Public Art in Oklahoma Faces the Myth Of Job Loss and Recession Economics: A Look At Eric Wright’s Public Project “Barrier Relic” from Start To Finish

Critics of public funding for art often compare the money spent on works of art to lost jobs, as if these two things are in contrast: how can a government purchase art when we are facing an economic recession that results in layoffs and unemployment?  In Oklahoma, a budget shortfall of $500 million is often cited as a reason to eliminate a program that cost only $55,000 in 2010.

The truth is, spending money on art creates jobs and keeps more money in local economies.

Part of the disconnect may be in the phrase ‘public funding for art.’ It sounds vague and erases the actual people involved. Where does this money really go? Well, it goes to artists, who use it to purchase supplies (often locally), hire professional contractors (almost always locally), and work to make their visions come to life. To take just one example of the way public art funding works, let’s look closer at a recently created piece: Eric Wright’s recent Barrier Relic, installed in October 2010.

When Wright’s proposal for a work of public art was selected – it was one of three chosen from a very competitive application pool – he began a mentorship with nationally recognized public artist Lynn Basa and a commission from the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority. The proposed sculpture was designed to be created in concrete – Wright’s primary medium for the past few years.  But because of the scope and detail of his concept, he would need to hire local professionals to help implement his idea.

Wright’s concept was inspired by the OTA and by the sculpture’s ultimate setting: a highway maintenance building along the H.E.Bailey Turnpike. The OTA wanted “safety” to be the theme of the work, so this piece puts a focus on the Jersey barrier. These barriers, common along highway medians or in construction zones, are 32” high with sloping sides and instantly familiar to anyone who has spent time driving. In the center of the sculpture, a distressed section of a Jersey barrier – about four feet long –  is held up, bolted in place with rusting bolts and chunky metal bands, elevated in the center of a circular base. On the ground below, highly polished cross section “slices” of Jersey barriers make up this base, radiating outward. Wright describes the shape as “so ubiquitous and utilitarian, it is easily overlooked.” These barriers were developed to prevent head-on collisions that happen when cars drift into oncoming traffic, and are also widely used to re-route traffic in cases of road construction. They are easily recognized but rarely noticed by most; a part of our backdrop. I didn’t even know they had a name.

In Wright’s piece, these barriers move to the fore. New, polished, and decorative pieces of this recognizable shape offer homage and contrast to the chipped, used section. The ability of humanity to respond to our own changing needs stands as a sort of monument to itself.

Because this piece is made of concrete and metal, both the finished product and its smaller components are quite heavy; Wright says that the piece altogether weighs over 2000 pounds. Luckily, Wright found local companies who use these materials every day for precision work.  Hiring contractors and working with crews is almost a given part of the creation of larger scale sculptures. In addition to putting work in the hands of professionals, it also helps to ensure that artists can focus their time and energy on their concept while being confident in the quality of the construction.

Wright hired six different companies in order to complete this commission. Concrete Concepts, headed by owner Raphael Guinn, did the largest amount of contract work for the piece. As Wright says, “they got the biggest piece of the pie.” He and his team were responsible for creating and installing the polished base.

Working with Wright gave Guinn the chance to explore some of his favorite aspects of concrete work, such as working with glass and aggregate pieces and adding stain. “I have two teams I work with, but something like this I enjoy working on myself. Polishing, decorative elements – those are really my forté.” A work of public art may not be Concrete Concepts’ typical job, but Guinn and his crew embraced the opportunity.

You could say Guinn knows concrete pretty well. Most of Concrete Concepts’ jobs include installing floors for private homes or businesses, remodeling homes, or creating custom work. Their catalogue is fairly deep. Guinn founded this business himself at the age of 18 and he has continued building his knowledge base and experience ever since. He has worked on several projects overseas and even in war zones, about which he is somewhat humble: “Well, I was happy to be able to help out over there, but I can say this: I like working in Oklahoma.”

He also enjoyed the process of working with Wright.

“His ideas were just great,” Guinn states. “We helped him, but it was all his vision. When we first saw his plans, we were maybe a little skeptical. But his ideas, his vision were great. So, we helped him make it happen.”  Guinn clearly has positive impressions from working on this project, and says multiple times that he’d enjoy working with Wright again. “Eric is a great guy,” he states, “A great artist.”

Wright echoes the sentiments of what was clearly a positive working relationship. “They were excited to get to work,” he says. “They wanted to do a good job, and they did.”

Gary Glodden at Gary’s Concrete Sawing and Drilling was also instrumental in the creation of this piece. Gary’s Concrete was actually hired through a referral from Raphael Guinn’s father. It was Gary’s Concrete who were responsible for slicing one Jersey barrier – “like a loaf of bread,” as Wright says – into the cross-sections that shape the base of the sculpture. “They worked for $200 a cut – and it took two and a half hours to make each cut.”

Other hired contractors for this piece included a tile company, an etching company, and a welder. “It all stayed local,” Wright emphasizes, “So, that money stayed here and went right back into the local community.”

The finished piece – Barrier Relic – now stands on the H.E. Bailey Turnpike close to mile marker 86 and a few miles away from the city of Chickasha. It is seen by hundreds of people each day as they drive to school, work, or home. As with any work of art, viewers can be as engaged as they want. Perhaps a few of them think about highway safety, the visual language of automobile culture, and the evolving symbols of the 21st century. Perhaps they don’t.

Large scale public sculptures generally tend to inspire lofty thinking. Standing at the foot of a large sculpture, mural, or other work leads one into a frame of mind that accepts instead of expects. Art asks questions but doesn’t always have an answer. We see it and, maybe for a moment, we are pleasantly overwhelmed by its scope. The finished product stands, or sits, or lays before us as if it was always there, and I think that the ability to seamlessly meld into its surroundings is a quality of the best public art. Often, it is made so well that we forget to think of how it was created at all.

Referring back to the criticism of Art in Public Places: how can we spend money on art when people are struggling for work? $55,000 was spent in Oklahoma for public art spent in one year; only a small part of that amount was spent on this single project, through which at least 7 people and companies gained real work. Actual jobs.

This is the human impact of public art. And this is not a waste of money.

For more information about this work of art, please see –

http://ovac.blogspot.com/2011/02/public-art-in-process-eric-wright.html.

And for more information about Oklahoma’s Art in Public Places, please visit their site here –

http://www.okpublicart.org/.

(c) Jenn Barron All rights reserved. Jenn is an artist, teacher, and writer living in Northwest Oklahoma City. Contact Jenn through the email to provide your feedback and initiate further discussion on saving Public Art in Oklahoma.

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