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A whale sculpture cause turmoil — then unity — in a Salt Lake City neighborhood

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Utah, a landlocked desert state, is not known for its aquatic mammals. So when a whale popped up at an intersection in Salt Lake City, there was controversy. KUER's Tilda Wilson reports.

TILDA WILSON, BYLINE: Reid Goodfellow loves the whale.

What are you doing right now?

REID GOODFELLOW: We're running around the whale 630 times.

WILSON: Reid is doing a Whaleathon - that is to say, running around the roundabout at this prominent intersection where a brightly painted, life-sized, breaching blue whale sculpture erupts in the middle of traffic. A lot of people are not really sure why the whale is here. Brooke Bullington is Reid's girlfriend.

BROOKE BULLINGTON: When we were driving by the whale, he said, our love is like a whale in the desert.

(LAUGHTER)

BULLINGTON: And I was like, what does that mean? And he was like, I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: It's silly. It's weird. So why is it a controversy? Felicia Baca, head of the Salt Lake City Arts Council, says it all started during the pandemic.

FELICIA BACA: What do you do with your time when you're locked up in your house and things are a little heavy? And a group of local residents started putting gnomes in the roundabout, and it became a very active grassroots community project.

WILSON: But when the Arts Council decided to put a whale in the roundabout, an official public arts project...

BACA: As the residents learned about a work of art coming to be, they really started to worry about the displacement of the gnome community.

WILSON: That's how Emily Plewe first heard about the unusual sculpture.

EMILY PLEWE: OK, so my son went gnoming (ph) one night.

WILSON: Under the cover of night, Plewe's son and some friends went out to put out gnomes holding signs protesting the new sculpture coming to the roundabout.

PLEWE: So I looked it up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

PLEWE: I went to the website, and I said, oh, it's a whale.

WILSON: Plewe, a contemporary artist, said, to her, public art here was an opportunity for meaningful symbolism showcasing Utah's beautiful desert landscape. What could a whale have to do with that? But she's still talking about the whale with friends, with neighbors, presumably with garden gnomes. And she says all that conversation and engagement could actually make this project a success.

PLEWE: Then, you know, like I said, you know, I'm of two minds. I think that's a win.

WILSON: Now, buried underneath the whale is a time capsule filled with art by elementary school kids about a world in which gnomes and whales coexist peacefully.

For NPR News, I'm Tilda Wilson in Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tilda Wilson