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Love it or hate it, a giant whale sculpture has made a splash in a Salt Lake City community

Photo of the  “Out of the Blue” whale sculpture with construction fencing around it.
Emily Means
The Salt Lake City Arts Council commissioned “Out of the Blue” to represent the “spunky” and “whimsical” identity of the 9th and 9th neighborhood.

It’s impossible to miss the 23-foot-tall, rainbow-colored humpback whale in the middle of a roundabout in Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th neighborhood.

The Salt Lake City Arts Council commissioned the sculpture called “Out of the Blue” from artist Stephen Kesler. There’s a mural on the whale that will be repainted every few years to “reflect the dynamism and transformation” of the neighborhood, according to the arts council’s website.

“We commission artists to create work that will spark conversations, that will make us talk to one another,” said Renato Olmedo-Gonzalez, the city’s public art program coordinator. “That's part of why I really believe in ‘Out of the Blue,’ and I believe in our program. It's getting people together to talk about issues that they care about. That's the power and the responsibility of public art.”

And oh, has it sparked a conversation. The piece came with a fierce neighborhood debate. Before the whale, community members had decorated the roundabout with gnomes. Many residents chose a side: Team Gnome or Team Whale.

Paula Fowler lives less than a block away. Personally, she was a fan of the short, bearded creatures with pointy hats.

“I thought it was a community offering,” Fowler said. “There were people who volunteered gnomes from all of their gardens. I love their little signs. I am not anti-whale, but I sure loved the gnomes.”

The debate has continued to play out on social media. Some people think it’s an eyesore, while others say it represents the quirkiness of the neighborhood.

Fowler said she’s “determined to like” the whale, and she’s already warming up to it.

“It's in my neighborhood, and so I'm keeping an open mind about it,” Fowler said.

As for Team Gnome, Olmedo-Gonzalez said they weren’t forgotten. He said the arts council partnered with a local elementary school to create a project as a nod to the gnomes.

“I don't see a reason why a gnome and a whale cannot coexist,” Olmedo-Gonzalez said. “We invited second and third graders to imagine a world in which a community of gnomes welcomed the whale. We got about 40 different artworks [that] were actually placed inside of a time capsule that’s now inside ‘Out of the Blue.’ We wanted the children of the community to tell us what Salt Lake City is all about, what 9th and 9th is all about and what that sculpture is all about, which is welcoming something unexpected into our communities.”

An event celebrating “Out of the Blue” is planned for Monday at 6 p.m.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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