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A Whale, A Roundabout And A Colony Of Gnomes Are At A Crossroads In Ninth And Ninth

Stephen Kesler’s sculpture “Out of the Blue” will command a towering view of the boutique-lined boulevard of 900 South.
Renee Bright / KUER
Stephen Kesler’s sculpture “Out of the Blue” will command a towering view of the boutique-lined boulevard of 900 South.

From the moment he steps out his front door in Salt Lake City’s Ninth and Ninth neighborhood, Stephen Dark can see the roundabout.

It’s at the center of the intersection at 1100 East and 900 South. Dark is from England where traffic roundabouts are commonplace, and says enjoys standing in his yard from time to time to witness the vehicular spectacle.

“As somebody who grew up with roundabouts, it’s always intriguing to watch how Americans negotiate them,” he said. “They approach them with a passion and a certain disregard for creating some kind of collision. Luckily up to now, there’s been nothing like that.”

But another kind of collision — a butting of heads — has struck the intersection. It’s over public art, and it pits the defenders of the current occupants of the roundabout against a surprising newcomer.

Team Gnome Digs In

The gnomes on the roundabout come in all shapes, sizes and colors.
Benjamin Bombard / KUER
The gnomes on the roundabout come in all shapes, sizes and colors.

The roundabout was installed two years ago. Shortly after, the woodchip-covered mound at the center of the concrete platform was colonized by a troop of diminutive denizens: gnomes.

“To my recollection,” Dark said, “it didn’t take long for the first ones to start appearing, and they’ve been a slow but gentle proliferation around that little hump there.”

The gnomes on the roundabout represent a broad spectrum of their kind. There’s a blue gnome, a silver gnome, a couple wizard gnomes. There are several female gnomes. One has a mushroom for a cap. Another stands outside her miniature house looking on with terror as a housecat gnaws on a fellow gnome.

The mythical creatures have emerged as a sort of organic art project curated by people in the neighborhood.

“They’ve kind of come to symbolize a sense of well-wishing for the community and for this little neighborhood,” Dark said. “At the same time [they’re] this kind of eccentric portrait of people’s aspirations for individuality in an area which is quite diverse. Many of the people who live here, like myself, are imports.”

The area will grow even more diverse this fall with the arrival of a new resident — one that’s causing quite a stir.

Planned Sculpture Breaches The Surface

The roundabout — and its gnome residents — sits at the center of a forest of traffic signs.
Benjamin Bombard / KUER
The roundabout — and its gnome residents — sits at the center of a forest of traffic signs.

In February, after a public process that passed through two rounds of submissions, the Salt Lake City Art Design Board made a surprising choice for the public art installation officially planned for the roundabout. They chose a sculpture of a humpback whale by local artist Stephen Kesler. As originally designed, it will stand two-stories tall, its fins stretching forty feet wide. Frozen dramatically in mid-breach, bursting from the center of the roundabout, it will command a towering view of the boutique-lined boulevard of 900 South.

Kesler said he drew on his history with the Ninth and Ninth neighborhood as inspiration for the artwork. He grew up in the Midvale-Sandy area, where he said he was surrounded by chain stores, strip-malls and concrete.

When he and his friends got their driver's licenses in the early 1990s, they began to explore the Salt Lake metropolitan area. That’s when he came across the Ninth and Ninth neighborhood.

“It felt like nothing I had experienced in Salt Lake or Utah,” he said. “It was filled with independent record stores and coffee shops — the Tower Theatre. It was very eclectic. For me, it was out of the blue — unexpected. So that’s what the title of this piece is, “Out of the Blue.”

What The Whale?

Stephen Kesler at work in his studio on one of his whale sculptures in 2015.
Dan Kesler
Stephen Kesler at work in his studio on one of his whale sculptures in 2015.

Just as Kesler found the neighborhood surprising, a lot of people are surprised to learn about his sculpture slated to live there. A whale? In land-locked Utah? It’s been a hard sell for many.

Scott Perry, a graphic designer who lives up the street from the roundabout, drew an editorial cartoon to express his opinion about Kesler’s sculpture. It shows the roundabout with the breaching whale, and there are two gnomes standing below it. “Thar she blows,” one of them says. The other one responds, “It sure does.”

Perry agrees with Kesler: Ninth and Ninth was very eclectic. But a lot has changed about the neighborhood in recent years. Perry thinks that if there is going to be art at the roundabout, there are better ways to reflect that eclectic spirit that initially appealed to Kesler.

“You could have a groundhog coming up 30 feet out of the ground. You could have a seagull and a cricket sharing gelato on a park bench. We’ve got a million different animals here that would work that just don’t look like a Prudential Life commercial,” Perry said.

Coming Full Circuit

One thing is for certain: given its size and location, Kesler’s whale will be unmistakable.

Dominic Smith works at a drive-thru coffee shop situated on the southwest corner of the intersection. He’s been there for almost 20 years and figures he’s spent more time looking at that intersection than perhaps anybody else. He said Kesler’s sculpture — which won’t be installed until later this year — has already succeeded.

Neighbors speculate that the mysterious gnomes at the roundabout may return after the whale is built.
Benjamin Bombard / KUER
Felicia Baca, the director of the Salt Lake City Art Design Board, says the gnomes will be allowed to stay on the roundabout after the whale is installed.

“A lot of the time, people just drive by art, or they don’t even notice it at all. This one has already caused so many people to question the art in their community,” he said.

Smith said he has spoken with as many as a hundred customers about the whale.

“A whale!? That’s usually the first response,” he said. “And then they kind of either reject it outright at that point, or allow themselves a little space to kind of work through it.

While he himself was initially skeptical of Kesler’s sculpture, Smith said it was the scale of the project that won him over.

“It’s going to be so dramatic and larger than life — or just as large as life,” he said.

But Smith also has a soft spot for the gnomes.

The gnome that pioneered the roundabout’s knoll was relocated there from outside the coffee shop. He’s watched their numbers grow through the years. In speaking with his customers about the new visitor planned for the intersection, he learned that the gnomes took on special meaning for people last year when spirits hit a low point.

“The impromptu gnome garden … has been just a buoy for people during the pandemic,” he said. “I had no idea they meant what they did to people. That’s been fun to find out too: They love, love the gnomes. Which is great! Who knew how much we needed a gnome garden until we had a gnome garden?”

Of course, the whale isn’t the only newcomer to the neighborhood.

In the past few months, preparations have ramped up for the transition to 5G cellular networks. Large black towers needed to transmit the new telecom standard have been erected across many parts of Salt Lake City. One of them stands directly out front of Stephen Dark’s home.

Compared with that tower, Dark said, more or less any newcomer is welcome.

“The idea of getting into my car and then just circling around this magnificent creature kind of rising out of the depths,” he said before trailing off. “The whale,” he soon added, “seems a preferable candidate to move in.”

A Salt Lake native, Benjamin Bombard served numerous internships in the KUER newsroom before becoming a producer of RadioWest. He aspired to the position for years, and in his sometimes wayward pursuit of it he has worked as a print and radio journalist in Utah, Wyoming and California, a horse wrangler in East Canyon, a golf course "bag rat" in Massachusetts, a dishwasher, a bookseller, a librarian, a children's museum guide, a barista, a linecook and a male nanny or "manny." He has also dished up gelato to Mafiosos in Providence, R.I., and worked as a volunteer for a health NGO in Mali, West Africa, where he declined an offer to act as a blood-diamond mule. During his free time he can most likely be found running up and down mountains along the Wasatch Front with his two dogs.
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