At the end of Madison Avenue in downtown Corvallis, a child pulls away from her parents to tenderly pet the head of a dog statue. The dog, named Cassie, has a noticeable discoloration on the crown of her head from countless passersby, both young and old, stopping to give her a pat. While Corvallis often seems as though it’s in a continuous state of flux, its public art remains a constant and reassuring presence. In the fall, when the leaves begin to change and thousands of new college students descend upon the town, Cassie sits patiently. As the rain and cold eventually give way to sun and new growth, Cassie remains.
Madison Avenue begins directly outside the gates of the university. In 2016, the year I came to OSU as a wide-eyed freshman, that gate represented a clear split, a dividing line where the university’s manicured lawns gave way to scrubby weeds and the uncharted territory of Corvallis. Back then, a median filled with gravel and dirt divided the street into two lanes. Three years later, in celebration of the university’s 150th year of existence, the median has been replaced by a long walkway, dubbed the “Gateway Walk,” lined with benches, tidy hedges, and the university’s signature red brick to match the architecture of John Bennes, OSU’s original architect. Orange OSU flags hang alongside black Corvallis flags. The walkway, an art piece in its own right, is a gradual transition from university to town, a bridge of sorts. If you take the walkway and head east, towards the river, you may begin to notice something: it’s impossible to look in any direction without seeing artwork of all kinds – not only sculptures like Cassie, but murals, photographic prints, and poetry.
Though Madison Avenue has changed significantly in the past few years, its transformation has been an ongoing project for a long time. More specifically, since 1973. That was the year OSU’s president, Dr. Robert William MacVicar, along with the president of Corvallis’ Chamber of Commerce, decided that there should be a connection between OSU, downtown, and the Willamette. It made sense for this connection to be Madison Avenue, considering that the street begins at OSU and goes past Central Park, City Hall, and countless stores and restaurants. Out of this idea, the Madison Avenue Task Force was born – a group of community members and students dedicated to the beautification of Madison Avenue. For nearly 50 years, the task force adhered to their original mission: “To create a place for people in the heart of Corvallis.”
One of the first public art pieces unveiled on Madison sits at the edge of Central Park. It’s a sculpture of a ballerina, standing eternally en pointe. Her eyes are peacefully closed, oblivious to the kids that laugh and scream on the playground behind her on sunny days. Created in 1979 by Raymond Hunter, this sculpture kicked off a long history of public art. Continuing east, you’ll run into “Clever Disguise.” From behind, this sculpture appears to be a man in a long coat and hat, much like a historical sculpture that you could find in any park across the United States. If you were to drive by, this is all you would see. However, pedestrians are rewarded with the front view of the sculpture – in actuality, a gleeful looking alligator hides behind the coat, balancing on stilts to appear taller. A tiny raccoon balancing on his head wears the hat, completing the look. In a word, this sculpture represents the best aspect of Corvallis public art – its unexpectedness. Even if you feel like you know Corvallis like the back of your hand, it’s not unusual to find unfamiliar art pieces tucked away in back alleys and quiet streets. Public art in Corvallis gives us a reason to walk more slowly, to look more carefully.
Maybe this is most evident in the poetry. A poem is unlike a sculpture, in that it actually requires you to stop in order to take it in. It would be easy to miss much of the public poetry displays in Corvallis. Most of them are tucked away in back alleys, hanging above dumpsters and garbage cans, obscured by restaurant workers who take their smoke breaks in those alleys. On metal plates, local poetry is immortalized here. The poems are all love letters to Oregon – to salmon and poplars, to rain, to Mary’s Peak and the Willamette. Many of them are paired with photographs, black and white images that show Oregon trees, flowers, and landscapes. These odes to nature seem ironically out of place in a city alleyway. Yet, there’s something charming about poetry in unexpected places.
There is one particular poetry display that’s hard to miss – on the corner of Madison and 1st, a huge theater marquee displays an ever-rotating selection of poetry. Long ago, the sign used to belong to the Midway Theater, a drive-in. The sign remains unchanged from then, except for the fact that it now displays poetry instead of movie titles. If it weren’t for Linda Modrell, a former Benton County commissioner and Corvallis Arts Council member, the sign may have been lost forever. In an archival interview, she recounted how the defunct sign used to hang on the highway between Albany and Corvallis during the late 90s. Modrell was told that she could keep the sign if she hauled it away. With help from a local business owner, the sign was restored and found a new home on the side of the Great Harvest Bread building. At a suggestion from the Corvallis Arts Center, Modrell decided that poetry would be a way to stick with the sign’s original intent of displaying words.
“It is just one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in,” Modrell said in the interview.
Nowadays, an Arts Center committee accepts online submissions from local poets and decides whose words be displayed next. Volunteers help to change the poem on the marquee occasionally, seemingly when you least expect it. The poems on the marquee stay up long enough to become familiar, and then just as suddenly as they arrived, you might glance up one day and see entirely new words.
Towards the end of Madison Avenue, you’ll pass by another narrow alley, this one filled with big, brightly colored murals. A relatively new addition, the “Art Alley” was created as a part of the Corvallis Mural Project, led by Downtown Corvallis Association director Jennifer Moreland – who was inspired in 2016 by the paintings she saw in Los Angeles. It’s safe to say that Corvallis is experiencing somewhat of a mural craze, with over three dozen popping up in the past few years, not just on Madison Avenue but all over town. This has even prompted the Corvallis Mural Project to create an online map that helps to locate each mural, encouraging residents and visitors to not only passively view art but to actually seek it out, to make a day of looking at murals. In Art Alley, located at the back wall of American Dream Pizza, nature mixes with psychedelic. Vividly colored paintings of birds display feathers of bright blue, purple, and red. It seems difficult to believe that only a few years ago the space was nothing but empty brick wall. One of the murals, “Red-Tailed Hawk” by Alice Marshall, leaves an open space between the huge, feathered wings, inviting viewers to put themselves there. A formerly empty wall, an empty alley, can now be seen on any given night filled with people talking, laughing, taking pictures.
I watched construction workers and machinery tear up the median on Madison Avenue to build what would soon become the Gateway Walk. The transition was sudden, almost as if it happened overnight. I didn’t know then that the Gateway Walk was the grand finale of the Madison Avenue Task Force, a final project envisioned for nearly 50 years and put into action during the past 15. In the meantime, the Task Force built two plazas, created an annual festival, planted over 10,000 bulbs, and arranged for six sculptures and 15 pieces of alley artwork to be displayed in Corvallis. In May of last year, after a final dedication ceremony, the Task Force all but disbanded, with their mission complete – they had created an inviting space, a place that community members and university students could enjoy for the next 50 years and beyond. Though the work of the Task Force may be finished, the precedent has been set. Groups like the Corvallis Mural Project and the Arts Center will continue to beautify Madison Avenue and the surrounding streets. OSU and Corvallis have always been inextricably connected with each other, but thanks to the work of countless community members and artists the bridge between them has never been so clear.