Boise & Garden City

Boise Council votes to remove Depot Bench mosaic “Infernum Bestiae”

Creators of Depot Bench roundabout mosaic share their story

Boise artists Reham Aarti and Anna Webb tell how they teamed up to create a 300,000-tile mosaic in a street roundabout over eight weeks in late 2013 and early 2014. By mid-2018, the mosaic was falling apart.
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Boise artists Reham Aarti and Anna Webb tell how they teamed up to create a 300,000-tile mosaic in a street roundabout over eight weeks in late 2013 and early 2014. By mid-2018, the mosaic was falling apart.

The Boise City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to remove a publicly funded mosaic on a roundabout at Crescent Rim Drive and Eastover Terrace in the Depot Bench Neighborhood.

The city concluded that a combination of factors — water, snow, temperature changes and vehicles — contributed to the deterioration of the mosaic, which artists Reham Aarti and Anna Webb installed five years ago.

Council members said they regretted having to remove the artwork but found it necessary because they didn’t believe the mosaic would last if it were fixed.

“It’s unfortunate, because it’s such a beautiful piece,” Council President Lauren McLean said.

The round, 530-square-foot mosaic depicts four compass points over a blue-sky background. 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. Aarti estimated that she and Webb made 5 cents per hour for their time.

The artists will be allowed to retrieve tiles from the mosaic before it is destroyed.

The story below was published June 29, 2018, under the headline “Can this Boise mosaic be saved? Heat, water and trucks are destroying a labor of love.”

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. 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 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.

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Looking over a section where she included her father’s name in the roundabout mosaic “Infernum Bestiae,” artist Reham Aarti said she is frustrated by the city of Boise’s plan to remove the 306,000-tile mosaic rather than repair it. The mosaic has been subject to repeated vandalism and traffic damage since it was finished in 2014 near the Boise Depot.

Artist: Let me raise money to repair it

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 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.”

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Reham Aarti, front, Anna Webb, back left, and Jeremy Pearson work on a public art mosaic called "Infernum Bestiae" on Crescent Rim Drive near the Boise Depot in November 2013. The artists would have used more-durable tiles had the neighborhood association been able to pay more for the work, Aarti said.

Contractor: ‘A maintenance black hole’

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.”

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The mosaic on Crescent Rim Drive near the Boise Depot contains more than 300,000 tiles. Its imagery reflects the depot and travel. The design includes rail spikes that form a central sunburst, a cross-section of track, compass points and miniature houses. Trees, one for each season, represent Boise as the City of Trees and the Bench’s historic identity as a place of farms and orchards. Jason Lantz jlantz@idahostatesman.com

Tiles, grout can’t take the traffic

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.

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Anna Webb, Reham Aarti, and Chris Bergevin (left to right, all seated) work on a public art mosaic called "Depot Circle" on Crescent Rim Dive near the Boise Depot in November 2013.

‘The city has done their part’

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.

BoiseDev.com first reported the proposal to remove the mosaic.

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