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They make the summer seem a little more buoyant and a dark winter's day a bit less lonely. They're ogled, they're fondled, and they're the subject of endless tourist photographs.
They're vandalized and sometimes they're outright stolen…occasionally to be returned days later.
"They" are the sculptures of Penticton.
Across the city, there's currently a couple dozen outdoor public sculptures dotting the landscape. And many of them are flat-out amazing.
But there's a half-dozen that are notable for one key reason. They're leased from the artist and swapped out every spring. And collectively they're called the Penticton Public Sculpture Exhibition.
It's a concept that has several upsides. For one, leasing sculptures rather than buying them means the city can theoretically bring in a higher grade of art for much less cash.
And because none of the pieces are permanent, the entire show can be endlessly renewed. That's a great deal for art lovers, residents, and of course visitors to the city.
There are advantages for the artists too, who get paid to temporarily show their work while simultaneously exposing it to potential buyers.
Indeed, if you play your cards right, this whole transitory sculpture thing can snowball. One only need look 200 kilometers east to Castlegar to see just how big that snowball can grow. Hint: It's big. Really big.
But more on that in a bit.
Earlier this month, Penticton issued its latest invitation for artists (or a "call out" as the say in the biz) to pitch their best stuff for the upcoming Penticton Public Sculpture Exhibition year. And in a couple weeks, the top entries will be selected and the wait will begin for the spring changeover.
It's a process that’s now in its fifth iteration. Only now, there's an upgrade. Rather than the usual six sculptures, in 2021 there'll be seven. And there'll be cash prizes too, totaling $1,000 and awarded later in the year based on public balloting.
Outwardly, one extra sculpture and a little prize money doesn't seem hugely noteworthy. But the move to grow the collection and actively seek public involvement may be the first step toward turning the current sprinkling of sculptures into the serious regional force the program's guiding lights envision.
To fully understand the scenario, we first have to understand the sculptors -- their work, their concerns, and their dedication.
Karl Mattson is one. His towering "Lost" has graced the Front Street roundabout since May of this year.
It depicts a woman in what may initially appear to be scuba gear. But the story is deeper -- and darker -- than that.
Living in the northern village of Rolla, BC, visual artist Mattson created Lost in 2015 out of "scrap steel from oil and gas farms in the area."
Like most outdoor sculptures, which all have to endure climate, time and brushes with citizenry, Lost took quite a while to come to fruition. Mattson figures he spent "about three or four months" in its creation while also tending to his farm.
As for that scuba gear, well, it's actually something else entirely.
"I'm real concerned with sour gas leaks," says Mattson, who lives adjacent to a pipeline. "So for Lost, I built her with air tanks and communication devices. And that’s what she's doing, basically communicating with the existential. She's a post-apocalyptic woman."
She's also intended to breathe fire. "That's the point of having her head as a stove," said Mattson with a laugh.
"Her head is filled with wood and the wood falls down into her whole frame and she actually lights on fire. I've had eight-foot flames coming out of her head."
Most critically to the artist, Lost sold while in Penticton, to Ian MacDonald of Okanagan Fall's Liquidity Wines.
The Mattson story is idyllic. A noted artist hears of the call-out, wins a spot, shows his work for a fee, and ends up selling it. And the city gets an undeniably interesting, highly visible piece of art for a relatively affordable payout.
Fred Dobbs is another of 2020's sculptors. Based in Sidney, BC, Dobbs has won numerous regional and national awards and in May brought his bronze "The Raven's Key" to the Penticton waterfront for its 12-month stint.
Though substantially smaller than Lost, The Raven's Key is nevertheless a stunning achievement that took three months to complete.
"There's anywhere from 17 to maybe 30 separate steps in terms of how you make a bronze," said Dobbs. "And along the way, it's one expertise after the other."
And Dobbs is happy with his experience.
"It's a great way of promoting myself and getting my work recognized," he said. "It was displayed in Nanaimo and Castlegar before this, and who knows where it will go next."
Something both Dobbs and Mattson haven't experienced in their Penticton stints is vandalism. And in Penticton, vandalism -- and outright theft -- are real things.
In the first week of August, Sooke, BC's Trinita Waller got the bad news. One of the magnificent bronze salmon from her waterfront "Salmon Cycle," which she values at $11,000, had been pilfered.
But Waller got lucky. Three months later on the 6th of November, she answered a mysterious late night call. The voice on the phone said he had her salmon.
A day later the RCMP had picked it up and today Waller has reunited the fish with the bulk of the sculpture and is prepping to repair and reinstall.
Lars Baggenstos wasn't so fortunate. His "Restoration and Resilience," a stunning hand-carved ram's head, was part of the 2019-20 show.
But just two days before its retirement, the piece evaporated. Baggenstos has since offered a reward and immunity to the thieves. But he's heard nothing.
What's worse is that he had no insurance. Nor do many artists. Insurance is a pricey proposition, and artists aren't typically flush with bucks.
The city doesn't insure the pieces either, so in some cases the sculptor is just plumb out of luck.
Nevertheless, Baggenstos would exhibit here again. "You can't just not display your works," he said, adding that he'd still love to hear any news on his swiped sculpture. His email is [email protected]
In 2018, Summerland's Michael Hermesh, who's now had two works in the Exhibition in two separate years, got word that his "Hat Box Man" had evaporated from its base directly adjacent to City Hall.
"It was stolen overnight," said Hermesh. "It was right at the end of that year's exhibition."
"But I don't think they realized how heavily the media would be covering it, and it magically reappeared the next morning, right on the steps of city hall. It wasn’t even damaged."
But Hermesh's most notable brush with vandalism -- and controversy -- came years before the Penticton Public Sculpture Exhibition had even begun.
When he unveiled Frank the Baggage Handler in 2005, the commotion was palpable. Some rejoiced, but others, including the city, complained. And in time, Frank was vandalized numerous times.
Why? Seems the idea of a sculpture depicting a naked, imperfect man was a bit too much to handle. The hullaballoo even extended to Frank's male-specific appendage. It was cruelly broken off.
The fallout made headlines not just locally, but across Canada and the world. But ultimately it wasn't all bad news for the sculptor. He won a lawsuit with the city, and sold Frank to Red Rooster Winery.
Today, Hermesh remains a great believer in the outdoor sculpture concept and Penticton's revolving program. Indeed, he's contemplating jumping back into the upcoming exhibition, saying he's "crazy impressed" with it.
But if there's one person who knows perhaps better than anyone the power of a well-oiled revolving outdoor sculpture operation, it's Joy Barrett.
Barrett is the executive director of the Castlegar Sculpture Walk, a program that's repeatedly portrayed by sculptors and sculpture facilitators as the industry holy grail.
In Castlegar, they rotate an impressive 30-plus sculptures in and out every single year. They get businesses and residents intrinsically involved. They don’t have the same issues with vandalism. And unlike Penticton, they insure all the pieces they take in.
And in turn the Walk has become one of Castlegar's most popular draws. Artists love it because it's a safe, busy place to show their works. Businesses and the city love it because it creates excitement and undeniably brings people to town. And tourists and art aficionados love it because the streets are a wonderland of outdoor art.
In short, the Sculpture Walk is a destination attraction.
Tomorrow in Part II we look at the people who want to emulate that experience right here in Penticton.