Artist Michael Koliner created his piece out of cob, a mixture of clay, straw and sand. (Brendan Bartholomew/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Artist threatened for Redwood City exhibition

Some claim art is successful if it provokes a strong reaction. But threats allegedly made against artist Michael Koliner were not the kind of reception he had hoped his new works in Redwood City would evoke.

Koliner says he was creating a permanent installation in Mariner Park when he was confronted by residents whose complaints about his project eventually escalated to implied threats of bodily harm.

Fearing for their safety, Koliner and his assistant left the park and called police, who contacted the individuals in question, but made no arrests.

Mayor Jeffrey Gee mentioned the Oct. 24 incident during a recent City Council meeting, using the episode as a springboard to call for greater civility in how residents, stakeholders and elected officials interact with each other, especially when discussing contentious topics.

Koliner’s project is called “Harambee,” and also includes installations at Redwood City’s Mezes and Andrew Spinas parks. The project’s name is derived from a Swahili word that can be translated as “all pull together.” At each park the artist invited members of the community to help him create the pieces.

Children and adults danced and played in large quantities of mud created for the event. Referred to as “cob,” the mud was a mixture of clay, straw and sand that would eventually harden to permanence. Participants applied the cob to armatures built by Koliner, with the results being curvaceous art objects park visitors could interact with by sitting or climbing on them.

Koliner said the first confrontation occurred when a woman approached the Mariner Park installation, screaming that the project had ruined her life. Later, just before dusk, Koliner said a man approached him and started asking questions about the rules governing the creation of permanent structures in open spaces.

Despite Koliner explaining he had the city’s official permission to create the installation, the artist said the man became increasingly agitated, and said, “Watch your back, motherfucker,” before riding off on his bicycle.

The backyards of several homes face Mariner Park, and Koliner said both antagonists apparently reside in one such dwelling, as the incident continued with the man and woman screaming threats and insults from one of the yards.

Koliner said both people appeared to be “on something,” and cited the man’s “heightened rage and frantic, aggressive gestures.”

Although local families had earlier participated in the mud dancing and building process, none were present during the incident, Koliner said, and he and his assistant had been in the process of applying stucco when the harassment began. Concerned for their safety, they left Mariner Park without finishing the stucco application.

“It’s not part of my agreement to deal with tweakers,” Koliner noted.

Redwood City Police Lieutenant Sean Hart said police received several calls, both from Koliner and his assistant, and from their alleged harassers, who apparently thought they could report the artists for violating some type of agreement governing the park.

Hart confirmed police contacted the individuals at their home, but determined any threats they might have made were not credible. Therefore, Hart said, no arrests were made.

The piece in Mariner Park still needs to have some stucco applied, but Koliner said it’s work any general contractor could handle. The artist spent about six weeks working on the three-park project, and has now returned to Pittsburgh, Pa., where he lives.

Koliner has adopted a philosophical attitude toward the confrontation.

“I couldn’t get too upset about it because these didn’t seem like rational people,” the artist said.

Koliner added that his experience was minor compared to the Sept. 29 shooting death of muralist Antonio Ramos, who was killed while working on a community art project in West Oakland.

“That, to me, was a much more significant instance of the kind of civil decay Mayor Gee was talking about,” Koliner said.

To learn more about the Harambee project, visit http://tinyurl.com/rwcharambee.

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