Cars drive past the “Out of the Blue” whale sculpture in Salt Lake City. City leaders cut a ribbon to “whalecome” the 23-foot-tall sculpture Monday night. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)
Estimated reading time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — When Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano surveyed homes in the 9th and 9th Districts ahead of last year’s election, he tried to seemingly avoid the biggest question sweeping the neighborhood in the time.
Team Gnome or Team Whale?
The Gnome team formed with the installation of a roundabout at the intersection of 900 South, 1100 East and Gilmer Drive in 2019. Residents filled a mulch space in the center with garden gnomes to spruce it up a bit. However, Team Whale emerged victorious when the city’s art leaders chose a 23-foot-tall, 40-foot-wide whale sculpture dubbed “Out of the Blue” to fill that empty space. .
And as a crowd of more than 100 locals gathered in the parking lot of a cafe to “whalecome” the large sculpture on Monday night, Mano admits he held a tough stance the whole time.
“I feel safe enough here to tell you all that I have always been Team Whale,” he told a crowd.
Moments later, perhaps as a peace offering from the other side, two gnomes held up the red ribbon that townspeople and leaders cut to celebrate the arrival of the interesting – and controversial – new resident of the piece.
Why a whale?
The origin of the whale is long before the roundabout, in a way. For Stephen Kesler, a whale is how he would describe how he saw the neighborhood when he was a teenager and first came to Midvale. It was a completely different experience, seeing a splash of hip businesses in a cozy neighborhood.
It was like seeing a whale in the middle of a desert.
“It was unexpected for me,” he said, recalling his first reaction in the area. “I was amazed by the culture, the art, the cafe, the vegetarian shop – it seemed so progressive. It was like something I had never seen before in the valley. It was at the improvised.”
So when the Utah-based artist saw a request for artistic designs for the neighborhood’s new roundabout, he went back to his initial feeling about the area to help describe it visually. This idea also matched what neighborhood leaders expected from a sculpture when the Salt Lake City Arts Council first approached them about a sculpture in 2019.
I think you will always find, see and do something interesting when you come to this neighborhood.
–Jason Stevenson, Co-Chair of East Liberty Park Community Organization
Jason Stevenson, co-chair of the East Liberty Park Community Organization, said a survey of more than 100 neighborhood residents provided a wealth of information, indicating the direction of the project. The whale and a mural designed by artist Mike Murdock ultimately matched the types of representation residents sought.
He also sees it as the perfect trim for the roundabout it’s on.
“(The roundabout) adds to the interest of this neighborhood, and a whale adds an exclamation point to that. … I think you’re always going to find, see and do something interesting when you come to this neighborhood,” he said. “It can be the people you meet, the restaurants and stores you go to, or it can just be a beautiful sunset you encounter while walking 9th South.”
A whale of a debate
There’s a fun thing about art, though. It is always open to many interpretations. Kesler figured it would cause ripples when the city picked it; however, he was unprepared for the controversies that would come.
It started with the Team Whale and Team Gnome debates on social media last year, which have only intensified since it was installed earlier this month.
And while there were several dozen people at Monday’s event in addition to the countless who stopped to take a photo of the sculpture, at least one resident wrote an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune at the over the weekend, blowing it up as a project that “lacks creativity, good design sense, good placement and general interest”. Some locals have placed messages in the form of gnomes protesting the whale in recent months.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall joked that even his own mother repeatedly asked why there was now a giant whale in the middle of town.
There’s also an argument to be made about whales in Salt Lake City. Firstly there is a folklore of whales living in the Great Salt Lake which dates back to the 1800’s the town was once submerged in a giant inland sea which was Lake Bonneville and there is a children’s board game which uses a whale to symbolize Salt Lake City for some reason.
But ultimately, whether people like the whale or not, the mayor argues that the first week’s reactions show that the whale is fulfilling its function as a new symbol of the unique neighborhood.
“(Art) can activate our imagination and can even make us ask ourselves questions,” she explained. “That’s the beauty of public art. (It’s) not necessarily the most comforting thing you can see in your day, but something that makes you remember and feel a place.”
A community mascot
Stevenson says he’s aware there are likely some residents who are still unsure about the whale or making up their minds about it, but he’s confident they’ll come to terms with the idea. The next process, with the whale in place, is to come up with a name for it.
It also contains some interesting information about the area that future generations might stumble upon. Mano pointed out that there was a time capsule hidden within the whale, containing artifacts from second and third graders who attend nearby Bennion Elementary School.
Community leaders expect this to be a long-term get-together telling the story of the community.
“You need something that’s instantly recognizable and fun, and you don’t have to guess what it is,” Stevenson says. “I think the whale does just that. You can tell what it is, you know what it is, and it makes you smile by the way.”