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Originally published August 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 4, 2008 at 1:23 PM

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All the pretty horses of Vantage are only half done

One of the most-seen public artworks in the state, a row of galloping horses near Vantage, is actually only half finished, but officials are having trouble funding its completion.

Seattle Times staff reporter

One of the most-seen public artworks in the state looks pretty straightforward to most viewers: 15 life-size metal horses galloping across a ridge along the Columbia River.

More than 5 million vehicles a year on Interstate 90 pass by the artwork, "Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies," near Vantage. The horse sculptures are nearly 20 years old.

But it's almost a given that such iconic public art should have a bit of tumultuous history. It's probable that few of the curious people who sometimes take the time to scramble up a steep trail to the horses know much about them.

Take Christopher and Margaret Stehr, of Centralia, and their four children, who recently spotted the horses on a road trip. They clambered up the trail and took pictures.

Even though the beasts weigh 1,200 pounds each and are bolted into the rock, they were swaying in the wind. That surprised the Stehrs.

"I thought they were really amazing, bigger than I thought they'd be," Margaret Stehr said.

But here's what they didn't know: The whole thing's only half finished.

And it's not supposed to be just a line of galloping horses. They're supposed to be coming out of a 25,000-pound, 36-foot-diameter steel basket.

Make that a yet-to-be-financed, yet-to-be-manufactured steel basket.

The artist who made the sculpture, David Govedare, 57, of Chewelah, Stevens County, tends to talk about his art in mystical language. And in his vision, the horses had been contained in a "Great Basket," and then "Grandfather Spirit" tipped the basket, cutting loose the ponies. Hence the name.

Govedare imagined Grandfather Spirit saying, "Creatures of this planet, behold, a Great Basket! I send this basket, bearing the gift of life, to all corners of the universe. Now, take these ponies; I am cutting them loose. They will inspire a spirit of free will. They will be a companion for work and play on this planet."

Although the Grandfather Spirit reference might seem to have Native American origins, it doesn't. It's just Govedare's interpretation. And he's of European descent.

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Financing the giant basket has been a problem.

State Sen. Chris Marr, a Spokane Democrat, would like to see state funding to finish the project, estimated to cost $350,000.

But it would help, he said, if there were a bona fide nonprofit group behind the project, and a formal funding request.

"Artists are not the best business people in terms of submitting funding requests," he said.

And there is the problem of how some perceive the giant basket.

John Roskelley, a former Spokane County commissioner, and a member of the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, has for years tried to find funding for the basket.

He said one state senator opposed to the funding told him point-blank that the basket didn't really look like a basket, but a satellite dish.

Roskelley, 59, acknowledged the similarities to a giant satellite dish but said that "only if you're as old as I am it may look like that." Younger people, he said, are used to much smaller dishes.

Such is the life of a work of public art.

Govedare has a long history of public art projects, such as metal renditions of runners at Riverfront Park in Spokane. His background includes studying architecture, surfing in Southern California, and hauling hay in Montana. He has no formal art education.

He says the horse idea came to him in the mid-1980s, when he read that organizers of the upcoming 1989 Washington State Centennial were looking for ideas.

This was the area where the last grand roundup of wild horses took place in 1906, and he thought he would honor them. Grant County officials, businesspeople and even school kids took part in a fundraising effort, which raised at least $60,000.

The first metal horse was bolted into place in August 1989.

Since the horses were installed, based on state Department of Transportation figures, some 100 million vehicles have driven past.

Margaret Stehr said the sculpture looked just fine, even without the big basket.

"It's amazing as it is," she said. "I wasn't expecting anything else."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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