City seeks location for Sebastopol’s first commissioned public art piece

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, February 9, 2021

Local artist Ned Kahn presented an image of how his proposed art installation would look like at the Sebastopol Public Works building from Morris Street at the Sebastopol City Council meeting Feb. 2, 2021. The city council held off on approving the revised site and concept that night, hoping to find a more visible location. (Photo courtesy city of Sebastopol)

The city of Sebastopol’s first commissioned public art piece rounds another corner toward its first destination, but where the destination is exactly remains unknown. At the Feb. 2 Sebastopol City Council meeting, the council chose to continue to search for a location for the piece comissioned from local artist Ned Kahn, rather than plant a roughly 30-foot tall spiral column in the Sebastopol Public Works corporation yard.

While the city council did not take formal action, they delayed approving a recommendation from Planning Director Kari Svanstrom and the Public Arts Committee (PAC) to approve the revised location and concept that Svanstrom said developed after months of exploring potential sites.

According to the item’s council agenda report, the art could have been installed at the public works site within months of council approval, but Mary Gourley, city clerk and assistant city manager, said in a Feb. 8 email that the topic will probably return to the city council in April.

Kahn said he envisions his sculpture to be a hollow, stainless steel frame of seven cubes somewhat twisting into a helix, with a stainless steel base of I-beams lodged less than a foot underground, extending 20 feet out.

“The skin of it is a fine lattice work of thin polycarbonate hinge elements that move in the wind. It was inspired by eucalyptus tree leaves moving in the wind,” he said, picturing “a register of the atmosphere.”

Svanstrom said the city council chose Kahn’s proposal for its first commissioned public art project years ago, but plans approved in 2017 to place his art east of the Highway 12 bridge in California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) right-of-way fell apart during a twisty permitting process.

According to Svanstrom, the project became too costly and never made it through all the hoops after Caltrans changed their permitting process “in the middle of it,” requiring resubmitted plans than what previous planning director Kenyon Webster had already put forward.

Escalating construction costs following the Tubbs Fire and tariffs on steel and other materials hitched the project out of the city’s price range, she said. Getting the project approved for city-owned land would be faster and simpler than another encounter with Caltrans, according to Svanstrom.

Most of the council questioned the more subdued location and began to generate a list of alternative sites, though Kahn and Marghe Mills-Thysen, vice chair of the Public Art Committee (PAC), said they had already exhausted a list of locations with more visibility that wouldn’t work out for various reasons.

When Councilmember Diana Rich asked if there were more visible locations Kahn thought could be explored more deeply, he ventured that the Sebastopol Center for the Arts expressed interest in the past, even though less wind reaches the depression in the land he imagined the structure could go.

Kahn said the proposed public works location wasn’t ideal, but that the piece is portable enough to be dismantled and reassembled elsewhere in two days, so it could easily head to

the front of the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center across the street or in front of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

The Tomodachi Park entrance arose as another landing place, with some council members eager to see what they could do. Vice Mayor Sarah Glade Gurney suggested the park sign could be moved and wanted to know more about discussions with the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District about a conservation easement and deed restriction she said last stumped talks.

Svanstrom said she could probe further on the issue and Hinton said she could assist the planning director to get the issue back on the table.

“Believe me, I can twist some arms,” Hinton said, as a member of the district’s advisory committee.

Slayter said he was fine with the public works building as the installation’s first stop, though not ideal or very visible. He said finding sites for public art was important, but that “every one of these is a potential site for public art and I think it’s doing a bit of a disservice to the Public Arts Committee who have been through this. They have vetted this over and over again.”

Mills-Thysen said its height could be seen from key locations when people head into town, but council members said they wanted to catch more eyes somewhere else.

“Especially for the launch if we’re going to do rotating the sculpture around,” Hinton said. “It’s such an important thing that we’ve worked a really long time on. I think it’s the largest investment we’ve made on a public art piece.”

Gurney also raised the possibility of a grassy area on the Park Village property that Svanstrom said might have potential, though environmental issues may also abound.

The way into Sebastopol from Cotati piqued Mayor Una Glass’ interest, specifically on South Main Street where the Solar Dragon solar panel installation sits at Spooner Park.

Kahn said he and Keyon Webster had previously retired the idea to avoid possible competition between the two installations.

Gurney’s list included the South Hyde parking lot where she said the city could remove some parking spaces and surround Kahn’s sculpture with benches, or the Burnett parking lot on South Main Street if the city could create a small surrounding park. Gurney and Hinton entertained the idea of finding a way to settle the spiral by CVS where she said a mini park already existed.

“I feel the frustration of Public Arts Committee and Ned that this has taken so long,” Gurney said. “So we can all just kind of growl about Caltrans as therapy and then get on with finding a good place because I have to acknowledge that we’ve hired an internationally renowned sculptor to do this and what we are hoping for in our hearts was a gateway piece, that iconic piece that says, ‘This is Sebastopol. You’re here.’”

Kahn said he was open to scoping out further whether the Ag + Open Space area or some of the sites could work and Mills-Thysen said she would yield him that choice, adding “I can’t speak for the whole rest of the PAC.”

“I mean, we’ve come this far. Just a few more months to find the perfect place — for me, I just thank you, Ned, and thanks to the Public Arts Committee,” Hinton said.

This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at