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Art Talks

Public art pieces at Julia Davis Park and Fire Station Eight have stories to tell



Boise boasts almost 600 pieces of public art—that's about 9.3 pieces per square mile, which means someone strolling through downtown is practically guaranteed to run into one. These odes to creativity come with a price tag of more than $4 million, but thanks to a 2001 ordinance requiring 1.4 percent of all city capital project funds go toward putting artwork on display, Boise can afford it.

Some pieces have obvious local connections visible at a glance: The rock cairn on Broad Street is a nod to the Boise River and the Basque Block mural draws a clear line to the rich Basque history in Boise—but others communicate meaning in a more veiled way.

Among the many installations that merit further inspection are the orange pillars dotting Rotary Grand Plaza in Julia Davis Park and the artistically enhanced bench at Fire Station Eight. As it turns out, one is an "exploratory experience" and the other can only be experienced if it's viewed at the right time.

Rotary Grand Plaza at Julia Davis

Sandwiched between the Rose Garden and Zoo Boise, Rotary Grand Plaza is the culmination of a 10-year, $150,000 fundraising effort and an award-winning design by landscape artists Jensen Belts Associates. To the casual observer, however, the Boise Grove-sized plaza is simply a brick circle where two paths meet, centered by a bronze medallion and dotted with waist-high orange pillars seemingly scattered at random. A closer look reveals each pillar is topped with a historic photograph and donor's name—their purpose, however, is unclear.

Apparently, thee creators of the plaza were aiming for puzzlement.

"There is not a plaque that communicates the design or historical message, it is more of an exploratory experience," said Boise Parks and Recreation Planning Manager Toby Norton. "Part of art is to experience it and take from it for yourself. We anticipate that if someone has questions they will do some work to figure it out."

According to Parks and Recreation, the pillars (which are actually called "bollards") are meant to represent the apple trees that once stood on the plaza site. Until 1908, when Tom Davis donated the land to the city in memory of his wife, Julia, the park served as the family orchard. This explains the historic photos, which were carefully curated by Boise artist Ward Hooper—but why make the "tree stumps" orange? Contrary to first impression, the bold color choice was not a nod to Boise State University.

"The intent was not to be too literal in the representation of tree stumps," said Norton. "The color was chosen as a way to stand out from the surrounding green."

As for the apparently random way the bollards are placed, it turns out that was deliberate, too. "With the size of the plaza we don't expect most people to be able to take it in on just one visit," Norton said. "Rather, they can see and experience something new with each visit."

'Call and Respond' at Fire Station Eight

While the message behind the Rotary Plaza bollards is almost too subtle to receive, the new art installation at Fire Station Eight screams its story for all to hear—if the viewer is there at the right time.

By day, the sculpture is a pair of concrete benches capped at the sides with short black columns and flanking a black pillar, which features fire-related designs, panels of historical photographs and a brass bell set in its peak. But wait long enough, and its form reveals its function.

"The entire sculpture is tied to the alarm system in the building," said Karl LeClair, public art manager for the Boise City Department of Arts and History. "So when the firemen inside Station Eight get a call and the alarm sounds inside the building to wake them ... the bell outside [on the sculpture] rings to help notify anybody in the immediate area that the fire trucks are getting ready to come out. And the interior of each of the columns is lit up with LED lights, so it flashes red and white light as well."

Part safety measure and part proud display, "Call and Respond" is layered with meanings that aren't apparent for most of the day. If the original vision of artists Ken McCall, Leslie Dixon and Mark Baltes had come to pass, however, the voice of the piece would have rung even longer and louder.

"[The bell] was originally intended to ring for five minutes, which is the average response time for any single fire station," LeClair said, "but upon actually experiencing the bell ringing for five minutes straight, it was a little too much."

Still, he added, "It's pretty exciting to actually see [the piece] kick into action."


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