Children from a YMCA group check out the new art sculpture at the Medford City Hall Wednesday. - Jamie Lusch

Sculpture still draws divided opinion

Since a new public sculpture was unveiled a month ago in front of Medford City Hall, the majority public reaction to the textured, cast-aluminum columns that resemble hollowed-out tree trunks has been scathing.

At $47,700, the sculpture called "Three Rogue Columns" by Bill Vielehr, of Boulder, Colo., is the most expensive piece of art the nine-member Medford Arts Commission has purchased.

Critics of Vielehr's work have been less than impressed.

"The money spent for the art could have been put to better use on a homeless shelter for teens," wrote Medford resident Nancy Clark in a July 16 letter to the editor published in the Mail Tribune.

Other critics have said they simply don't understand the appeal of the piece, likening it to ventilation ducts or piping.

This isn't the first time one of Vielehr's sculptures has been attacked.

"When my first public artwork was installed in Flagstaff (Ariz.) in 1999, people were saying the city council should resign," Vielehr said. "The critics said they would just as soon clean house and start all over and get rid of that train wreck (his artwork).

"Now, I understand the piece is very popular there, so I expect that kind of long-term response in Medford."

Of the 13 letters to the editor about the sculpture that have been published in the Mail Tribune, eight have blasted the city for purchasing it; two have praised the sculpture, and three were neutral.

Medford resident Jody Streetman wrote July 6 that a dog that defecated in the courtyard at City Hall best expressed her opinion of the sculpture. Her letter likened the columns to "three toilet paper inner spools which the city is calling art."

On the other hand, Eduard Rodriguez, a freshman at North Medford High School, said he thinks the sculpture is beautiful.

"It's big and bright and glows when the sun hits it, so it makes it noticeable," Rodriguez said. "From far away, I thought it had color because of the reflections."

There aren't any outward sighs of regret from the arts commission, which selected Vielehr from a pool of 21 artists.

The City Council earmarks about $25,000 per year for the arts commission to embellish the city with art, and the commission voted unanimously for Vielehr's proposal.

"I'm still quite happy with our choice," said Kip Grant, a member of the arts commission. "Even with a population of almost 80,000, we are still considered a rural area. Not everyone is into art, and not everyone is into modern art, so we were taking a chance."

So far, the sculpture's biggest fans seem to be children.

A group of preschoolers from the Rogue Valley Family YMCA's extended child care center immediately turned the sculpture into a playground Wednesday during a field trip .

Four preschoolers squeezed inside one of the columns, giggling and peering out of the opening with glowing smiles. Others beat the exterior to hear the drumming echoes through the hollow column.

"It's a rocket!" exclaimed 5-year-old Justin Bowman.

Five-year-old Shaun Westphal poked his head inside the hollow part of the column where two little girls were huddled and shouted "Ah_________" to hear it echo.

Kyle Hutto, 5, fingered the etchings inside the column.

"I like all the x's," he said.

Vielehr put numbers and lines with Medford connections, such as Interstate 5, the Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad, Bear Creek and maps of Medford, the region and Oregon, on the columns. Some of the images are superimposed on top of each other making them difficult or impossible to distinguish.

Grant said it's encouraging to see children appreciating the pieces, and she hopes with time more of the older folks will gain an appreciation for it, too.

In the end, art is often controversial, said Medford City Councilman Bob Strosser, who didn't play a role in the selection of the sculpture.

"If the purpose of public art is to provoke conversation, it has certainly done that," Strosser said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or

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