Mesa ponders image effect of quirky sculpture - East Valley Tribune: News

Mesa ponders image effect of quirky sculpture

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Posted: Saturday, March 6, 2010 7:32 pm | Updated: 3:56 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

A 25-foot tall downtown sculpture based on the iconic American Gothic painting is proving Mesa is a place that celebrates art - or, depending on your view, that it's Hicksville, USA.

Mesa's been on a years-long quest to shake its image as a sleepy town that's as bland and homogenous as a 1950s sitcom.

To that end, the city touts its high-tech industry, a more urban downtown and a blossoming downtown arts scene.

Now, a new 25-foot tall downtown sculpture based on the iconic American Gothic painting is proving Mesa is a place that celebrates art - or, depending on your point of view, that it's Hicksville, USA.

Too many people outside of Mesa view the city as one-dimensional and don't know it's becoming more vibrant, Councilman Scott Somers said. Businesses, community leaders and residents have worked to update Mesa's branding for years, he said.

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"Mesa has a certain image that we're trying to change, and Ozzie and Harriet really doesn't help. It almost affirms outsiders' image of what Mesa has grown into," Somers said. "I think we're trying to break out of that mold. Fair or unfair, that's the image outsiders have of Mesa."

Somers said he likes the iconic 1930s Grant Wood painting and the sculpture, known as God Bless America. But he would have preferred a different selection for such a large piece, or at least placing it near a different kind of sculpture to trigger a discussion of the many sides of Mesa.

The sculpture was unveiled Friday and will remain through July 15, funded by the non-profit Downtown Mesa Association. It cost $18,000 to rent the statue by Seward Johnson, whose statues were displayed downtown about a decade ago and drew huge crowds. The statues are part of an effort to draw visitors downtown and boost spending at local businesses.

The God Bless America statue has toured Florida and was well-visited during a yearlong stop in downtown Chicago.

That made the statue seem a good fit in Mesa, said DMA President Tom Verploegen.

"We think it will drive a couple hundred thousand people in four and a half months," he said. "When it left Chicago, the question there was: Who hasn't had their picture taken with God Bless America?"

The sculpture is displayed at Main Street and Macdonald, joining 36 pieces the DMA owns and displays permanently. The art is a popular Main Street attraction, especially among winter visitors.

The sculpture will invoke images of Mesa as salt-of-the-earth people - and that's fine, said Joanie Flatt, owner of an East Valley public relations firm. She's watched Mesa collectively wring its hands over its image for years, she said, and thinks things are slowly changing for the better.

She contrasted God Bless America with the 125-foot-tall sculpture in downtown Phoenix called Her Secret is Patience. The jellyfish-like netting is illuminated at night and has become a new feature of that city's downtown, but with some controversy.

Mesa should be proud of the more humble sculpture, she said.

"That's a gusty thing to bring in something like that, and it's not nearly as yucky looking as that amoeba-looking thing in the sky in Phoenix," Flatt said. "It's like a big placenta."

The sculpture is sure to trigger a discussion, said Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, a longtime arts supporter who added that he hopes visitors don't see it in the way Somers fears.

Kavanaugh figures anybody downtown will notice other sculptures and the modern Mesa Arts Center a block away, which features five modern art galleries.

"Look at the whole package of art that is on display in the downtown arts district," he said. "That's ultimately where people will form their opinion of the city."

Several other council members said they liked God Bless America. Councilwoman Dina Higgins sometimes makes and sells metal sculptures, but she objected to the DMA's expense in a poor economy.

"When we're just barely scraping along, to spend money on art is just really outlandish," she said.

Ongoing art displays tend to turn areas into popular tourist attractions that help the economy, said Valerie Vadala Homer, Scottsdale's public art director. She doesn't see a downside to God Bless America and figures it will boost interest in Mesa.

"Even people who are opposed to this or find it controversial, I will bet you that they will go look at it and will take a picture of it," Vadala Homer said.

Even Somers expects some people to see it because of its controversy. While he would have preferred a different sculpture, he said he knows it will do some good by attracting crowds - and more attention - to downtown.

"It's going to do all the things the DMA hopes it will do," Somers said. "You're writing a story about it, so it's working."

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