Merriam mayor breaks tie vote on six-figure investment in caterpillar and butterfly public art sculpture

The proposed sculpture design proved divisive among the Merriam city council, requiring Mayor Ken Sissom to break a tie vote.

The Merriam city council was split down the middle about approving a six-figure investment for a new piece of public art for Waterfall Park that depicts a large stone caterpillar next to a butterfly perched on a cairn of rocks.

With four members for and four members against the measure, Mayor Ken Sissom broke the tie to hire Boulder, Colo., artist Jason Wiener to create the sculpture, titled, “Hmmm.”

The stone caterpillar will be 9 feet tall. The metal butterfly atop the boulders will be 12 feet tall. Wiener’s concept behind the sculpture is the caterpillar mistaking the cairn for another caterpillar and then seeing its future as a butterfly.

Merriam Mayor Ken Sissom broke the tie vote.

Joshua Wiener’s contract of $95,000 comprises most of the city’s allotted $110,000 for the art project; the rest of the funds will cover other project costs such as site work and consulting fees, said Meredith Hauck, assistant city administrator.

Councilmembers in favor of the sculpture included Nancy Hupp, Brian Knaff, Al Frisby and Chris Evans Hands. Councilmembers against the sculpture were David Neal, Bob Pape, Robert Weems and Scott Diebold.

The caterpillar and butterfly sculpture will be located near Waterfall Park, located along Turkey Creek just west of I-35. Installation of the project is set for spring 2019.

Sissom said the public art program, including this project, is funded by the general sales tax. That means 18 percent, or $17,100, of the funds for the project will come from Merriam residents —  about a dollar and a half per resident, according to Hauck.

For every dollar Merriam collects in sales tax, 82 cents comes from visitors to Merriam, Hauck added.

“So although our residents are benefitting from public art, we’re not necessarily carrying the full weight of that expenditure because of how it’s funded,” Hauck said.

Merriam has already completed two public art projects for $240,000 for the public art program. “Still Time” is at Merriam and Johnson Drives, and “Planting the Seeds” is in Merriam Marketplace.

The vote came after much deliberation from the council as well as comments from art committee members and others from the audience.

Councilmembers in favor of the sculpture said they liked the meaning behind the art as it relates to Merriam history as well as science. Councilman Al Frisby said the concept was right for the location.

“It’s a caterpillar that is looking for what it’s going to be in the future; it’s like Merriam looking for what we’re going to be like in the future,” Frisby said. “I think it fits the area beautifully, and I think there’s going to be a lot of pictures taken along with that with kids.”

Councilmembers who voted against the expenditure were concerned about comments from their constituents who did not like the art, especially for the price.

Councilmember David Neal said he found negative reactions from park visitors who either didn’t like the sculpture concept or didn’t identify with it.

“When you’re dealing with public art, I think it’s something that should be readily identifiable to a substantial number of people,” Neal said, adding that he was also concerned with the choice of location, which he believes is not accessible enough. “There was not a single person who liked it. One guy said, ‘I’d sure hate to ride by that every day.’”

Several members of the public, including members of the public art committee, sang the praises of the sculpture and its potential positive impact on the community. James Martin, a former public art consultant for Merriam, spoke of the artwork’s “critical education opportunities” for children, such as the biology of insect life, geology and the history of Merriam.

Some audience members expressed concern with Jason Wiener’s art concept, particularly because of the price. Sam Matier, a former Merriam city council candidate who disagreed with the art committee’s recommendation, said he simply didn’t like the artwork, and others felt the same way. Matier sought comments from other residents who follow his local newsletter.

“I’m in favor of public art and making our community look good; I don’t think this is the one,” Matier said.

Overall, several members of the public, including Martin, said public art is an excellent opportunity for Americans to learn how to cordially disagree with each other.

“How do we disagree about what is good art and what is not? Perhaps we can come up with some community conversations about that,” Martin said. “If we can learn how to disagree about art, respectfully, perhaps we can learn to disagree about weightier topics: politics, climate change, sexual orientation, gender identity, guns, abortion. From my perspective, we’re at a moment in this country where we have forgotten how to disagree. I believe wholeheartedly that public art provides an incredible opportunity to do that.”