Visual Arts

Fifteen years after the Squaw Peak Pots debacle, the Phoenix art community rallies around a public-art project

Not long after I arrived in Phoenix, a strange site appeared as I traveled north on the 51. The Pots Along the Freeway were like a divine apparition to a suffering saint. First, I noticed a mammoth old-fashioned campfire coffee pot standing watch over oncoming traffic. Then I sighted a gargantuan decorated Native American water pot embedded in a noise-abatement wall that could have been left behind by The Spirit in the Sky.

A refugee from the severe economic downturn wracking my beloved native Southern California, I had rolled into Phoenix in late '92, kicking and sobbing. That particular day, it was 105 degrees and two of the three money-sucking air conditioners in our rental house were down. No one, except for government types, had an Internet connection, cell phones were the size of small suitcases, and satellite radio was not an option to avoid Rush Limbaugh harangues as you drove across the desert. Resorts, retirees, and right-wing conservatism seemed to reign supreme here, with not a Vietnamese restaurant in sight. I thought I was going to die.

Then I saw those pots.

I had stumbled onto an eye-catching series of screwy-scaled vessels made from a combo of painted concrete and steel, officially titled Wall Cycle to Ocotillo. The pots, I would later learn, were the cornerstone of a half-million-dollar sculpture/landscaping public art project awarded by the fledging Phoenix Arts Commission to two Massachusetts artists, Mags Harries and Lajos Heder. A number of them perched and teetered atop freeway sound barriers running north from McDowell Road to Ocotillo Road, just south of Glendale Avenue.

They mesmerized me. Those pots gave me a flicker of hope that Phoenix wasn't as culturally desiccated as I'd thought — that someone here in this vale of triple-digit temperatures and double-digit I.Q.'s actually had a pretty artfully honed sense of humor. Not-so-fond memories of the rabid criticism they sparked haunted me recently when a similar crisis erupted over a spectacular sculpture proposed for a new downtown park.

Little did I know that my miraculous pots were at the center of a local political firestorm that ratcheted Phoenix's public-opinion heat index considerably above tolerable. Commonly referred to as The Squaw Peak Pots, the public art project was envisioned as a way to mitigate the ugliness of freeway noise-abatement walls that sliced through a number of neighborhoods when the 51 was expanded. It also included sculptures in sitting areas, gardens, and canal rest stops on the neighborhood side of the walls.

Enraged by the freeway's literal incursion into their backyards and feeling left out of the process of choosing art for the affected areas, many residents became even more fired up about both the pots' presence and their allegedly unconscionable cost at a time when Phoenix was in the throes of the bust portion of the Valley's traditional boom-or-bust market cycle. However, the rest of the world (including Newsweek and the New York Times) was soon applauding Phoenix's public arts program as a visionary template for the melding of art and infrastructure, one that ultimately would garner awards and admirers the world over.

I largely blame the mainstream local media for the public ire. The woefully uninformed Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini led the brigade of malcontents infuriated by the pots. Then, talk radio jumped into the fray, raising any possible dialogue to diatribe. When an unidentified jokester placed a golden commode and a beat-up garbage can atop of one the walls, followed by someone toppling a large glass sculpture by lassoing it, Wild West-style, TV coverage began in earnest. City officials looking for a photo op, specifically Mayor Paul Johnson and city councilman (and future mayor) Skip Rimsza, became part of the feeding frenzy. The City Manager's Office, as well as the mayor and council, did much chest-beating over their perceived lack of supervision and control over the Arts Commission and the selection process for public art.

Also stoking the conflagration were cranky artists from Phoenix's still- nascent arts community. According to Beatrice Moore, undisputed doyenne of the downtown arts scene and a member of the Arts Commission at the time, these artists had their noses out of joint because the project had been awarded to out-of-state artists.

Ultimately, after several years, the 51 was expanded again and six pots visible from the freeway were taken down. One of those had been vandalized beyond repair. The rest remain in storage to this day because it would require costly re-engineering of the renovated freeway sound walls to accommodate the heavy pots.

Most of the great pieces on the neighborhood side still exist, however, with nary a whimper from residents. I'm still mourning the disappearance of those freeway pots into stored oblivion. They were a crucial part of Phoenix's early public art history.

What a difference 15 years can make. With Phoenix's burgeoning physical growth came serious cultural development. Phoenix Art Museum was expanded, and new Valley museums and performance venues were built with bond money. Museums, especially Arizona State University Art Museum, began gaining an international reputation for showing important contemporary art, and downtown galleries began to pop up like weeds after a good rain. First Friday art walks now bring thousands every month to a place that was once the sole realm of daytime office workers and questionable nighttime types.

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Kathleen Vanesian