Protest gnomes are putting up a whale of a fight against Salt Lake City’s plans for an ‘Out of Blue’ ocean sculpture

Residents are pushing back against the large humpback art installation poised to grace the 9th and 9th neighborhood.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The largest gnome in the roundabout at 900 South and 1100 East in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 24, 2021.

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Residents of east Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th neighborhood say there’s something magical about the gnomes that have taken over a roundabout at 1100 East and 900 South known as “Gnome Hill.”

The figurines started to surface about a year and a half ago, when construction of the roundabout wrapped up.

Now, business owners and residents are pushing back against a proposed massive humpback whale sculpture called “Out of the Blue” that the Salt Lake City Arts Council plans to install on the hill in the fall.

“Nobody knows where the gnomes come from,” said Scott Maynard, owner of the nearby M. Scott Salon. “They come by night. ... It’s not just one person. It’s a small army of people who simply do not want a whale there.”

The protests reached a new level when a human-size gnome wearing cheetah print boots and holding a sign — reading “Whales belong in the ocean” — recently surfaced. The hill was adorned on all sides with messages such as “There’s no place like gnome” and “Oh Whale No!”

Maynard says there was supposed to be a survey to ask neighborhood residents what type of art installation they would like to see, but he never heard from the arts council or Salt Lake City’s Art Design Board about it and no one else he knows did either.

When the council announced that renowned Utah sculptor Stephen Kesler would build the sculpture, which the artist describes as “a 40-foot-wide whale hug,” it came as “quite a shock” to Maynard.

“A lot of folks took exception to it,” Maynard said. “Of all the kinds of artwork that could be there, that was clearly not our choice. We questioned just how thorough [the council’s] audit was on what businesses and neighbors would choose.”

Felicia Baca, the council’s director, said Tuesday that the council looks to balance support of professional artists in their creative process while also being responsive to the artistic sensibilities of community members.

“We have had a wide range of comments about the sculpture,” Baca said in a written statement, “and our years of facilitating public art tell us that first impressions aren’t always the feelings that stick in the long run.”

She said the council is pleased to hear from people who “appreciate the unique metaphor” of the whale, but she wants to be clear that the welcoming of a whale doesn’t mean the dispersion of any gnomes.

“We see the gnomes as welcome residents of the roundabout,” Baca said, “and expect a harmonious coexistence.”

The council also referred inquiries to a blog post with answers to frequently asked questions about the whale sculpture. It noted that the project was discussed in seven public meetings, two public information sessions, at an East Liberty Park Community Organization meeting and through a survey that generated more than 100 responses.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The largest gnome in the roundabout at 900 South 1100 East in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 24, 2021.

Still, Bridget Mahony, who owns The Bridal Studio at the northwest corner of the roundabout, said she and her neighbors were “caught off guard” by plans for the whale statue “because we’re mountainside, not oceanside. I guess we’re just kind of missing the connection of why it’s a whale.”

That’s sort of the point, the council’s blog notes. The neighborhood is “unexpected and out of the blue,” artist Kesler is quoted as saying. “A community where people from all backgrounds, beliefs and ideas migrate and feel a sense of belonging. A community that bursts through expectations; commanding respect for nature, others’ ideas and identities.”

Despite the demonstrations of the “gnome people” and the creation of a petition, the Arts Council showed no signs of retreating. Mahony said that around March the city removed all of the gnomes and signs that had been left on the hill.

“As soon as the whale was announced and they doubled down on it, the gnome people went overboard,” Maynard said. “They went all the way. Suddenly there were double the gnomes. It became kind of a soft protest. Let the gnomes and the whales live in peace.”

Maynard said he’s concerned that the whale sculpture could drive away potential clients because it doesn’t match “the nature” of the neighborhood, which is home to several attorney offices, bridal shops and high-end hair salons.

“Imagine getting a bride to turn around and look at her lovely, multi-thousand dollar dress, and there’s this big whale at the window,” Maynard said. “There was lots of fodder for discussion, and we thought it would at least make the Arts Council take a couple of steps back... but they never did.”

The installation is designed to feature murals on the whale’s body by a rotating cast of local artists. Maynard worries that the sculpture could become a target for graffiti.

Connor Sanders | The Salt Lake Tribune. Residents of Salt Lake City's 9th and 9th neighborhood are using gnomes to protest the installation of a large whale sculpture at a roundabout on 1100 E and 900 S.

Mahony said the gnomes represent “the neighborhood’s frustration with the roundabout with these ugly shrubs.” She said she doesn’t really care what the installation depicts — as long as it represents the “progressive and forward thinking” values the community upholds.

“I want something that would symbolize that a little bit more,” Mahony said. “I’m not sure if a whale would be the first animal I would think of. Maybe a unicorn?”

Maynard wonders why Gnome Hill needs any installation. “Why couldn’t we put some indigenous grasses and flowers there with a park bench?”

He said the whale sculpture could prompt much discussion if it were placed in the West Desert, much like the Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake. But he doubts it would do so planted in the middle of the city.

“Out of the Blue” was recommended in a unanimous vote by Salt Lake City’s Art Design Board. It will be hand-sculpted from recyclable foam and then made from fiberglass around a steel frame.

The statue will be 23 feet tall, the council’s blog post states, and conform to the city transportation division’s public safety standards and best practices.