“Guardian Angels’’

“Guardian Angels’’ at the entrance of the H.F. Robinson Administration Building in Cullowhee.

With the deadline closing Friday for applications, at least seven artists, perhaps more, will vie to create Sylva’s first mural. Town officials have received submissions from near and far. One artist hails from distant Italy, town Manager Paige Dowling told me earlier this week.

The town’s mural is destined for the side of the Ward Plumbing and Heating building along Mill Street, on a whitewashed wall roughly 22 feet tall and 53 feet long. Sylva will cover project costs using a $10,000 state grant funneled through Jackson County government.

Members of the town’s Public Art Committee envision a vintage-postcard look with a mountain backdrop and letters spelling out the word “Sylva.” The initial plan calls for the artist to fill those letters with images representative of this community, though committee members say they’ll consider other mural concepts. Town board members will approve the final design.

Clearly, members of the Public Art Committee have been busy in the group’s first months of existence. They’ve identified other potential mural sites in Sylva. They’re also weighing the benefits of an artist-loan program, “borrowing” pieces for the public to enjoy.

Often, but not always, artists receive honorariums for agreeing to publicly display their works for a contracted amount of time, typically a year. This mutually beneficial arrangement increases artist exposure, helping to generate sales into private hands or to the municipalities themselves.

Waynesville has a program of this sort. That town’s art committee holds fundraisers to buy pieces identified as desirable, based on popular appeal.

And yes, there’s a certain tension, if not contradiction, between “popular” and “art,” but that’s a debate best reserved for a different day. I will say this: If you are going to use municipal resources to underpin art programs, it’s probably best if those paying the bills – taxpayers – enjoy the end results. Otherwise, the town’s art program is likely to prove short-lived.

Could artwork serve as an economic driver for the town of Sylva? I believe it could. Similar efforts in other communities have helped attract visitors to downtowns. Though an increase in tourism certainly would be a splendid outcome, I’m excited about the town’s foray into public art for an entirely different reason.

I find it encouraging this community is being led by government officials willing and eager to encourage artistic expression. It’s not just town of Sylva officials, either. En route to awarding the grant money, Jackson County commissioners reviewed Sylva’s proposal to add a downtown mural.

John Wakeley, a former Western Carolina University chancellor, discussed in 1994 the importance of art and, in particular, public art freely available to every citizen. He emphasized “l’art pour l’art” – art for art’s sake.

“We value art for itself, we embrace it for its beauty and also for what it helps us to learn,” Wakeley said at a university dedication ceremony for the on-campus installation of two pieces of sculpture.

The event, he said, signaled WCU’s “commitment to the freedom in which artistic expression thrives.”

You can view the two pieces at the H.F. Robinson Administration Building’s main entrance. “Guardian Angels” is the work of North Carolina sculptor Be Gardiner. Four years ago, the artist, now called Teitaku Isaac Gardiner, told a reporter for The Washington Post he had since traded stone carving for the study of Zen Buddhism.

Gardiner’s angel-like, 8-foot tall figures at WCU are marble and travertine, featuring shrouded faces peering from beneath cloaks of stone.

I had long admired the beauty and grace of Gardiner’s pieces, but until now, I had not known anything about the artist who carved them or the university’s spelled-out intentions to emphasize the intrinsic value of art.

Gardiner’s pieces were among works selected in 1993 for display in the first year of WCU’s Outdoor Sculpture Program, described in contemporaneous news reports as “an effort to heighten public awareness of sculpture as an art form.”

Now, Sylva is poised to follow suit, adding sculpture and murals to everyday spaces and helping to introduce art to more people.

Quintin Ellison is general manager of The Sylva Herald.