“9th and 9th is unexpected and out of the blue. A community where people from all backgrounds, beliefs and ideas migrate and feel a sense of belonging. A community that bursts through expectations; commanding respect for nature, others’ ideas and identities,” says Stephen Kesler, the artist behind the infamous whale sculpture that looms over the roundabout on 11th E and 900 S, a sight familiar to many Rowland Hall students. The whale, seemingly irrelevant to the surrounding landscape, has warranted much attention, both positive and negative. What do people have to say about the inclusion of this rather large neighbor into the 9th and 9th community? What do these perspectives tell us about how we, as a community, view public art?
Locals reacted in a variety of ways, both positive and negative, to the addition of Kesler’s whale. The whale has amassed massive controversy, being described by Robert Barth as more of “a tacky come-on for a honky tonk carnival than a dignified piece of public art.” As for artistic value, the whale “lacks creativity, a good design sense, proper placement, and overall interest,” according to worried citizen Scott Perry. During the pandemic, residents placed garden gnomes on the intersection because the city had yet to do anything with the space. Since mayor Erin Mendenhall approved the whale project in March 2021, locals have voiced concern regarding the relationship of their makeshift public art piece to Kesler’s whale. As a compromise, the city agreed to leave the gnomes at the base of the whale for a few months. In general, local perspectives on the whale have been dependent on its role in their community, with some voicing their opinions on the actual aesthetic of the whale. The more design-oriented inputs give little regard to how we ought to view public art; what makes “a good design sense” anyways?
Similarly, students have a number of things to say about Out of the Blue, which, though not necessarily affecting them directly, still makes a humongous imprint on their minds. The whale overlooks the 9th and 9th area, keeping track of students like an ocean-dwelling Big Brother. Max Jansen, a junior, describes the whale as “kinda mid,” stating that “it’s a bit ugly from far away… but it’s unique enough to make 9th more interesting.” Junior Kai Thielking thinks that the whale is a “good idea,” while Nate Kanter believes the opposite, saying that “it [the whale] is terrible.” Overall, student opinions vary, but most involve some sort of aesthetic critique. What makes the difference between “kinda mid” and a “good idea?”
To gain some insight into the question of aesthetics and how we evaluate public art, I interviewed Ms. Wolfer, an art teacher at Rowland Hall. Regarding the framework through which we ought to evaluate public art, Ms. Wolfer believes that public art is successful if “it creates a dialogue within a community, gets people talking and looking,” and, overall, “engages the community.” While some, like Scott Perry or Nate Kanter, believe that the addition of a whale sculpture in a landlocked state is absurd, Ms. Wolfer thinks that it’s a “nice juxtaposition.”
To conclude, Kesler’s whale has made a big impact on the surrounding area, attracting and deterring locals, students, and other passersby that might, out of the corner of their eye, catch a glimpse of the whale. Opinions regarding the whale certainly vary, as it’s loved by some and detested by others. Such is the role of any piece of public art. This is mostly because the whale is just weird, and weird things get people talking. The whale is certainly creating dialogue, so is it successful as a piece of public art? What do you think? Was the addition of Kesler’s whale an uninspired “honky-tonk” flop? Or has the whale been a roaring (or… vocalizing?) success?