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Heat, water and trucks are destroying a Boise mosaic

July 9, 2018

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Five years ago, Boise mosaic artists Reham Aarti and Anna Webb spent hundreds of hours over eight weeks installing more than 300,000 tiles on a roundabout just downhill from the Boise Depot. The tiles made up a mosaic called “Infernum Bestiae” — Latin for “Hell Beast” — a tongue-in-cheek nod to how hard it was to make.

The round, 530-square-foot mosaic depicts four compass points over a blue-sky background, the Idaho Statesman reports. Images of trees in the four seasons’ deciduous stages lie between the points, and a line of homes encircles the compass’ center.

The artists received $20,000 for the mosaic. Most of that went to materials. The work was a labor of love. Aarti estimated that she and Webb made 5 cents per hour for their time.

Now, Boise’s Arts & History Department is recommending that the city scrape “Infernum Bestiae” off the roundabout at Crescent Rim Drive and Eastover Terrace. The reason? It’s deteriorating. Tiles have broken loose, and the grout between them is breaking up, said Jennifer Yribar, the department’s outreach and education coordinator. The recommendation was first reported by the business news website BoiseDev.com.

The city concluded that the damage has several causes. The concrete supporting the tiles expands, contracts and shifts with changes in temperature, loosening some tiles. Water and snow leak through cracks. Ambulances, construction trucks and other heavy vehicles drive right over it, because the roundabout is part of the roads it connects. Skateboarders ride on it. Vandalism is possible, too, Yribar said.

Aarti thinks skateboarders and vandals are the main culprits. Instead of removing the mosaic, she said, the city ought to repair it or at least let her raise money to do so.

Budget constraints forced her and Webb to use cheap materials for the mosaic’s blue skies and the images of compass points, Aarti said. Replacing those with stronger tiles like the ones that form the images of trees and leaves could solve the problem, she said.

Money for the project came from the Depot Bench Neighborhood Association, which paid the artists through the city. The neighborhood also donated the artwork to Boise, relieving itself of a maintenance and liability burden.

Aarti said she and Webb had told neighborhood leaders that the mosaic would hold up better if they used high-quality tiles throughout, but the association didn’t have enough money.

Yribar didn’t know whether anyone at the city evaluated the mosaic’s durability. Experiences like this have pushed Boise to scrutinize the feasibility of proposed art projects more closely, she said.

“There were definitely some lessons learned on that front,” Yribar said.

Now that the mosaic is falling apart, Aarti said, private donors have told her that they would help pay for new materials.

“I’m perfectly happy to not get paid,” she said. “I just want it fixed. It breaks my heart to see it go away.”

Aarti said Webb is heartbroken, too. Webb, a communications specialist at Boise State University and a former Idaho Statesman reporter, declined to be interviewed.

Over the past year, Yribar said, Boise has looked for alternatives to scraping the mosaic. It asked for proposals from 22 contractors, she said. Of those, 21 either did not respond or “said they wouldn’t touch it.”

Only one company, Boise’s EKC Construction, assessed the damage. Its project manager, Tim Hendrix, came to a disappointing conclusion.

“There is virtually no feasible way to protect the surface from road damage,” Hendrix wrote. “The entire concrete structure will continue to expand and contract as the ground heaves and retracts with freezing and thawing temperatures, expanding the current fracturing and cracking further in new locations.

“In my final opinion, the current design will be a continual maintenance black hole with no real practical solution.”

Aarti disagrees. She said she has repaired mosaics herself, including her “Wonder Wall,” completed in 2009 in West Boise’s Peppermint Park. It’s a 4-foot-high, 12-foot-long wall with Aarti’s mosaic depicting a fantasy scene including gnomes, a peacock and flowers on one side, and a scene from outer space on the other. Aarti said vandals have broken some pieces.

“Regardless of what these contractors seem to think, it’s not unheard of to fix something like this,” she said. “It’s pretty reasonable. So I really wish they’d give it a second chance.”

The EKC report agreed with Aarti that poor tile quality contributed to the deterioration of “Infernum Bestiae.”

“While some of the tile materials used to create the art of the mosaic are holding up surprisingly well, most of the tiles used are not suited for such an application,” the report reads. “The tile materials observed are not fabricated to withstand traffic loads from vehicles as people drive over the edges of the mosaic.”

The same goes for the mosaic’s grout and mortar, according to the report.

Facebook commenters offered help in response to a message Aarti posted June 23, though the decision is out of her hands. Mayor David Bieter and the City Council will have final say on the mosaic’s fate.

As sad as the looming loss of the artwork is, Neighborhood President Jen Visser said, “the reality is that it’s not withstanding the test of time.”

“It does sound like the city has done their part to try to mitigate some of that damage and address it,” Visser said.

The city would hire a private contractor to scrape the tiles off the roundabout. The cost is not yet known. Before that, Yribar said, Aarti and Webb would be allowed to remove and salvage as many of the tiles as they can. They also could obtain the removed tiles from the contractor.

If the mosaic must go, Aarti said, she hopes to preserve several chunks of it to be displayed elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Yribar said, Arts & History is planning a new set of art projects in the Depot Bench neighborhood. People who live there are talking to the city about what kinds of art they’d like to see. The department hopes to issue a call for artists’ ideas this fall, she said.

Visser said the neighborhood hopes for high-visibility projects along Vista Avenue, particularly near the railroad bridge that crosses the road just east of the Depot.

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Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com

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