Art in the great outdoors

Art and nature. Seems like they were made for each other. Turns out, it depends on whom you talk to — or don't talk to.

Last First Friday I went to view the paintings on display outdoors under a highway overpass in Ashland. Six paintings were bolted to the underside of the bridge, lit by well-aimed lamps and accompanied on ground level by poster-sized depictions and descriptions of the work.

There was a walkway of stone steps, shrubbery and well-placed large boulders so viewers could stroll around at their leisure and look up.

The whole experience was most refreshing. Like the light breeze that swirled under the bridge. Just the kind of ambiance the city would have wanted to endorse — if only it — and the state engineers responsible for keeping the bridge in one piece — had been asked ahead of time to consider doing so.

Now the horse is out of the barn, feathers are being ruffled, and we're waiting for the other shoe to drop — or something like that. We can't have people just deciding on their own to put up "public art" without checking with the folks who are supposed to be representing the public. Can we? And then there is the question: When is a painting a mural and when is it a sign?

One thing I have learned through this whole process is that even though the word "mural" technically means "wall," when it is used to describe a painting it can also mean something painted on the ceiling, like the murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

I'm glad to know that, because I thought the paintings under Siskiyou Boulevard were, well, paintings under Siskiyou Boulevard and not murals like the depiction of Mr. Shakespeare on the wall of Bard's Inn.

Whatever they are — or were — they sure aren't signs. Signs of the times, maybe.

Ideally, the idea of having artwork outside where everyone can see it is to contribute a civilizing element to an environment where people gather. This is especially true in areas like cities where you can tend to feel dehumanized.

In my opinion the last thing art in public places should be is decorative or divisive. If nothing else, the brouhaha over the "paintings under the bridge" has people talking — and they're talking about art.


If you like your art with a strong dose of fresh air, you could have attended two wonderful outdoor concerts this past weekend. "Rock the Farm" at Hanley Farm dipped back into history to celebrate in the spirit of the Summer of Love 40 years ago. Remember ...? Nevermind.

Anyway, the concert attracted about 200 people who heard some great local musicians under the beautiful late-summer Southern Oregon skies. The event was a benefit for the Southern Oregon Historical Society. Hanley Farm is one of the jewels in the society's collection of historical buildings. There is talk that the farm would make a great venue for similar concerts in the future. Stay tuned.

An Ashland venue that has proven itself as an outdoor concert attraction is the Allen Pavilion of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It houses the Elizabethan Stage and if you were there last Monday night, you would have heard the Rogue Valley Symphony performing on that stage. The symphony opened its 2007-08 season with a "Starlight Symphony" complete with a complimentary glass of champagne. The program featured light classics, jazz and pop selections, and music from theater shows and movies.

I have memories of attending Shakespeare outdoors on the hillside next to the Washington Monument. And now I live in a town where I can see Shakespeare outdoors without airplanes flying overhead from the Washington National Airport.

I can go to the Britt Festival and sit under the stars and see some of the country's finest musicians and dancers.

I can go to the Lithia Motors Amphitheater and hear some of the best rock and country performers. I can drive to Grants Pass and see a Broadway musical performed on the outdoor stage of Rogue Community College. In the parks in Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass I can see ballet, hear music and watch movies.

And maybe someday, somehow, I'll see some paintings outside somewhere on a wall — or on a ceiling — that everybody wants to see there.


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