Public art debate rages in Lewes

Committees butt heads with council over placement
August 28, 2017

An 18-foot-high whirligig was at the center of a heated debate at Lewes Mayor and City Council’s Aug. 14 meeting. 

After it earned unanimous approval from the public art committee and the parks and recreation commission, some were surprised when council members had reservations about its proposed location in Otis Smith Park. 

The park is one of the city’s smaller public parks, located beside Savannah Road on the beach side of the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. The park is home to the Lewes Rotary Club’s pavilion and barbecue pit, which takes up a large portion of the park.

The “Oval Twister” was created by artist Lyman Whitaker. It would stand 18 feet high, 5 1/2 feet wide and weigh about 200 pounds. It’s appraised for $5,200. The whirligig, which spins but does not make any noise, is made of industrial copper and stainless steel, and it could withstand winds of up to 90 mph. It is expected to last 25 to 30 years. Art in Bloom, a committee of Lewes in Bloom, plans to purchase the piece and donate it to the city for placement. 

The location of the whirligig was the point of contention at council, with Mayor Ted Becker and Councilman Rob Morgan in favor of the location, while Deputy Mayor Fred Beaufait, Councilman Dennis Reardon and Councilwoman Bonnie Osler were critical. The contingent against the location each said they were not against the piece of art, only the proposed location. 

Ultimately, council voted unanimously to accept the “Oval Twister,” but tasked the public art committee with searching for alternative locations in which to place the sculpture. 

Becker said adding public art to Otis Smith Park would improve the appearance of the short stretch between the canal and the beach. 

“This has long been considered a blighted area,” he said. “I find this to be consistent with the efforts we are making to improve the appearance on the other side of the canal.”

Several members of the public urged the dissenting council members to change their minds. 

Beaufait said he did not like the way the audience was treating council.

“I feel like I’m being put on a guilt trip with this in terms of the pressure to accept it because it came to us unanimously,” he said. “I think we were elected by the people to provide the judgement for the management of the city.” 

He said most of the people who spoke in favor of the location were members of Lewes in Bloom. Becker said the city received two emails against the application. Two others spoke against at the public hearing and council meeting.  

Pilottown Village resident Linda Rathmanner said the location is inappropriate because the whirligig would draw motorists’ attention away from Savannah Road, possibly creating unsafe situations. 

“It’s meant to be seen, and it will be a distraction,” she said. “There are a lot of accidents on Savannah Road because of people not paying attention. I just don’t think that’s the proper venue for something of this nature.”

Savannah Road resident Brook Hedge was concerned the whirligig would get lost among the trees, utility poles and signs. 

“I suggest you think of a different location where it’s a beacon, something that has a view that is not obstructed,” she said. 

Other residents said the “Oval Twister” is designed attract people to the area, and it would be a draw for businesses in the area.  

“I think coming over the bridge going to the beach, people are going to be enthralled by this,” said Ed Zygmonski, chair of the public art application review committee. “It’s going to be cool-looking and something people will talk about.” 

Zygmonski said the proposed “Oval Twister” could serve a similar purpose as the totem pole in Bethany Beach.

“I’ve been here 40 years and I’m still not sure what Indian culture has to do with the modern beach town of Bethany Beach, but yet the totem pole is cool and a lot of people think it’s cool and refer to it,” he said.

Zygmonski called the approval process for a public piece of art unwieldy.

“Two years ago we suggested that we have art in public spaces in Lewes,” he said. “It took almost a year and a half for a policy to be adopted.” 

From there, he said, Art in Bloom approached city council about placing a piece of public art. From there it went to the public art committee, then the parks and rec commission, and finally before city council. 

Art in Bloom member Gavin Braithwaite urged council members to respect the opinions of the committee members serving, which include a horticulturalist, an architectural designer, an artist and the owner of an art framing business. 

“I just find it amazing that council would want to question that kind of expertise,” he said.

Osler said while many people were celebrating the size of the Oval Twister, it was one of her main concerns. 

“It’s pretty enormous in relative size of the park,” she said. “It would be so out of proportion to what is around it.” 

Osler suggested the whirligig would be better suited at another location, such as at the new trailhead, outside the new library or in Stango Park. It would still stand prominently at each location, she said.

Now that the Oval Twister has approval, the issue of location will go back to the public art committee for consideration. It will be the group’s task to recommend the best location for the whirligig.

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