Friday Harbor should embrace power of public art

The man was in full stride, his head a mop of curly hair, his face a study in determination, his chest pulling in a lungful of air, the muscles in his left leg taut with strength.

His right leg was prosthetic, replacing a cancerous leg removed when he was 18. He was running a Marathon of Hope, a run across Canada to raise awareness and funds for cancer research and patient treatment.

You may have figured out that this young man is Terry Fox, the figure before me a statue. Fox, you may recall, died of cancer June 28, 1981, a year after his 3,339-mile run from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 143 days.

Cancer stopped him, but that statue of Terry Fox in Mile 0 Park in Victoria, B.C. (there are others in Canada) is a bronze reminder that the work must continue. “Even if I don’t finish, we need others to continue,” Fox said during his Marathon of Hope. “It’s got to keep going without me.”

This representation of Fox was a reminder of the courage that we are capable of summoning when we face a personal Everest. It was a hopeful message that all of us are capable of exceeding our grasp, that we are all capable of selflessness.

Several feet from Terry Fox’s statue at Mile 0 Park is a plaque commemorating Steve Fonyo’s cross-Canada run from March 1984 to May 1985, which began at St. John’s and ended at this park overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Fonyo is a cancer survivor who was inspired by Fox; Fonyo’s left leg had been amputated. His run raised $14 million for cancer research and treatment. His father died of lung cancer during his run.

How many more people will be inspired by this public art that tells Fox and Fonyo’s stories? What force for change might this be? How many of us might be inspired to look beyond our own perceived limitations and reach to exceed our grasp?

Look closer to home, and consider how people might be compelled to environmental stewardship by Matthew Gray Palmer’s sculpture of Popeye, the one-eyed Friday Harbor seal, at Jack Fairweather Park; or Doug Bison’s killer whale sculpture at Lime Kiln State Park.

Consider how people might come to understand the island’s Coast Salish heritage, as well as their own relationship with the environment that sustains us, because of Susan Point’s “Interaction,” the Coast Salish house posts at Jack Fairweather Park.

Consider how our view of art and environment is influenced by sea, sky and sculpture at Westcott Bay Sculpture Park. While looking at a sculpture, a movement of cloud, the changing color of late-afternoon sky, the dance of grass to a breeze can give us a different view to contemplate.

When Chinmayo and Beth Spadafora change a blank wall on Blair Avenue into a tile mural celebrating the town’s centennial, imagine how much brighter that streetscape will be.

Consider how people might have come to see and appreciate the rich cultural fabric of the community if Raul Vallejano had received permission to paint a scenic mural reflecting those cultures at Sunken Park.

Ah, but if public art were a prominent part of Friday Harbor’s landscape. I’ve been to Town Council meetings when public art projects were proposed; the council embraced them, but the projects failed to materialize. Why? Town Councils approve budgets and legislation. They aren’t in the business of shepherding art projects from beginning to end. But they can initiate a system that will shepherd it through — much like the Centennial Advisory Committee is shepherding the town’s centennial celebration, and the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee is reviewing and recommending funding for tourism promotion, and the Historic Preservation Review Board is working to save the town’s heritage buildings.

I’d like to recommend the Town Council establish a Public Art Advisory Committee to establish standards for, and encourage, public art in Friday Harbor.

Public art not only makes our lives more lovely, it’s a powerful force for change.

I’ll close with this paraphrase of President John F. Kennedy’s wonderful words about the power of poetry; I believe his words apply to all forms of art, including public art:

When power leads man toward arrogance, art reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, art reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, art cleanses.

Ah, but if public art were a prominent part of Friday Harbor’s landscape, indeed.

— Richard Walker is editor of The Journal and Thoughts of Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo help him start each morning with a heart-pounding, blood-pumping run.