A whale rises in a Salt Lake City roundabout, and some aren’t happy about it

A former Ninth & Ninth resident created the sculpture for his old neighborhood, but some complained about the art and the process.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A ceremony unveiled the 900 South roundabout sculpture called "Out of the Blue" in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 11, 2022. The full-sized sculpture of a breaching humpback whale has been drawing its share of lovers and haters to the new neighborhood addition.

As a teen growing up in Midvale, in the heart of Salt Lake County’s suburbs, Stephen Kesler remembers the first time he saw Salt Lake City’s Ninth & Ninth neighborhood.

“It totally caught me off guard, it blew me away,” Kesler said Monday. “It’s more of an arts district. There were vegan restaurants, there were record shops. It seemed like a little oasis in the valley. So, to me, it was out of the blue.”

So when Kesler, an artist who specializes in wildlife sculptures, learned the city was going to commission a large piece of art in the roundabout at 900 South and 1100 East, he thought of something else out of the blue: A humpback whale, breaching the surface.

Three years after the city started planning it, and after some neighborhood controversy, the finished sculpture, “Out of the Blue,” was introduced to the public Monday evening — with an ribbon-cutting that brought out parents with children, neighborhood residents and a fair number of dogs.

At the ceremony, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the beauty of public art like “Out of the Blue” is that “[it] can activate our imagination and even cause us to ask questions of ourselves.”

For people who question a whale, Mendenhall said, “there’s also folklore about whales living in the Great Salt Lake, and I think in a way it’s a gentle reminder that we are living in what was once a bottom, or at least the shoreline, of a giant inland sea.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Felicia Baca, third from left, director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council, and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, right of Baca, were joined by a group of children to cut the ribbon.

Mendenhall added that “it’s not the Ninth & Ninth roundabout, it’s these people — that are you — that create a place where people arrive and feel like they belong.” She asked neighbors to open their arms and “pectoral fins,” noting that “public art can be this lens for culture and to reflect on our values as a community.”

Renato Olmedo-González, the public art program manager for the Salt Lake City Arts Council, said that Kesler’s whale proposal was chosen because it “spoke to the unique characteristics of the Ninth & Ninth neighborhood in general.”

Ninth & Ninth, Olmedo-González said, “is a quirky place. It’s a place that welcomes different people’s identities, embraces people’s differences.”

Kesler lived in the Ninth & Ninth neighborhood for 25 years, before recently moving to Oregon. “I bought my first house there,” Kesler said. “I had my first kid there. I had all of my studios just off the Ninth corridor.”

In those studios, he created sculptures familiar around the Salt Lake area: Whales and sharks in the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, giraffes near the entrance to Hogle Zoo, and a giant red iguana outside the Red Iguana 2 restaurant in the Poplar Grove neighborhood.

Those works, Kesler said, “are kind of expected at those places, right? For public art — and I’m sure this happens on most public art — you get varying opinions. This one has definitely become my most controversial.”

“I personally don’t like it,” said Scott Maynard, who owns M. Scott Salon a half-block from the roundabout. He said that of the approximately 25 clients who have visited the salon while the whale was being erected, maybe two of them like the sculpture.

Maynard said the city took great pains to contact people in the neighborhood when the roundabout was built, and when 900 South went through renovations — but the same process was lacking when deciding what to put in the roundabout.

When neighbors first heard about the proposed whale sculpture, Maynard said, some filed comments with the city, and even started a petition to stop it. “When the outcry went out, nobody listened,” he said.

No protesters were evident at the ribbon-cutting — though two gnome statues were placed on opposite ends of the ribbon.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The large breaching humpback whale sculpture at the intersection of 900 South 1100 East gets its inaugural paint scheme inspired by the view of the Salt Lake valley on Friday, April 8, 2022. A new artist is expected to change the paint design every few years.

One couple, Tim and Tiffin Roberts, did bring signs. His read “turn it 90 degrees,” and hers read “what he said.”

The Robertses live up the hill from the roundabout, and said they love the sculpture — but the whale is at the “worst angle,” and from their house looks like “a blob with wings.” They want it turned so it looks “more dynamic” from all sides.

Olmedo-González said the city partnered with the East Liberty Park Community Organization to survey residents of the neighborhood. “We asked them very important questions, such as ‘what about public art speaks to you?’ and ‘what makes the Ninth & Ninth neighborhood unique?,” Olmedo-González said, adding that the city received about 100 responses, many of which were provided to the artists proposing projects to fill the roundabout.

The anti-whale neighbors started placing garden gnomes on the roundabout space in early 2020. In July 2021, a human-sized gnome in cheetah-print boots was placed on the mound, holding a sign that read “Whales belong in the ocean.”

Rob Eckman, who works at King’s English Bookshop, was involved with the original gnome sculpture — and at Monday’s opening, he noted that the gnomes often got stolen. It’s more difficult to steal a massive whale.

As Kesler and his crew were installing the massive sculpture — made of molded fiberglass around a steel frame — people driving by would sometimes shout out comments. Most were positive, he said, though one called it “ugly” and another yelled, “This is terrible — tear it down.”

“It’s hard to ignore, no matter how strong you have to be to think it wouldn’t bother you, with people screaming three feet from your face or when you’re 12 feet up a ladder trying not to fall,” Kesler said.

Olmedo-González said the city intends to let neighbors return the lawn gnomes to the roundabout, now that the statue is finished. “We don’t see a reason why a whale and a gnome cannot exist in the same place,” he said.

The city, Olmedo-González said, asked second- and third-graders from nearby Bennion Elementary to create artwork that would “imagine a world in which a community of gnomes welcomed the whale.” That artwork is being placed in a time capsule to be embedded in the sculpture, he said.

And, in what might be seen as a peace offering, Mike Murdock, the painter commissioned to paint a mural on the whale sculpture, wore a garden-gnome hat while he was working last week.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A gnome stands guard during a ceremony unveiling the whale sculpture on Monday

Kesler said the City Arts Council presented the idea of having a mural as part of the sculpture, and he immediately suggested the entire whale be painted. “The whale being a canvas for rotating murals is what really sold the idea to me,” he said.

The mural will be replaced every three to five years, Olmedo-González said. “We wanted the opportunity for the artwork to be reinterpreted over time, and to respond to the neighborhood in ways that I think artists can do,” he said.

As “Out of the Blue” was erected, Olmedo-González said, “People really engaged with it. They were talking about the whale, … they were talking about what it represents. … They were coming up with their own ideas of what it is.”

That’s what public art is supposed to do, Kesler said, and often doesn’t. “A lot of public art, you walk by and don’t even know it’s there. That’s one of the reasons I wanted [my sculpture] to be such a large piece,” he said. “Public art, in general, is there for conversations.”