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Questions surface over Surls selection process

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Final decision slated soon

By Lynn Burton

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Sopris Sun Correspondent

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The town trustees’ decision to accept a free piece of James Surls’ sculpture for the intersection of Highway 133 and Main Street doesn’t appear to have been a roundabout process.

With little or no public discussion or notice, the trustees voted 6-0 on July 23, 2013, to move forward with accepting a free piece of sculpture — sight unseen — from Surls.

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Going back seven years though, the Carbondale Public Art Commission first pitched the idea to Surls about him donating a piece of work to be placed in the roundabout at Highway 133 and Main Street, if it were ever built. Surls said yes.

Today, with private fundraising under way to solicit the final $50,000 to pay off Surls’ cost to create the 20-foot-tall metal sculpture, some residents are writing letters to the editor and contacting trustees, asking why the public wasn’t asked whether they wanted this or any other Surls piece in the town’s most prominent location.

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“Was there a town meeting to present other examples of sculptures for the roundabout we missed?” asked Sam Hayes and Sue Bacon in a letter to the editor in The Sopris Sun’s May 29 issue.

Town manager Jay Harrington told The Sopris Sun the trustees expect to sign agreements with Surls to accept ownership of “Sewing the Future” at their meeting on June 24 or July 8.

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Surls, an internationally known sculptor, works out of his studio on Missouri Heights after moving to the Roaring Fork Valley from Texas in the 1990s.

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Trustee Allyn Harvey brought up the selection process at Tuesday night’s meeting and mayor Stacey Bernot said the town did advertise to determine if any other artists were interested in donating a permanent piece of art. No artist came forward and there was a “loud voice for the Surls piece.”

Harvey countered, “There was not a public process, there was not a conversation … about this very public space.” He said he’s been getting feedback that is not necessarily anti-Surls, but that the process “stunk” and people are objecting to how quickly the trustees agreed to a Surls piece.

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From staff memos, minutes to trustees meetings and other sources, The Sopris Sun has pieced together a timeline for much of what transpired from the time CPAC first approached Surls to Tuesday night’s discussion.

The sculpture idea lay dormant for several years until the Colorado Department of Transportation finalized plans to widen Highway 133 and build a roundabout at Main Street this summer. With Highway 133 plans ready, CPAC discussed the Surls gift to the town at its meetings on May 1, Sept. 18, Dec. 4 of 2013, and on Jan. 5, 2014.

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CPAC’s sculpture proposal hit the trustees’ collective desk on July 23, 2013 under a meeting agenda item that addressed roundabout landscaping and art. Town manager Harrington’s memo said if the town doesn’t landscape the roundabout’s center, it would “most likely” be concrete. “This is not what the Comp Plan or Town staff envisions for the gateway to Carbondale,” said Harrington’s memo. The memo explained that it’s not practical for the Art aRound Town program to use the roundabout for a rotating piece of art but that it’s the staff’s opinion that the roundabout should, at some level, include art as a centerpiece. “Carbondale is recognized for our community’s commitment to art,” the memo said.

During the trustees ensuing discussion on July 23, 2013, Bernot called the Surls sculpture a “tremendous gift” and said she would like to move the process forward.

Trustee Pam Zentmyer asked if a community discourse had taken place on the proposal and Harrington responded with a “no.” She then asked for a community-wide conversation to take place but then-trustee John Foulkrod said he didn’t want to have a community conversation and “the clock is ticking.”

Trustee Frosty Merriott said he has a vision for how it (the roundabout) should look and that the board was elected to lead. He said he’d talked to community members about the sculpture and it’s time to formalize a decision. “The sculpture will be the legacy of this board and it may help revitalize the downtown core,” the meeting minutes state.

In something that seldom if ever took place while the two served together, Foulkrod made a motion to initiate a process for the town to accept a Surls piece for the roundabout, which Merriott seconded. The motion passed 6-0; Harvey was absent.

Sculpture’s symbolism

Surls unveiled a scale model for “Sewing the Future” earlier this spring. In a fund-raising letter explaining his work, Surls said a “standing vase” sits on a five-to- seven-foot base. From the vase, which is a metaphoric symbol of the female, there are four primary symbolic elements. One of these is a thread of life that runs through three needles that represent deep parts of human nature, including art, science and philosophy. Other symbolic elements include the jewel, the flower and the tree. “All of these elements derive from the very nature that gives us our existence on earth,” Surls states in his letter. “It is my wish that Carbondale will grow to appreciate the significant meaning of the symbolism represented in this sculpture. It is from the heart of my family that we do our part in this gift to the town of Carbondale.”

On Tuesday night, some trustees said they were concerned that Surls had not reached out to the community enough to explain his work. Harrington said that Surls “is more than willing to come down and do whatever outreach the town would like to see. He’s very open to that, and he’s used to public input on his art.”

Bernot reiterated this is “a great opportunity to have as renowned an artist as Surls” volunteer to place his art in the roundabout, but she also conceded “it wasn’t a perfect process … we are open to criticism on that.”

Jody Ensign, a primary fund-raiser for the project, told The Sopris Sun that Surls attended the June 6 First Friday to discuss “Sewing the Future” and will attend First Fridays through the summer. Fund-raising volunteers will attended the Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays to show the scale model and explain the sculpture. Surls is scheduling events at the middle school and high school in early September. He is hosting an open house at his Missouri Heights studio on June 14 (for details, see this week’s Calendar). He has also talked to both of Carbondale’s Rotary Clubs.

In an e-mail to The Sopris Sun, Bernot said “I do not feel that the public outreach has occurred as it should have, and now it is playing catch up.”

She also said she is disappointed that the sculpture’s unveiling came when the fundraising campaign kicked off and that more public involvement wasn’t solicited before fundraising commenced.

“While I understand the necessity for the fundraising to occur, the obligation to the community to include them in how this design was chosen should have happened.”

– John Colson contributed to this article.