On an overcast April day, a crowd gathered two blocks east of Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th intersection to welcome their newest neighbor. Kids ate whale-shaped cookies and sipped cocoa, families brought their dogs and some guy wore a possibly-ironic, possibly-sincere sailor hat. The event officially unveiled the Stephen Kesler sculpture Out of the Blue, an impossible-to-miss, 23-foot-tall sculpture of a humpback whale, painted in vibrant rainbow hues by muralist Mike Murdock. Besides two tongue-in-cheek protestors—one holding a cardboard sign that read “turn it 90 degrees” and another that read “what he said”—you wouldn’t know the level of controversy that this colorful sea mammal had attracted. But the controversy was real—before Kesler’s work was even finished, the sculpture had become one of the most attention-grabbing, highly criticized Utah artworks in recent memory.
Out of the Blue was commissioned by the Salt Lake City Arts Council, which wanted to add public art to a new traffic circle at 900 South and 1100 East. The process, unsurprisingly for any project involving multiple stakeholders and taxpayer money, was halting. The Salt Lake Art Design Board decided on the site and opened applications for artists in 2019. In 2020, the Board initially selected a different proposal before reversing their decision and recommending Out of the Blue to Mayor Erin Mendenhall. Meanwhile, nearby residents began placing garden gnomes in the empty space, a whimsical act of community collaboration during the early days of pandemic isolation.
“One of the main goals of the public art program is to provide a sense of place, a sense of identity,” says Public Art Program Manager Renato Olmedo-González. (He was hired after Kesler’s sculpture was chosen.) Public art should also be, ideally, embraced by the public. In a Q&A posted in 2021, the Arts Council said, “The project was discussed in seven public Art Design Board meetings, two public info sessions, at an East Liberty Park Community Organization meeting, and through a community survey which received over 100 responses.”
Still, many residents were unpleasantly surprised by the renderings, and by the time Mendenhall approved the sculpture in March 2021, Kesler’s whale was already a magnet for controversy. Neighborhood residents complained on the app Nextdoor. When (inaccurate) rumors spread that Out of the Blue would forcibly displace the beloved gnome community, more than 700 people signed a change.org petition to save the gnomes. Multiple crotchety letters opposing the whale were published in The Salt Lake Tribune. After officially announcing the project, the Arts Council’s website was inundated with bizarre negative comments. One comment compared the work to a “giant winged phallus.” “I have a legit phobia of whales and this will make it very hard for me to visit one of my favorite locations in SLC,” another said. One nearly 1,000-word diatribe included eight numbered arguments against the sculpture. The claims ranged from understandable—like the potential for traffic hazards, though the city’s Transportation and Engineering departments okayed the project—to absurd, like the confusing statement that the concept was “potentially homophobic.”
Out of the Blue is a lot of things to a lot of people, but I’d hope most of us can agree that it’s not a trigger-inducing, car-crash-causing mega-phallus. Still, it makes sense why the idea was confusing to many living in the area. “You drop a whale in someone’s neighborhood, they’re going to question it,” says Kesler. Kesler—who has made several other wildlife sculptures, including two other humpback whales displayed at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium—aimed to fill the space with a striking, in-your-face artwork. He wanted to capture the eclectic spirit that drew him to 9th and 9th as a teenager growing up in the suburbs, that same spirit he felt as a longtime resident of the neighborhood.
“Out of the Blue was chosen because it complimented the dynamic nature of the 9th and 9th neighborhood,” Olmedo-González explains. “It augments the idea that 9th and 9th is a welcoming place. It’s a place that is very unexpected. It’s a place that values uniqueness.”
Kesler was vaguely aware of the brewing public debate, but he intentionally avoided engaging with the criticism as he created his work. The sculpture began with a steel frame, crafted by a structural engineer, made from more than 900 feet of square tubing. (At this point, Kesler says the creation looked like a “skinned robot.”) Kesler then began fabrication alongside his brother Ken. Because the warehouse he was working in wasn’t tall enough to fit the entire structure, Kesler carved the shape, made of recycled polystyrene foam, four feet at a time. At the roundabout, a fiberglass “skin” covered the structure and the foam was replaced with the reinforcing steel frame. After assembly, Ken and Stephen spent several days sanding, bonding and priming the fiberglass before Murdock painted the sculpture.
While Kesler had tried to insulate himself from negative comments, he had no choice but to engage with the public while installing Out of the Blue at the roundabout. Luckily, most comments were positive, and neighbors came by to offer support or cups of coffee. “I talked to a lot of people that saw it online, didn’t like it, went to the roundabout and completely changed their minds,” Olmedo-González says. Still, there were a few negative remarks, including one particularly mean group of serial hecklers that repeatedly drove by the sculpture. Olmedo-González says that the public criticism took on a personal dimension for him. Many critiques had a common theme—that the whale “didn’t belong.” For Olmedo-González, a queer man who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, “the narrative of things ‘not belonging’ is something I’ve heard throughout my entire life in the United States.” It stung to hear so many insist that something was out of place in Utah just because it looked different. “There are all these layers to my personal identity that are totally valid to apply to an artwork,” he says.
While it’s never easy to hear your own work criticized so publicly, with time Kesler accepted and even embraced the divisive reaction. “I love every comment about it, negative or positive, because it’s what public art is supposed to do—start a conversation,” Kesler says.
“Any public art piece, especially this one, deserves to be interacted with and discussed amongst the community,” Olmedo-González agrees. He says that Out of the Blue fulfilled the core mission of public art “in ways that perhaps are, much like the sculpture, unexpected.”
Even the internet has ultimately come to embrace the whale. The sculpture already feels like an unofficial mascot for the neighborhood, and plenty of memes lovingly, if cheekily, celebrate Out of the Blue as yet another weird, quintessentially Utah piece of our cultural history. Kesler has heard from people who have “felt out of place in Utah for whatever reason that they connect to that piece because of it.” “Give it a chance, soak it in, take it in, come up with your own meanings,” Olmedo-González says. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the gnomes and the whale are coexisting just fine.
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