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Mermaid mesmerizes Oak Harbor art lovers

Helen Chatfield-Weeks examines a miniature bronze mermaid proposed for SE Pioneer Way during an Oak Harbor Arts Commission meeting Monday evening.  - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Helen Chatfield-Weeks examines a miniature bronze mermaid proposed for SE Pioneer Way during an Oak Harbor Arts Commission meeting Monday evening.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

If the weight of public opinion carries sway, the makeover of downtown Oak Harbor could include a topless bronze mermaid.

Modestly covered by long locks of hair, the G-rated beauty was a crowd favorite at an Arts Commission meeting in Oak Harbor Monday where 11 artists, hailing from as far away as California, vetted 15 possible pieces to adorn SE Pioneer Way.

Poised on one side of a large rock, the miniature piece Oak Harbor artist Larry Marcell brought to the meeting was hailed by many as one of the more interactive pieces shown. Like “Rachel,” the bronze pig that decorates Pike Street Market in Seattle, it’s sure to get lots of attention.

“I could imagine everyone in town would want to lean in and get a kiss from her,” Arts Commission member Erica Schumacher said.

The art work is part of the city’s budgeted $8.35 million road project to convert downtown into an eastbound one-way street. Although the expenditure will require final approval from the Oak Harbor City Council, $80,000 of public art has always been identified as a line item in the project budget.

The proposal is to put artwork on SE Pioneer at the intersections of City Beach Street, Dock Street, Ireland Street and Midway Boulevard. The pieces on City Beach and Midway would be in the $30,000 range — those intersections are considered gateways to downtown — while the others would be adorned with $10,000 pieces.

Monday’s meeting, which was packed full with more than 30 people, was the first of a series of efforts the arts commission is engaging to garner public input on submissions received from artists. Pieces varied widely, ranging from bronze statues and water pieces to colorful works of glass and stone.

Spending taxpayer dollars on public art is often contentious and, unsurprisingly, the issue was brought up Monday evening. Kaitlyn O’Neill, a 17-year-old Oak Harbor High School student, said she personally likes spending money but that $80,000 from city coffers may be too much.

“It’s a lot of money,” O’Neill said.

She suggested the arts commission broaden its search of artists and pieces to local schools. Students are not only bright and have fresh perspectives, but they are also cheap. They may also come with ideas that are a little less “boring” and better represent younger generations.

Another young woman, Oak Harbor resident Jennifer Roberson, said she also thought that many of the pieces under consideration seemed to favor a more seasoned audience. The selected pieces should represent a broader group and be interactive and fun, such as Marcell’s mermaid, she said.

“Something you can sit on and touch,” Roberson said.

Lesley McConnell, also an Oak Harbor resident, said soliciting art from students was a great idea and should be looked at closely for future projects. She strongly defended public art as a worthy expenditure, however. Local artists are businesses owners too and deserve to make a living like everyone else, she said. Art is expensive to make and artists should be paid top dollar for their expertise.

“I think it would be a shame not to take that tack (seeking student proposals) with the next project, but first lets pay artists,” McConnell said.

The arts commission will discuss the projects at their next regular meeting, Feb. 14, at City Hall, followed by an open house this month.

Grade the art

All the proposals under consideration for art projects on Pioneer Way can be viewed and graded online at www.cohpioneerwayart.blogspot.com/.

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