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Petaluma is considering purchasing a piece of artwork in Theatre Square with its Public Art Ordinance funds

What is raspberry pink and summer sky blue, stands about 20 feet high, looks like a 1950s ice cream confection on a 1960s acid trip, and makes even the most harried passerby break into a smile?

The answer? It's "Cherry Soda," a sculpture Petaluma is considering for purchase with its Public Art Ordinance fund. Created by Penngrove artist Robert Ellison the piece is currently ensconced at 2nd and C Streets on long-term loan. It depicts a stylized ice cream soda, with cherry soda "foam" and a straw at the top, and a "soda glass" composed of blue and white protrusions that look like the non-business end of a felt-tip marker.

Ellison said he originally designed the sculpture for a community center in Albuquerque, NM, but when construction of the center fell through, he decided to build it on his own. "I liked it so much I said I'm going to make this piece anyway," he explained in a telephone interview from his mountaintop studio.

After he built it he loaned the sculpture to Petaluma, first for installation at Lucchesi Park, and then, about five years ago, for its current location in the theater district in front of a movie house and an ice cream shop. Debra Lehane, curator for the Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation, a Sonoma County non-profit that promotes public art, says, "It gives the neighborhood an identity."

The Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation paid for the installation of "Cherry Soda," as well as another piece of loaned art, Peter Forakis' "Dubull Eagull," at the old Petaluma Railroad Depot.

Petaluma seems to love its public art, which led to passage of a 2005 Public Art Ordinance that requires all new commercial construction to include a piece of art worth at least 1 percent of the construction cost. Or, developers can pay a 1 percent in lieu fee to be used for purchase, installation and maintenance of art in public places.

A volunteer committee, comprised of both artists and non-artists, oversees the ordinance, helping private developers select art for their projects and recommending the purchase of art by the city with the in lieu money.

But, the downturn in the economy has brought development - and consequently, public art projects - "to a screeching halt," according to Public Art Committee member, Collette Michaud. So, "Cherry Soda" is the first piece the committee has been able to consider with its limited bank account.

Public Art Committee member, Mary Dooley, said City Manager John Brown is having "Cherry Soda" appraised, and negotiating a price with Ellison as the next step in the process. Dooley believes the cost will fall within the current public art money pool of $40,000. If Brown is satisfied with the results of the negotiations, purchase of &‘Cherry Soda" will eventually go before the city council.

Meanwhile, there is no lack of public art in Petaluma, most of it installed before the ordinance, and with private funding. And local merchants think it makes Petaluma a more attractive place for both locals and visitors.


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