the Humboldt Senior Resource Center. It was commissioned by Dr. Sam Burre in the late 1980s to display in the Burre Center Bank off Myrtle Avenue. Later, the senior center acquired the piece. In January, the senior center offered it for sale to CR.

After months of deliberation, the university paid $25,000 for it -- ASCR put in $14,000, and the CR Foundation put in the rest. (The senior center will put the money, and another matching $25,000 from a private donor, toward its new Alzheimer's Care Center, according to Jeff Marsee, CR's president.)

The students who spoke at the meeting said they'd been pressured into voting to help pay for the thing, and that the terms had been misleading.

"They were very eloquent," said the observer, who asked not to be identified.

As of Tuesday, the Journal hadn't been able to track down the complaining students to hear their story first-hand. School's out, many have fled and only strays, administrators and swarms of spring-mad swallows seem to be knocking about campus.

But Roxanne Estela, the outgoing student representative to the Board of Trustees, said the ASCR voted, with only one "no" vote and one abstention, to help buy the piece. The vote was based on a poll of the student population, which had three weeks to view the piece in the library and submit comments in a box. Eighty-seven percent of those comments were in favor of buying the thing, she said.

Estela voted for it. "It is important for students to be exposed to different types and styles of work and I know it is very inspirational for students to have art around our beautiful campus," she wrote in an e-mail. "But most importantly, the reason I voted for this work of art is because when I drive home from College of the Redwoods now after seeing Hobart's sculpture I see the landscape more. I notice between the Humboldt Hill and Elk River road exits the houses in the hills. When I see the ship I think of the Wharfinger building and scenes along Humboldt Bay. I voted for this piece because it reminds me of the sights I see around Humboldt County."

David Seda, the then-President of ASCR, said he heard one student complain that the college would do better to spend the money on books. But, Seda said, much of the money spent on the piece was from a fund intended specifically for art-type purchases. The same dissenter, he said, also was concerned that the Hobart piece excluded Native American history.

"In reality," Seda countered, "if you look at the piece, it's clearly not meant to leave anyone out. It's left to interpretation -- it's art."

And the Native American basket collection? Paul DeMark, CR's Director of Communications and Marketing, said the space where the sculpture now stands was never meant to be the baskets' final home. "Jeff Marsee wants to make sure those baskets are protected, and he wants us to find a really public place to preserve and showcase them," DeMark said. Likely, that might be in a new building on campus.

Meanwhile, Brown's son, Justin, reached on Tuesday by phone, indicated that the college had actually gotten a helluva deal for $25,000.

"That price was way, way low," said Brown. "My dad did a life-size horse, and it was appraised at $300,000. And another sculpture, a fly fisherman -- 2 feet tall and 1 foot wide -- was appraised at $13,000."

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Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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