Artist withdraws picnic table bid

Some people don’t think art and politics should mix.

Case in point: Mark Fessler, an artist in Greenbank, sent a letter to the Port of South Whidbey last week withdrawing his proposal to make two custom-fabricated picnic tables and benches for the Langley Marina.

The reason?

“I don’t make political statements with my furniture,” Fessler said. “Whenever there are giant red flags going up at this stage in the process, that’s a bad sign.”

Fessler was concerned over public reaction after port commissioners voted 2-1 last month to accept his $2,400 bid.

But the biggest “giant red flag” for Fessler was Port Commissioner Geoff Tapert’s opposition.

Fessler had been approached by then-South Whidbey Port Commissioner Lynae Slinden in July to design and build two picnic tables to be positioned in the Langley Marina at Phil Simon Park.

Slinden and the port wanted tables that were built to last, looked good and made on South Whidbey.

Fessler submitted a plan for two heavy 48-inch square tables with attached benches. The tables would have been a reddish-brown plastic material called Trex, while the seats would be gray and all the fittings marine-grade steel.

At the port’s Aug. 12 meeting, Slinden said the tables were cheaper than the concrete ones at Clinton Beach park, and there wouldn’t be any shipping charge because Fessler is local.

Commissioners Slinden and Rolf Seitle approved the bid, while Tapert voted no.

While unhappy with the cost, design and materials for the tables, Tapert’s real concern was over the process.

“The whole proposal was railroaded through without adequate review,” he said. “Normally, we would have some time to discuss some options, then vote at the next meeting.”

Tapert said he saw the proposal for the first time that night and didn’t realize the work was commissioned by Slinden. He added that he had understood the port would buy off-the-shelf items for less money.

“Former Commissioner Slinden said we need to keep our money local, but the artist she commissioned lives outside of the port district’s boundaries in Greenbank,” Tapert explained. “I know of at least one metal-works artist who actually lives within our district who would have loved to have the opportunity to bid on the project.”

He said he would recommend the port examine maintenance-free tables from a company in Redmond costing about $800.

“We could easily go there and pick them up so there wouldn’t be any shipping charges,” he said.

Fessler said his goal is to promote artists to be involved at the local level wherever possible.

“I believe in having locally made work that contributes to the community,” he said. “In this case,

I offered a discretionary discount to the port and believed I was offering an alternative to high marked-up tables from out of the state.”

He added that he would have built the tables at a reduced labor charge plus materials. His usual shop rate for commissioned pieces is $60 an hour; the tables would have cost much more at that rate.

“There was little profit for me in the proposal,” he said.

For years, Fessler has donated artwork for benefits held by organizations like Hearts & Hammers and the Freeland Library. It’s something he says provides intangible assets to the community.

“Many local artists have done the same; it’s part of the cultural capital that makes the island more attractive while helping local artists,” he said. “When I’m building something that should be functional, well-designed and well-built, I don’t want it to be tinged by controversy, which I don’t feel is an appropriate design criteria. That’s why I withdrew my bid.”

Fessler said he certainly respects the commissioners and has no hard feelings.

“A differing opinion and a dissenting position are part of our social, cultural and governmental systems,” he added. “It can, however, reach a point of rancorous expression from which distance is the best perspective.

“The whole thing was looking more and more problematic,” Fessler said. “I gave (port manager) Ed Field the name of an outfit in Iowa that builds tables. The cost to order them, ship them and install them will be pretty much a wash for the port.”

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the port holds its regular September meeting at the Freeland Library.

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