MONROE — “A Day at the Fair.”
It’s the perfect title for Snohomish County’s newest public art installation.
Everyone who’s been to the Evergreen State Fair is familiar with the once dark and drab tunnels under 179th Avenue that lead from the main parking lot to the fairgrounds.
Now, award-winning Everett artist Cheri O’Brien has produced a work of art in those tunnels that is worth the price of admission to the fair.
The walls of the tunnels are now powder-coated in light green with sky blue at the top. At the entrances are fair ribbon rosettes, banners and the bold initials of the fair name.
“I wanted it to look like you were walking into a fair barn,” O’Brien said.
The installation sports laser-cut metal images of fair icons, including canning jars, blue ribbons and all sorts of 4-H animals.
And scattered among those icons are 12 of O’Brien’s signature contemporary folk-style reverse paintings on glass (this time on Plexiglas), all depicting various whimsical and colorful scenes at the fair.
“I’ve never been afraid of color,” O’Brien said. “The final coat on the reverse paintings is a layer of yellow to make it all pop.”
Look for her narrative paintings of a speedway scene, roosters, grange displays, equestrian events, the Dairy Women’s Purple Cow stand, hogs and piglets, the petting zoo, a boy eating fair food, the carnival and stage entertainment.
One of the paintings has a personal touch. When O’Brien was a girl growing up in Everett, she participated in the City Slickers 4-H dog club. In her installation painting of 4-H dogs is her late puppy Shrimpy along with her “granddogs” Scout, Bebe and Luna.
After graduating from Everett High School in 1976, O’Brien studied art at Everett Community College. She has fulfilled art commissions from several other municipalities since then, including a bench at Lowell Park, Community Transit bus platforms, a piece at Seattle’s Pike Place Market and an installation at Silver Lake Elementary School.
The process of applying to produce public art is a lengthy one, O’Brien said.
For the tunnels, the county put out a call for art. O’Brien applied, submitting her installation plan and 10 images. After she made it into the top three finalists, O’Brien made a presentation to the Snohomish County arts commission.
That was a year ago. She was awarded the commission in October and she and her crew finished the work at the end of May. The thing about producing public art is that the artist also serves as the general contractor, she said.
With the $60,000 awarded to her by the county for the job, O’Brien paid for a structural assessment of the tunnels, new lighting, the powder coat painting, the metal icon fabrication and welding. Her husband Rob O’Brien, a union carpenter, and his brother Dan did a lot of the actual installation.
“I was very fortunate with my team,” she said. “I could not have done it without them.”
Wendy Poischbeg, economic and cultural development director for the county, said that the money for the project comes from the county’s 1-percent-for-the arts program. A 1 percent contribution to the county’s arts fund is made as part of the cost of construction projects in the county. The arts commission squirreled away money from several projects in order to turn the fair’s old tunnels into a work of art.
“The $60,000 may seem like a lot to some people, but artists need to be compensated,” Poischbeg said. “And in the end, Cheri probably made pennies per hour on this project. In return, the county got a fun entry portal to all the fun experiences that the fair and its grounds provide. And not just at fair time.”