Prison helps pay for public art in Connell

CONNELL — The next time you’re driving north on Highway 395, keep your eyes peeled for some giant wildflowers while passing Connell.

Those majestic blooms — made of forged steel and 12 to 17 feet high — are part of a $620,584 public art project.

The flowers were designed by Whidbey Island artists Nick Lyle and Jean Whitesavage. The second phase will be a collection of bronze figures and stone tables and benches to be installed in September along Main Street.

More than a half-million dollars is a significant chunk of change for public art, especially for a small town like Connell, said Alice Taylor with the Washington State Arts Commission.

“This is the single largest budget for artwork,” Taylor said. “It is significant for Connell, just as having the largest corrections center in the state is significant for Connell, and now it brings art and art-related construction jobs.”

The Art in Public Places Program was initiated by state legislation passed in 1974, which allocates one-half of 1 percent of the state’s capital construction budget for public artwork.

The money for the Connell project came from the recent $179 million expansion of the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.

“We had the option of choosing one artist for the entire budget, or splitting the money between two,” said Melissa Kelly, a Connell resident who served on the art selection committee for the project.

The committee chose two projects with the idea to enhance the city’s main thoroughfare as well as capitalize on Connell’s close proximity to a busy highway. The flower project was $189,000, while $431,584 was allocated for the bronze figures and stone tables and benches.

“I am thrilled to have Nick and Jean’s flower sculptures come to Connell,” Kelly said. “There is something deep and rich about living in a town filled with art. I am excited that my children will be exposed to art as they grow up in a small town. Sometimes jewels are hidden away in small places like Connell.”

The flowers along the highway also will draw travelers’ attention to Connell, said Alleda Arnold, another committee member.

“Our downtown development association has been working for years trying to get travelers to notice us,” Arnold said. “Who could not notice these beautiful native flowers?”

Renowned New York artist Tom Otterness is creating phase two of the art project.

“Our committee loved Tom’s whimsy and humor he showed in his work,” Kelly said. “We also like the usability of the benches and tables along Main Street. Adults and children can interact with the art on a face-to-face scale.”

City council member Rhonda Quinton said long hours were spent deciding how the public art money would be spent.

“For Connell to have the opportunity to receive this money for artwork is exciting,” Quinton said.

Otterness’ bronze sculptures also represent the personality of life in Connell, she added.

For example, there will be animal sculptures in front of the post office depicting local wildlife — such as quail, coyotes and rabbits — opening up their mail while sitting on benches.

But first, the large flowers will be installed along the walking path that runs parallel to Highway 395.

Though the money for the project came from the prison expansion, City Administrator Steve Taylor was happy the committee decided to incorporate the work throughout the community instead of having it installed at the prison.

He’s optimistic the public art will add to Connell’s tourism.

“This public art being created for the community is really quite cool, and will hopefully get travelers to stop and take a look at them instead of just driving on by,” Taylor said.

A public unveiling of Prairie Flowers, Potato and Wheat starts at 10 a.m. Nov. 14 and includes a walking tour with the artists who created the structures.

As for Kelly, the money spent on public art is never frivolous.

“Many will say this money should have gone to other things in Connell,” she said. “But that is just why it should not.

“In a small town, or in a large one, there just is never extra money sitting around waiting to be spent on art. Our community has the amazing opportunity to have art that we never could have acquired otherwise. It will lift and brighten the horizons of our children. Art stimulates minds to think beyond the average and normal. It is an essential ingredient of an educated mind. We graciously receive the gift without thinking in terms of dollars and cents.”

Information from: Tri-City Herald,

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