Art Lake City | In Plain Site | Visual Arts

The Whale in the Roundabout

Stephen Kesler’s public art work “Out of the Blue”

“It looks like an airplane from here,” one of our visitors from out of town says as we approach the roundabout in our car. (The visitor has actually flown planes.)

“It looks like the back of a penguin,” says his wife. “And look, there’s a setting sun on its back.”

“Oh, it’s a whale,” they both suddenly say as we turn the perfect circle of the roundabout, joining the mechanical maypole, or merry-go-round, of cars, around a circle seeming all too small for a life-size (?) breeching whale, whose feelings (because it is not real — only a many-colored painted sculpture) no one worries about hurting. A sculpture can’t feel hurt by those who say this whale makes them feel they are at Sea World; that this whale is like a captive performing aquatic creature who has just succeeded in leaping through a hoop, and now, doomed acrobat, must soar through (or over) dry hills and rocky mountains as if imagining they are taller and taller waves of water. Who say it’s headed in the wrong direction; it should be headed west, not east, if it’s trying to get to the Pacific Ocean.

Whose rumored appearance-to-be produced many small and large gnome statues in the then-blank awaiting roundabout, some with protest signs treating the whale-to-arrive as if it were real (“Whales belong in the ocean,” one gnome’s picket/protest sign stated).

Then, overnight, gnomes all disappeared. (Had they given up, had they left on their own?Perhaps the gnomes were real?)

You wonder if the artist himself was offended by the many gnome-objections about his brilliantly-colored sculptural form of a whale, or whether he considered all objections proof that his idea of filling a roundabout with a whale was art on a higher level, because it was protested by so many. Or was it as simple an idea as an artist reminding us that not that long ago in earth-time, exactly where our cars are circling clockwise, this exact place was underwater? (Artist: dramatically, through time, things change.)

Where the whale is leaping toward: one street leading uphill, toward the University of Utah campus, and another road heading in a meandering forested way uphill, Gilmer street, which always looks like the street rich/requisitely crazy inventors in Salt Lake City must live on.

Behind the whale’s brightly-colored penguin-rocket-airplane back: gelato shop filled with dangling earth-globes; large corner store which sells fancy clothes and gifts for children; cafe with the word “garden” in it, which plays classical music and serves exquisite pastries and puppy treats. And, next to what may be the world’s tiniest Sotheby’s, a shop whose “Open” sign is held by a knight’s (empty) hammered-metal silvery suit. Definitely a gnome-ish enclave, a neighborhood gnomes would choose.

So how was it determined that this neighborhood needed a whale to guide people traveling in cars, clockwise, in circles? A whale which also almost suggests a richly painted totem-pole, facing mountains to the east? Did it come from city officials’ boredom? Or daring?

You know why you feel such consternation when you read or hear that many who at first objected to the whale in the roundabout are stating they are even beginning to like this strange whale. Because, if this whale were real, it would be in as sad and horrible an ending as it could be: its leap would be as futile as a fish’s leap to a deck of a boat, as hopeless as an Alcatraz prisoner’s hope of swimming to safety. A last leap. A bad end. (The borders of the roundabout from which the whale leaps is now filled with a thick shrubby ground cover, not even trying to be aquatic: this whale very much seems to be suddenly leaping — out of a manhole).

But it’s a sculpture, you remind yourself.

Once upon a time the roundabout would have been filled with a circular fountain, and, probably, ivy? Or a statue of a person (unpopular these days: perhaps a statue of a gnome would have been the only solution, and the gnomes placed in the empty roundabout were a suggestion for that solution).

Gnomes surround the bottom of “Out of the Blue” after the sculpture was installed.

You remember attending, in Salt Lake City, an opera of Moby Dick; purely awful because it never once let you hear the magic of a whale’s sounds/voice. Or the ocean’s. You once owned recordings of whales singing to each other underwater; they make the human voice sound clumsy. In the opera Moby Dick all you heard was the whining fuming gang of people who kept trying to end a whale’s life.

Once you asked William Safire, who was visiting Salt Lake City to lecture at its library, what his favorite book was. He told you, immediately, it was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. When you said you hadn’t read it, he said he envied you, because you still had that to read.

Dimly, you remember your repeat-surprise about a popular furniture and appliance store in town having, very high up on its tall side, an enormous mural of a mother whale and its baby: how the heck did they appear there? Who chose them? Why? Those whales look out, you admit, quite regally, even magnificently, over a parking lot.

And, before all this, you remember your mother once telling you it was not true that dinosaurs were the biggest creatures who once ruled the earth. The biggest and longest-existing creature which has ever lived on earth still lives today, she said: the whale.

Now you remember another visitor, weeks earlier, this one alone and from another country, in the same car, as we were approaching the roundabout, the bright leaping whale, saying about the whale: “Something for children.” In a quick, somewhat sad, voice.

Perhaps she reviews it best. Is the artist of the whale of the roundabout wanting to give us the hope of a distant and unknown somewhere? Perhaps a sculpture you can look at when you’re young and wondering where, possibly, you will live someday, when you don’t know yet what the games of fate/dreams will do with you. The dream of being a stranger in a strange land, born again, however awkwardly.

“Out of the Blue” was painted by Salt Lake City artist Mike Murdock and will be repainted by a commissioned artist on a regular basis.


Stephen Kesler’s “Out of the Blue” is part of the Salt Lake City Public Art Program and was installed in April, 2022.

7 replies »

  1. There’s never a dull moment when reading Rebecca Pyle. Her essays should always be titled in the manner of “18 (or some other number) Ways of Looking at a Whale (or whatever).” At the risk of robbing her story of some of its prodigious verve, whales don’t just breach—though it’s most exciting when they do. They also “sky-hop,” which is when they stand up and tread water, sticking out of the water like a column, presumably to take a look around. Maybe that’s what this one is doing . . . peering back at the people (and gnomes) who’ve come to stand (or drive around) and gawk at it.

    • Thank you spell-check. That was supposed to be spy-hop, based on the unproven idea that they’re looking around.

  2. Geoff — I like sky-hop!

    Capitalized, a cheerful name for elevators at the Freedom Tower or Rockefeller Center in Manhattan; or — perfect alternate title for this sculpture/public art piece.

    Do you also wonder what the overall effect would be — if this whale was painted a dark, somber, somewhat metallic gray?

    A somewhat frightening (for visitors to this state driving the roundabout for the first time, late at night) but beautiful illusion — of a real, but frozen-in-time, leaping whale. Carefully spotlit, in the roundabout.

    Gnomes, meanwhile, persisting in seeking deep underground route to lead it back to ocean. Other whales.

  3. I think the whale sculpture has done its job: started a conversation about the weird, wonderful neighborhood I live in. All hail, whale!

  4. Maybe the tail of the whale should show up in the round about on 2000 east and Parley Blvd, connecting the whale and growing neighborhoods. Just a thought!

    • What an idea.
      Puzzling many, till they see the riddle of ‘what-is-this?’ solved, in the yonder-roundabout: the emerging whale.
      Or, could one infer a reverse order—the whale almost having completed a deep, equally miraculous dive back into Deep EarthSea.

  5. My favorite gnome scene was the “Whale Watching” boat with gnomes as passengers sitting below the whale sculpture. What happened to that one? It was perfect! It needs to come back. There is room for whales and gnomes in this fun neighborhood

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