Public Art Revisited

Two of the most subjective things in life are art and Mexican food. One person’s favorite Mexican dish is another’s dog food, and one person’s revered work of art is another’s candidate for visual affront of the century.

That Boiseans hold divergent views on public art was seldom clearer than in the responses to my column last month on proposed artwork for City Hall Plaza. The column was critical of what I considered to be failures of the past, namely “the steaming crack” at the Grove Hotel, the wings on the airport parking garage and the metal rectangles in Julia Davis Park.

In a perverse way, the reaction was flattering. Never – well, almost never – had responses to one of my columns occupied the entire Letters to the Editor section of the editorial page. The intensity of the response surprised me because I naively thought I was on solid ground. I thought everybody hated the steaming crack, but even it has its admirers.

In my defense, one letter writer agreed with me. And a local  artist called to thank me for writing what he’d thought for years but had never said publicly.

So much for the positive responses. A letter to my e-mail address criticized not only the art column, but much of what I’d been writing for 40 years. It didn’t actually say so, but the implication was that I’d be better suited to alphabetizing the classified ads.

One person dismissed a sculpture I like and had praised as “schlocky mall art.” Another wanted to know why I’d focused on relatively few public art pieces instead of taking a more extensive look. It was never my intent to visit and critique every piece of public art in town, but the letter writer had a point. As I was about to find out, I had a lot to learn about Boise’s public art.

Enter Karen Bubb, the city’s public arts manager. Her e-mail noted that all three of the works I’d singled out for “negativity and sarcasm” were commissioned prior to the city’s establishing a full-time art department with a professional staff and commissioning over 100 pieces of public art.

One hundred? I didn’t think there were that many in the whole state.

So, when Bubb offered to take me on a guided tour, I accepted. It was the least I could do, considering my newly acquired reputation as Public Art Enemy No. 1.

Our tour began at City Hall, where Bubb showed me the plaque designating it (and dozens of other buildings) as geothermally heated, an entryway mural with tiles by youthful artists, a “penny post card” mural and two pillars from the storied Natatorium. I’d walked past them dozens of times without noticing them.

From there we walked to the Basque Block. I’ve long admired the large Basque mural there, but had hurried by the block’s smaller works of art without giving them their due – Basque crests, an Oak of Guernica memorial, flag sculptures, names embedded in the sidewalk of the Basque families who emigrated here … In a way, the entire block is a work of art. Even the street was redesigned to better present the Basque heritage.

At the Grove, we peered through “binoculars” containing historical  photographs, admired the great blue heron sculptures and smiled at the symphony of percussive sounds released by our walking past the “Homage to Pedestrians” auditory artwork.

Here and there, Bubb pointed out the artwork gracing traffic boxes – 57 completed to date, another 41 still to come. We pass them all the time without stopping. Their artists deserve better.

It’s amazing what we just don’t notice. I don’t know how many times I’ve stopped to look at the photographs and read the texts on the Grove Street Illuminated piece at Ninth and Grove, but always in the daytime. I’d walked right over the “Boise Canal” lights in the sidewalk (the canal still flows underground there), utterly oblivious to them.

The same goes for the bricks you walk across in the courtyard of the Plaza 21 building on Ninth between Main and Idaho. They form the tail of a fish, Bubb said, complete with scales. You have to see it from the right perspective and take time to appreciate it, as you do with Kerry Moosman’s ephemera on the back of the Idanha Hotel.

“River of Trees,” embedded in the sidewalk outside the Ninth and Idaho Center, honors Boise’s river and street trees. It was done by the same artists who put the fish in the floors of Sea-Tac Airport.

The new Jesus Urquides memorial at Second and Main is mix of art and history. Uquides was a Mexican-American pioneer who built a “Spanish village” there in the late 1800s. The memorial’s focal point is a bronze camera with his image, pointed at the former site of the village. Texts tell his story; a model shows what the village looked like.

We didn’t have time to see all of the artwork Bubb wanted to show me, but I solemnly promised to see as much of it as possible on my own. My first stop was Anna Webb’s colorful new mosaic at Ninth and River. I was briefly Anna’s next-door neighbor in The Statesman’s newsroom and never knew what a talented artist she is.

Next I visited the Boise Watershed campus on Joplin Road, a veritable repository of public art – sculptures, stained glass, art inspired by reservoir rings – all reflecting the role of water and the importance of conservation in our lives. Even the drinking fountains are works of art.

A few miles away, public art graces the Foothills Learning Center. Its lobby walls are painted to represent the Boise Front. Sculptures represent air, fire, earth and water. “Air” is a gigantic dandelion with a top that turns in the wind, dispersing “seeds.” “Fire” is a mosaic of a tree damaged by fire, but healing. “Earth” and “water” are yet to come.

There isn’t space to include all of Boise’s public art pieces. There are just too many. And more are coming within the next year. They include new artwork for City Hall Plaza and other Downtown locations, the BSU campus, Marianne Williams Park, South Boise, the Boise Airport, the Foothills Learning Center, Julia Davis Park, Zoo Boise …

The thing that struck me most about all this is just how much public art and how many talented artists we have in Boise. I still don’t like the “steaming crack.” But I do like a lot of our public art, now that I’ve taken the time to actually see it.

“A lot of it we’ve done in recent years hasn’t been big projects,” Bubb said. “It’s been smaller and more personal. It tells our stories. And we’ve been so busy doing it that we haven’t done a good enough job of telling people about it. Maybe that’s where you can help us.”

The best way I can do that is to tell you to slow down. There’s more art to see in this city than you think. But you don’t appreciate it – or even see a lot  of it – from a moving car. Park the car and walk. Take your time. See what you’re looking at.

If you follow those simple instructions, I guarantee you’ll learn something and have fun doing it.

You’ll also be less likely to get a letter from some know-it-all saying that you should be put to work alphabetizing the classified ads.


Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in the Statesman’s Life section and is posted the following Mondays on Contact him at



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