You’d think it’d be tough to miss a 5-foot-long grasshopper, but plenty of people walk by one downtown daily without noticing.
Once they do discover the sculpture peering down from its second-story perch in the alley on Court Street next to Whitlock’s Vacuum & Sewing Supercenter, they tend to react with curiosity. Where did that thing come from, and what’s its story?
Longtime residents may remember the appearance of the grasshopper, but newer and younger Salemites are often clueless about the insect and its sister statue: a 2½-foot fly attached to the Salem Printing & Blueprint, Inc., building two blocks south.
Artist Wayne Chabre of Walla Walla, Wash., who created the two hammered-copper sculptures, remembers well the story of how they finally landed in Salem.
It was 1988 when he packed the two insects into his truck and drove them to Salem to install them in the alley between Court and State streets. The sculptures were one of his first public commissions, and the city had paid him $5,000 to create them as part of an alley beautification program.
He’d been told that his sculptures should have a garden theme, so he initially presented to the city drawings of rabbit and toad gargoyles with leering grins. Chabre is a whimsical sculptor who enjoys shaking things up with his creations.
“But they wanted something more conservative,” Chabre said. “They didn’t want something that might be scary. I didn’t think they were scary.”
He remembers the city asking him to create insects instead, and he chose a grasshopper first. As he looked through books with photos of insects, he became enraptured by pictures of the blue bottle fly with its iridescent blue-green body.
“I thought, ‘If I have to do an insect, at least I can do something that’s a little controversial or funny,’” he said.
He first installed the grasshopper on the side of what today is The Book Bin. Installation was complex, because the grasshopper was a scupper — a drain pipe from the building’s roof funneled water through the insect’s body, out its mouth and into a basin before the water headed down into the city’s sewer system.
I thought, ‘If I have to do an insect, at least I can do something that’s a little controversial or funny.’
Chabre headed a block south to the other end of the alley to install his fly, also a scupper, in a spot near the Oyster Bar on State Street (today the restaurant is known as Jonathan’s and sits on High Street). Turned out the restaurateur wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a fly greeting his customers.
“The guy who owned the restaurant came out and said, ‘Stop immediately,’” Chabre said. “And he had his lawyer with him. … I was right there — ready to drill the holes, bolt it up, be done, and go have a beer — and they came out and said, ‘What are you doing? Stop!’
“I just started laughing because I thought they were joking. Usually business owners are happy to get a sculpture near their building. But I stopped, and I called the city to see what to do.”
Next thing he knew, a Statesman Journal reporter came out to see what was going on, and the following morning, the story hit the front page: “Restaurant swats away fly sculpture.”
The owner of the Oyster Bar at the time, John Cunningham, did not talk with the Statesman reporter for the article. But Jim Walker, who was Salem’s community development supervisor, was quoted as saying, “Personally, I like the artwork. I suspect the owner of a business might have a different view of it.”
Chabre said the city put the fly into storage, and the grasshopper eventually joined it. As an eastern Oregonian, Chabre had misjudged the impact of Salem’s rain as it ran off the rooftop into his scupper.
“The water totally overwhelmed that scupper, and it all drained off one end and down the side of the wall,” he said.
About a year later, according to Chabre, the city installed both sculptures — without drain pipes attached — where they sit today. The grasshopper is across Court Street from its original perch, and the fly is several blocks farther south near Ferry Street.
But when city workers re-installed the grasshopper, they forgot something, Chabre said.
“They apparently had some leftover pieces and didn’t know what to do with them, because his back feet are missing. It’s bolted to the wall near its back, and there were copper feet you could screw on over the brackets, but they didn’t do that. I called and asked about it, but they didn’t know what happened to them. To this day, I don’t think it has its feet.”
The fly incident didn’t hurt Chabre’s reputation. A couple of years later, he earned another commission in Salem to install a quadruple-paneled copper gate inside the entrance of the Oregon State Archives building, north of downtown on Summer Street. The more-traditional piece depicts the life cycle of an Oregon forest.
He went on to gain numerous public commissions in Oregon and Washington, including gargoyles on the University of Oregon campus, the front gates to the Oregon Zoo and a series of pieces adorning a courtyard at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland.
But he’ll never forget the grasshopper and the fly. He last saw the grasshopper about a year ago, when he stopped for lunch downtown while passing through Salem on a trip.
“It seems to be doing okay except for its feet,” he said. “I keep thinking that maybe they’ll figure that out one of these days.”
Sarah Evans is co-editor of Salem Is. She never noticed the grasshopper until last summer, and she saw the fly for the first time while reporting this story.
Grasshopper Street View
Fly Street View