OURAY COUNTY – Public art and politics are never far apart. And the decision to place a 13-foot tall bronze statue in the parking lot of the Ouray County Fairgrounds has stirred a well of deep feeling.
Part-time Ridgway resident William Widger has offered two monumental western sculptures by Cody, Wyo., artist Vic Payne to the Ouray County Fairgrounds. But, as Fairgrounds Manager Susan Long explained to the county commissioners at their July 14 meeting, only one sculpture could be accommodated within the triangle of the parking lot outside the 4-H Event Center. (Because the property is within Ridgway town limits but is owned by the county, any public sculpture requires county approval.)
According to Long, the commissioners discussed polling county residents to see which of the two they preferred, and Ouray Newspapers (Plaindealer and Sun) editor Beecher Threatt volunteered her organization’s website to host the poll. Long would like the vote to wrap up by Friday, July 1 so that she can report results at the BOCC meeting July 5.
Controversy has dogged the project from the beginning, however. Donor William Widger was the patron behind the placement, a few years ago, of another Vic Payne work titled “A Leaf on a River.” It was set in Trail Town just north of the Hwy 62 intersection. The sculpture, of a mountain man standing in the bow of a birch-bark canoe paddled by an Indian, was based, according to Payne, on a quote attributed to Daniel Boone. His life of adventure, Boone is reported to have said, was like “a leaf on a river.”
The piece met with near universal disapproval from the community, however, for its placement, its Eastern U.S. subject matter, its racial undertones, and its general inappropriateness to Ridgway. Widger had it removed.
Of the two pieces he is proposing for permanent exhibit at the Fairgrounds, one, “Memories,” is relatively non-controversial. According to Payne’s web site (vicpaynestudio.com), it is openly autobiographical. An older man (Payne’s grandfather?) rides with a young boy in the saddle in front of him. They’re out hunting. The grandfather is pointing off to his right. But the horse is looking back to its left.
Payne’s work usually has a strong narrative element. In this one, the horse has spotted, though the riders have not, two bucks behind a nearby rock.
The other sculpture, titled “Texas Two-Step” (though the online poll refers to it as “Ridgway Rodeo”), has generated more negative response. It depicts a young cowboy on a rearing horse who has roped a “whitetail buck” by the antlers. Buck roping is either illegal or severely frowned upon across the West now, but was done, apparently, in frontier America. It is a dramatic, dynamic, overtly romantic moment – appropriate or not – rendered 13 feet high by 12 feet long by 7½ feet wide. It would be seen by thousands of motorists and fair-goers every year.
This is reportedly the piece Widger prefers to be placed at the Fairgrounds. (Attempts to reach Widger for comment were unsuccessful.) What the commissioners will do with the poll results is unclear at this time. Long told The Watch that she will also be presenting to the commissioners recommendations from the Fairgrounds Advisory Committee and recommendations from PARC, the recently formed Public Art in Ridgway Colorado.
PARC has launched an effort to bring sculpture to outdoor spaces in Ridgway in a program similar to those on Main Street corners in Montrose and Grand Junction. PARC’s plan is to call for submissions then exhibit pieces by established regional artists for one year and use its annual fundraising capability to purchase one work per year for the town.
According to PARC Co-Chair Caroline Lescroart, her group is “technically not involved” in the Fairgrounds flap. PARC did “introduce” the donor and the county. But “this is out of the scope of our program,” Lescroart said. “We’re just trying to help with possibilities” in what would be, as she understood it, a “lifetime exhibit” – not a donation – to the county, of either “Memories” or “Texas Two Step.”
Stay tuned for more art drama at the July 5 BOCC meeting.
Susan Long can be reached at the Fairgrounds office at 626-3304.