Why there's a 15-foot pencil sticking out of the ground in Salt Lake City

A large pencil public art sculpture outside of a business on South Temple in Salt Lake City Monday afternoon. Construction crews installed the art piece, made from a repurposed utility pole, earlier in the day.

A large pencil public art sculpture outside of a business on South Temple in Salt Lake City Monday afternoon. Construction crews installed the art piece, made from a repurposed utility pole, earlier in the day. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Steven Price braved a downpour Monday to watch a giant 15-foot pencil glide through the air before a trio of construction workers locked it into place outside of a startup business on South Temple.

This pencil, named "On Point," is the latest piece in obscure public art on South Temple, joining a rhino and an ostrich. There was also a red sumo wrestler, but — much to Price's dismay — it was destroyed by a vandal not terribly long after it was installed. All of these pieces of art are located outside of business properties owned by Price, the founder and president of Price Real Estate.

He's steadily amassing a collection of public art pieces that he hopes has the people who walk or drive by thinking the same question.

Why?

In Price's mind, it's a question worth asking through a series of art installations.

"I think art is the best reflection of the state of culture and the state of humanity," he says. "The highest state of humanity is when we think about art and what it does to enrich us — and it enriches it. It changes us and gives the city coolness, it gives it hipness, it gives it soul and it gives it purpose."

All art has some story behind it. Price began his South Temple public art collection with the rhino and ostrich, which reflect some of the first animals during the building of Hogle Zoo back when it was located at Liberty Park. The statues were cast by a local artist in the 1980s and scooped up by the real estate company to celebrate a piece of city history.

Then came "Rikishi," a giant red sumo wrestler that only lasted a few months before it was destroyed with a baseball bat. It's set to be replaced later this year with "The Last Three" rhino statue that was previously at Bryant Park in New York City. It's worth noting that Price has installed artwork outside of other buildings across the county that he owns, too.

But there was space still available for public art outside of the Price-owned property at 242 E. South Temple, which is a former home turned business space.

"Giant Pencil," an iconic pencil-shaped smokestack in Denver, offered one possibility for a design. The sculpture got Price thinking about old utility poles, which are treated with chemicals like creosote so they can last but that also makes them impossible to burn; they're rendered useless unless they are repurposed in some form or fashion, as noted by Woodpoles.org.


That's exactly what an artist wants to do. (We) want to elicit all sorts of different contrasting opinions from viewers.

–Utah artist Ruben Morales


He figured that it would make sense to use one of these poles to turn into public art, so his company acquired a pair of utility poles from Rocky Mountain Power. The company also hired Ruben Morales, a Utah-based artist, to turn the pole into something new.

Crews actually had to lift the pole into his house. Then, for about two months, Morales worked to trim it down to its final size and paint it into the work of art it now is.

"We just wanted something whimsical — a ubiquitous object, based out of context, in a bright, cheerful color," he said. "(A pencil) is such a ubiquitous object that anyone passing by can relate to it. It doesn't matter what part of the world they're from. We all have memories of a bright yellow pencil that we've all used in our education."

Construction crews prepared to hoist a pencil public art sculpture to its home outside of a business located on South Temple in Salt Lake City Monday morning. The pencil was made from a repurposed utility pole.
Construction crews prepared to hoist a pencil public art sculpture to its home outside of a business located on South Temple in Salt Lake City Monday morning. The pencil was made from a repurposed utility pole. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

A bright yellow pencil made from an old utility pole may be the perfect metaphor for the city itself. These old utility poles helped build the city into what it is today; however, it's rapidly evolving as it grows to new heights, meaning that like anything created by a pencil, there's room to redraw it.

That can be done by building over old structures or by repurposing old buildings to fit new needs like tech startup business space. The Price Real Estate locations on South Temple are a handful of the latter in the Central City area.

"We help draw things with pencils," Price said. "We've always drawn what we want to build before we build them. ... Then you erase, you write and you begin all over again."

Of course, since the pencil is a piece of art, it's always possible that someone who comes by it in the future will have a different interpretation of it. The Salt Lake City-commissioned 9th South whale, "Out of the Blue," which was installed in April, is an example of artwork that offers up different opinions and emotions.

While a giant pencil may not be as obscure as a whale — or even a rhino or ostrich for that matter — Morales said the ultimate goal with "On Point" is to have someone passing by it feel or think after seeing it. He hopes it puts a smile on someone's face or confuses the person who stops to look at it.

"That's exactly what an artist wants to do," he said. "(We) want to elicit all sorts of different contrasting opinions from viewers."

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Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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