The Hand — a Gordon Huether-designed piece of public art for the Archer Hotel in downtown Napa — will have its showdown before the city Planning Commission Thursday night.

Since its unveiling in April, the upraised 18-foot-tall hand of fiberglass and steel, holding a grape-like orb, has generated heated debate about its proposed prominent location on First Street.

In a letter to the commission, Lewis deSoto, described the Hand as “deeply offensive,” “derivative and insensitive to the site,” and “silly and metaphorically vague.”

“I’m embarrassed for Napa,” wrote Sabine Reckewell. “We deserve better.”

“I implore you to please reject this puerile, yellow eyesore of a hand,” wrote Fain Hancock.

Others were more supportive.

“The scale, design and location of the art piece are appropriate, and the piece will be an excellent addition” to downtown Napa, wrote George H. Monteverdi.

“This piece honors those who are the foundation of the product that brings visitors to our valley,” wrote Carol Fink of Yountville. “I urge you to approve the design.”

“LodgeWorks is investing $70 million in our town. We should be grateful that they chose a local artist with local employees and a sense of pride in our community,” wrote Dorothy and John Salmon in a letter to the Register.

The burnt-orange sculpture would be placed within the pedestrian walkway on the west side of the planned Archer hotel, next to a pedestrian entry to Shops at Napa Center.

Looking back on a month of controversy, Huether said, “I’m amazed, intrigued and kind of surprised that so many people have an opinion both positive and negative.”

“It has been said that good art creates conversation and the Hand certainly is doing that,” he said.

In an interview on Tuesday, Tom Trzesniewski, vice-chair of the Planning Commission, pointed out that the Commission will not rule on the artistic merits of the proposed artwork. Their task is to make sure it meets the general criteria for public artworks.

Those criteria specify that the art should be low-maintenance, relatable to its surroundings, permanently fixed to the property and meet building codes, among other requirements.

“We don’t talk about if we like the art. It’s not our role,” Trzesniewski said. “Archer gets to choose. They are paying, it’s their project.”

Trzesniewski disagreed with comments about Archer hiring Huether. The artist recused himself from all Archer commission activity, he noted. Some of the criticism about the Hand may be attributed to animosity about Huether and his success as a local artist, he said. “I think it’s jealousy.”

Napa attorney Kevin Teague represents LodgeWorks, the developer of the Archer hotel.

“LodgeWorks is here to be part of the community. Hearing what the community has to say is important to them,” he said. “I know that art inspires a lot of debate,” but “we do we feel we met the ordinance,” and the hand is located on private property.

LodgeWorks had a previous relationship with Huether from another project in New York City, Teague noted. As for the Napa project, “They don’t believe he’s used his position to an advantage.”

Teague said that LodgeWorks has considered some variations on The Hand related to colors and materials, but nothing has been decided. “We want to hear the feedback, but for now, we are sticking to the proposal we submitted.”

Michael Kelly is the chairman of the the Napa city Public Art Steering Committee. That committee has no role in this particular art project primarily because the Hand is being installed on private property and is paid for by the developer.

“It’s not anything we’re getting involved in,” he said. He declined to comment further on the Hand and its debate.

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However, speaking as an artist, Kelly said, “Every artist has the right to sell to whoever is willing to buy their artwork.”

Answering critics who complained about the artist using his own hand as a model, Huether said that the final art piece will be an anonymous hand. Responding to some who suggested he use a farmworker as a model, Huether said he wanted the Hand “to be more about humanity than a specific race.”

He disagreed with comments about cronyism or favoritism.

“Being on the Planning Commission doesn’t give me magical powers to somehow force developers to hire me. It just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “I cannot participate in any way as a Planning Commissioner in any decisions for someone that is a client of mine.”

Huether said he can face the criticism of his art. “I don’t embrace it but I accept it.”

Some local artists might be jealous of his work, Huether acknowledged, but he defended his career. “I’ve been working my ass off for 30 years. To those disgruntled artists, come to the studio. I will teach you how to build a business around being an artist. It doesn’t just fall out of the sky. I make it happen for myself and my 13 employees.”

In addition, “I work for the Archer. They are the client. They chose me. They all believe in the art and apparently believe in me.”

Napa’s municipal code requires a public art contribution for commercial construction projects that cost more than $250,000. The cost of the art must be equal to at least 1 percent of the project’s construction costs. The Hand of the Land will cost in the six-figures, said Huether, who declined to elaborate.

While Huether originally thought he could attend Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting to speak for his work, he’s since been informed by the city’s attorney’s office he cannot attend. His studio director and Teague will present in his place.

“I am not happy about not being able to present my own work but there’s not a lot I can do about it. I’d much rather be there,” he said. Instead, “I will be watching it from the comfort of my own home with a Jack Daniels on the rocks.”

Olivia Everett, the president and CEO of the Arts Council Napa Valley, said she will attend Thursday’s meeting. Were she to speak, “I would thank the Archer Hotel for participating in the arts ordinance. The developers are making the art we have in the community possible. It’s a difficult position to balance public and private interests. I respect this is not an easy conversation.”

Huether is visible in Napa, and has a strong personality, she said. That can draw criticism, “But at the same time, Gordon is as much a part of the community as anyone else.”

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Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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