Fernley Art Park is a Work in Progress
I can't get these two stereotypes out of my mind: The term "Main Street" comes auto-loaded with pedestrians strolling down shaded sidewalks into ice cream parlors with striped awnings. The term "park" brings to mind amenities like lawns, picnic tables, and things that would make you want to linger outdoors for while.
Main Street Art Park opened last summer in Fernley, a ranching community turned subdivided industrial/commuter town 34 miles east of Reno.
The park is a joint venture between the city of Fernley, Burning Man, and Black Rock Arts Foundation, which was a subsidiary of Burning Man that placed large-scale, interactive artworks in public places until recently, when it folded into a new subsidiary called Burning Man Arts with a similar mission.
The idea behind the Main Street Art Park was partially to help welcome the thousands of Burner tourists who stop by each year and give the town's hotels, restaurants, and Walmart a late-summer boost. Another goal was to offer residents access to some cool art.
Before the park was a park, it was a narrow, gravel lot that looked like this: (It's in the center of the photo.)
Now that it's a park, it looks exactly like that still, with the addition of a long, tiled bench, a row of boulders delineating where to park, and the three sculptures.
Two of the works were previously shown at Burning Man. The city also commissioned Pan Pantoja of Reno Art Works to create a granite and tile sculpture of a desert tortoise. Pantoja, along with Aric Shapiro and their team, recruited dozens of Fernley schoolchildren to help paint and personalize the tiles.
One piece, "Rockspinner 6," is a 9,000-pound chunk of granite, placed upright on a metal post. It was made by Zach Coffin, whose physics-defying kinetic sculptures, often using boulders, have been among the most prominent, definitive works at Burning Man for years. Some of them are boulder-and-steel versions of playground-like structures you can ride on. This one you can make spin on its access by giving it a push.
The other piece from the playa is "Bottlecap Gazebo." It's a two-story lotus flower atop a wooden gazebo made in San Francisco by Max Poynton, Andrew Grindberg and a crew of 30+ volunteers who flattened 75,000 bottle caps, sorted them by color and wired them together to form giant, undulating flower petals. It has three wooden ladders and a second-story platform to stand on. (Oops. We saw the "no climbing" sign too late.)
I found each piece smartly conceived, well chosen, and inviting. (So did the tweens, teen, and grownup I brought along.) I particularly like the way each piece asserts the importance of play and resourcefulness, perfect themes if your aim is to translate some of the Burning Man art ethos to a public place in a small town.
But something was bugging me.
I get that Fernley was not conceived to be a pedestrian paradise. I get that its main drag is a thruway for vehicles. I get that it's a city of about 20,000 without a substantial public arts budget. And, having spoken previously with the thoughtful Mojra Hauenstein, Fernley's Community & Economic Development Director, I get that getting this artwork transported and installed involved all the efforts, meetings, budget considerations, citizen review boards, and other steps you'd expect from an ambitious public/private collaboration. Which is to say that a lot of people cared about bringing the project to fruition, and a lot of heart was put into it.
So I feel a little conflicted about saying this, even after having used that many qualifiers: I found it kind of a bummer to visit. In August, I found no shade from the heat. In November, I saw no other visitors. The park didn't feel like a spot where people would naturally congregate or linger. The nearest bathroom is across the highway at the 76 Station.
My gripe is simply that this set-up doesn't do justice to the artwork. It's very good work with a lot of public appeal, and I wished for better framing. Both times I visited, everyone in my family — people accustomed to being hauled on trips to visit off-the-beaten-path art spots so I can write about them, and who've developed quite a reserve of patience for waiting for me while I photograph, sketch, or interview — started saying, "OK, let's go" in under 10 minutes.
I asked the park's artists and administrators what they thought.
Aric Shapiro, a collaborator on Desert Tortoise, led with, "We love [the park]. It's a humble beginning, and that's OK. These kind of projects have to start somewhere." He pointed out that a park that met my ideal would have been prohibitively costly and added, "The people of Fernley seem to truly love the Desert Tortoise. … We had hundreds of visitors thank and praise us during our final weeks of the installation. It was a heartwarming experience for all of us."
Fernley's Community & Economic Development Director Mojra Hauenstein confirmed that the park is a work in progress. She explained, "The park will be developed over time in many phases as money and City Council priorities allow."
She estimates about 12 visitors a day, and she's observed first-hand how people use the park: "Many times people just sit under the gazebo or sit on the bench and rest on the way to somewhere. It is an opportunity for gathering."
She expects to see even more use: "Our vision is to find funds to make parts of the ground stained concrete and host farmers markets. Also we hope to provide a coin-activated water dispenser in the hope that the Burning Man folks come to refill their water containers and lessen plastic bottle accumulation in the landfills. It certainly is an improvement to the previous site, where semi-trucks would park. After all it is our downtown, and it will take some work over time to fulfill the final vision."
True to the community spirit of the project, Hauenstein implores, "Stay tuned and get involved — perhaps help us to get donations."