PORTLAND – City officials still haven’t formally decided to get rid of the controversial landscape sculpture “Tracing the Fore,” but the focus is already shifting to how to dispose of it.
Portland’s Public Art Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to remove the steel-and-grass artwork from the city’s collection and its site in Boothby Square.
The matter now goes back to the City Council, which has offered a non-binding opinion that the committee should scrap the work rather than move it to another site, which would cost $30,000 to $40,000.
City Planner Alex Jaegerman said the city has heard expressions of interest from a couple of people, and officials have come up with a rough estimate of $8,000 to $9,000 to remove the piece, fill its concrete base with loam and seed it with grass.
The city commissioned the artist Shauna Gillies-Smith to create “Tracing the Fore” for $135,000. The sculpture, installed more than five years ago, has stainless steel waves and rolling mounds of grass that were intended to grow to a height that would, in a breeze, evoke waves on the Fore River.
But business people who work around the square say the grass hasn’t filled in well and the spot has been overtaken by weeds. Gillies-Smith said landscaping companies told her that the grass was still getting established. She offered to pay $1,000 — a third of the estimate from a local landscaper — to maintain it for a year.
The city, which would have had to pay the other $2,000, turned down the offer, and the Public Art Committee looked for other sites, eventually settling on one near the Mercy Hospital Campus on the Fore River. But the council advised the committee to pull the plug instead.
Jaegerman said the city will now follow a procedure set out in its rules, which includes offering the piece first to Gillies-Smith, who owns a landscape architecture firm in Somerville, Mass.
She expressed interest last month in buying “Tracing the Fore,” but said Wednesday that she would instead help the city find someone else to buy it.
“I would love to have it land somewhere in a nice home,” she said.
Gillies-Smith said that if Portland had had patience and put a little more effort into maintenance, the grass would have filled in and her vision for the piece would have been fulfilled.
She said the lack of maintenance led to criticism and, “once it gets going, it snowballs and some of the other voices get drowned out.”
She said that supporters of the piece weren’t heard, and that one resident called recently “to apologize to me on behalf of the city of Portland.”
Tony Muench, a member of the Public Art Committee, said a subcommittee that he led looked in city ordinances for a reason to decommission the art. It eventually settled on two: one that allows it when a site changes and requires the city to re-evaluate the relationship of the artwork to the location, and one that permits it if a piece requires excessive maintenance or was designed or built in a faulty manner.
He said all of those conditions apply to some extent.
Muench, who was not a member of the committee when “Tracing the Fore” was commissioned, said the city has learned a lesson from the saga.
“You learn about vision and expectation versus what it ends up being,” he said.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: