PORT TOWNSEND — In the span of a week, Port Townsend’s Creative District art markers —white wooden sculptures by Jonah Trople — have turned into changing canvases.
Around the morning of April 4, the words “Not local art” and “Art is dead” were added to the sculptures, along with images of weeping faces. “Community not committees” and expressions of preference for a permanent “Black Lives Matter” mural instead of these whitewashed markers also appeared.
These were comments on the five pieces erected last year as wayfinding markers in the city. The Port Townsend Main Street Program, using a $49,000 Creative District grant from the Washington State Arts Commission matched by local donors, formed a committee to review proposals; the members chose Trople’s work. He was paid $28,000 for design, materials and construction of the markers, which were installed last June.
The added words and images, primarily on the markers outside the Port Townsend Library and in front of the community center Uptown, quickly stirred up discussions on and off social media. Was it vandalism? Is it true that Trople is not a local artist?
Such questions were still fueling conversations by the end of the week.
As for the Main Street Program’s Creative District committee’s plans, member Kris Nelson said there would be no rush to repaint the sculptures — unless “inappropriate language” appeared.
As it turned out, later in the week, an expletive aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin did show up on the sculpture at Lawrence and Tyler streets. Commentators had added the Ukrainian flag colors: a piece of blue cloth on the top and bright yellow paint on the bottom.
By Saturday, the expletive and Putin’s name had been painted over in yellow.
Meanwhile, from his current location on the Big Island of Hawaii, Trople expressed his thoughts.
“I’m not going to try and project what the vandals’ grievances are … But ‘the not local art’ part is interesting to me,” he wrote in an email to the Peninsula Daily News. “I grew up about 30 miles from Port Townsend. I spent a lot of time here throughout my childhood, and through various outlets have been weaving myself into this community almost my entire life. I’ve been committed to the landscape of this town through art, woodworking, and sign making.”
When his design proposal was chosen last spring, Trople spoke about his background: He attended The Evergreen State College and Pilchuck Glass School and moved to Port Townsend about six years ago soon after his daughter was born. He wanted to raise his family away from urban Seattle, where they had been living.
In his email over the weekend, Trople acknowledged his Creative District sculptures aren’t going to please everyone.
“That’s not the point of any artwork,” he wrote. “They are here (beyond serving as Creative District wayfinding) to invoke spirit and conversation and dialogue within our beautiful community.”
“It’s clear that productive conversation is definitely needed, especially about how we can support BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] creatives within our community, and how we ought to put inclusion first and foremost,” Trople added.
In Hawaii, the artist and his wife, Saige, are “working on some large-scale projects in partnership with the sacred land, in support of the divine feminine.”
When asked whether and when he’ll return to Port Townsend, Trople said yes, though he’s not a big planner.
“We certainly didn’t plan for the projects in Hawai’i to unfold in the way they did. My job is to allow intuition and collaboration to guide me,” he wrote.
Trople then said his family — his mother, grandmother and great grandmother — live in the Northwest, meaning a return is certain “in the near future.”
Speaking for the Creative District committee, Nelson said: “We wanted to reach out to the people” who added the words and images, in hopes of understanding their ideas.
“We’d like to meet with them to learn and work together to figure out something positive that can come from this,” she said.
Nelson, the owner of Sirens Pub and other properties downtown, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, while the Main Street Program leaders can be found at https://ptmainstreet.org/who-we-are.
Trople, for his part, addressed whether he considers the recent additions to his artwork to be graffiti.
“I feel like the term graffiti carries a lot of nuance,” he wrote. “Like all art, graffiti is subjective. There’s an entire culture surrounding it, and while I don’t feel like it’s my job to classify the recent wave of defacement, I hesitate to elevate it to the level of graffiti,” he said.
“The real issue at hand,” Trople said, “is the conversation the works have evoked from the community.”
Jefferson County Senior Reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or email@example.com.