Local artist seeks to start discussion about private art visible to public
A local homeowner and artist recently appealed for an extension to get some ordinance violations on her property up to code during the Stevens Point Public Protection Committee Monday, June 13. While she could have gotten the extension from the Inspection Department, she said she wanted to start a community discussion about how the city views art.
When Steph Jones, a sculpture artist who displays many of her works in her yard, first received notice from the city telling her she needed to fix up her house and clean up her yard, she said she felt a little singled out because her work is sometimes misunderstood as clutter or junk.
“I’ve been creating and installing art in my yard since 2006,” she said. “As a working environmental sculpture artist, I’ve been involved with positive community engagement.”
As an environmental sculpture artist, Jones requires natural material for her work such as wood and various naturally occurring debris.
However, city officials said her art wasn’t the issue. The city was more concerned about some structural issues on her porch and how the art materials were being stored.
Michael Ostrowski, director of Community Development, said Jones had shown an eager willingness to work with the city to find the best solution for the issues, some of which she fixed immediately.
For example, one of the issues cited was a basswood tree – a high-quality type of wood for woodworkers – that had fallen in her yard. Usually, a downed tree is explicitly forbidden by city ordinance, unless it’s chemically treated to prevent decay and used for wildlife habitat.
But that’s exactly what Jones did with it, she treated the tree, and it is currently inhabited by cardinals, robins and a family of nesting wrens, a type of passerine bird.
Then, when the birds move on and the wood treatment has been completed, she said she plans to use it for sculpture projects. She said the tree is worth about $10,000 in sculpting material.
After she had provided explanation for the assortment of “clutter,” the city agreed she needed the material for her livelihood and simply asked her to reorganize it behind some screening, something she did right away.
“Part of the ordinance violation was piles of yard waste, but they were actually Hugelkultur beds – a method of gardening – I just haven’t gotten my soil delivered yet,” Jones said. “I’d like to be able to keep those.”
“When I saw the inspector’s report and saw the photographs there, I was – I’m not the neatest person myself and I’m not an artist – but I was pretty shocked because there was a lot of stuff lying around. So, I made sure to go by this afternoon (June 13) to see how things were looking and to my eyes it looked great,” said Mary McComb, District 9 alderperson.
“A lot of the materials you work with are behind a fence, a nice-looking fence that’s a perfectly fine screen. I hadn’t realized that the tree was actually a part of a huge artwork and it’s lovely,” McComb said. “All I saw was elements on the house, which frankly I have the same things going on at my house. A lot of people do … it looked to me that the outdoor things were fixed.”
For the larger, more costly projects like fixing her porch, she requested more time to get finances in order and make preparations, something Ostrowski said the city had no qualms with.
“I’ve spoken with Ms. Jones about the extension, and inspection is fine with the extension. We’re willing to work with her, and I have no issue with an extension into the fall, especially with some of these items because it can take time to not only get the financial resources but to get contractors lined up,” Ostrowski said.
In fact, she didn’t need to take her appeal directly to the Public Protection Committee at all.
Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza said it is, of course, her right to have her appeal heard by the committee, as it is any community members’ right, but the city would have granted her the time she needed anyway.
Ultimately, after long discussion about the possible future direction of Stevens Point ordinances, that’s what the Public Protection Committee ended up voting to do. The committee recommended the matter be passed back to the Department of Community Development with instructions to work with Jones getting matters in order.
However, Jones said her goal with the public appeal was to open a dialogue with the city’s legislative body – in this case the Public Protection Committee, populated by members of the Common Council – about recrafting the city’s ordinances to provide a conducive environment for local artists.
“To grow to the community’s standards of sustainability, (environmental protection) and the arts and to foster progressive attitudes for young professionals to relocate here, some of these ordinances or rules must be amended,” Jones said. “Is the solution creating an ‘artisan district,’ certain places designated as neighborhood art destinations or wildlife sanctuaries? Do we create a corridor all the way from our downtown galleries to the Sculpture Park?”
She said she feels she accomplished the goal of starting the discussion, given the committee members’ discourse and the several community members, including direct neighbors, who attended the meeting to speak in support of Jones.
“From my perspective, I’ve driven past it a lot and admired it a lot because it’s so creative,” said Meleesa Johnson, District 4. “In my professional life as the director of Solid Waste Management (for Marathon County), I really appreciate when old, discarded things become something new and wonderful.”
Jones, who has lived in Stevens Point for more than a decade, said she chose Stevens Point for its “connection to community, environmental and sustainable efforts.”
“I think there is an opportunity to create an excellent dialogue and bring up some point for future discussion regarding the ordinances and how (the city) goes about telling us about the ordinances,” said Jones. “Luckily I have a great community who came to stand up for me, but a lot of people don’t have that.
“If anything, I’m super pleased because it created the discussion and cleared up some misunderstandings about my gardening methods some people might like to try,” she said.
Jones did not receive any fines for the violations and won’t if she continues to work with the city to get her property up to code.
Anyone who received a letter about a violation and fixes the problem within the time mentioned in the letter will not receive a fee. Property owners can also request extensions from the Inspection Department if they need extra time.
“(The contact information) is right on that first letter. The letter has been criticized, we’ve tried and softened it up a little bit,” Wiza said.
The letter isn’t meant to make property owners feel bad or to scare them into compliance, Wiza said. It’s meant to get the community looking its best as a whole.
It’s been implied by other local media sources and community members that the ordinance control officer is a revenue-generating ploy by the city, but as Cory Ladick, comptroller/treasurer, pointed out during a Personnel Committee meeting to fill the recently-vacant position, the position isn’t even revenue neutral. Only about half of what it takes to fund the position is made back by fees.