Petaluma’s River Arch rises, the latest public art project from local artist David Best
After five years of work, countless meetings, thousands of hours of design and construction — plus a few delays caused by the pandemic — Petaluma artist David Best has unveiled his newest sculpture, River Arch.
The 25-foot steel sculpture was welcomed Saturday by more than 100 public art fans at a crowded ceremony on a wild and tiny scrap of land (88 Lakeville Highway) where Petaluma’s Lynch Creek Trail meets Lakeville Highway.
A somewhat fantastical fusion of sweeping curves, sharp points and swirling metal curlicues, measuring slightly higher than an adult giraffe — or George Washington’s nose on Mount Rushmore — and softly blanketed in the red-brown color of deep rust, River Arch rises impressively from newly buried cement foundations alongside the Petaluma River. There the structure will stand as a dramatic entryway to either downtown Petaluma or the main stretch of Lynch Creek Trail, depending on which way pedestrians and cyclists are heading as they pass beneath it.
River Arch is a commission of the Petaluma Public Art Committee, charged with spending the money in Petaluma’s Public Art Fund — raised through a city ordinance requiring developers to contribute 1% of the costs of new city developments. The committee selected Best to create a public art piece somewhere in Petaluma, with a budget of $75,000.
The event Saturday, which culminated in a ribbon cutting and the joyful crowd passing back and forth under the arch, does not quite mark the completion of the project. It still awaits the landscaping component, overseen by Petaluma’s Sandra Reed, plus the installation of lights, details that are set to be completed at an unspecified time in the future.
The ceremony was attended by members of the Public Art Committee, along with Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett, several of the metal workers from Van Bebber Brothers Steel Fabrication who worked on the creation of the arch and Best , world-renowned for his massive temple structures, especially those erected and set afire at past Burning Man events.
Melissa Abercrombie, chair of the Public Art Committee, opened the event by telling the story of how River Arch came to be.
In June 2017, the Petaluma Public Art Committee commissioned Best to design an outdoor sculpture. A subcommittee was formed to explore possible sites that met the ordinance’s requirements of being publicly owned and publicly accessible. According to Abercrombie, over a dozen locations were explored, one by one, and the last on the list was the one Best selected.
“You can see why David fell in love with this site,” Abercrombie said. “The space is wide open and a little wild. It is an industrial space with the river below and the sky above — and lots of breathing room for a piece of this scale.”
At the time of the River Arch commission, as Abercrombie explained, Best told the committee that he had several large projects already in the works, including the transformation of the reception hall at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and the building of a memorial temple for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims in Florida. These projects would take over a year to complete.
In 2018, at a presentation to the Petaluma City Council, Best outlined his initial sketches for River Arch, but the approval of the project didn’t find its way onto the City Council’s agenda until September 2018. Once the contract was inked, in January 2019, two community meetings were held at the site.
“Then the hard work began,” Abercrombie said, “with refining the design, working with an architect and structural engineer, a landscape designer, doing soil studies, calculating the concrete for the footing, pulling permits and lining up the steel needed to make the arch. Unfortunately, all of this was winding up in March of 2020. COVID struck, and it shut down the world.”
It was not until fall 2021 that Best was able to get back to work on River Arch, at which point the Van Bebber family generously offered space and support.
“In River Arch, David Best and his creative community, have given us a transformative gift,” Abercrombie concluded. “Where the past few years have forced us to be separate and celebrate less, this piece invites you to pass through it with renewed optimism for the future.”
Before the cutting of the appropriately ornate yellow ribbon, emblazoned with the words “River Arch,” Best gave a few brief words, thanking the people of Petaluma and the Public Art Committee before making a suggestion for how future public art projects in Petaluma can be carried out.
“The unique thing about Petaluma is there are a whole lot of artists here,” he said. “And Petaluma High School has the most incredible arts and metal arts. I would like to suggest to the Arts Council that if they’re going to give another artist a grant, I would say that they have to have a student from Petaluma High School work with them as an apprentice.
“If you are doing an art project in this town, I strongly recommend that some young artists from this community get the opportunity to participate and learn from it.”
Best was equally generous in his praise of the Van Bebber family.
“When I took this piece on, one of the requirements I had within myself was that it had to represent our community,” he said. “I didn’t want to not work with someone in our community. Well it turned out that I ended up working with 35 people at Van Bebber, a company that is a huge part of the history of Petaluma. Yes, I physically built some of this piece, but it was the people of our community who made this arch.”
After basking indulgently in a round of applause, Best concluded, “It was a labor of love. This is about family. Van Bebber is a family. Petaluma is a family. It was an honor.”