Pitchers at An Exhibition

updated 07/27/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/27/1992 01:00AM

SOMEDAY IN THE DISTANT FUTURE, scientists will be driven mad by an archaeological discovery in what is now Phoenix. The trove—some potsherds, some intact pieces—will be impressive: giant teapots, 15-foot-tall urns, an amphora big enough to accommodate a small bar mitzvah. The scientists will probably note that the distribution pattern of these Brobdingnagian artifacts corresponds exactly to the route of the Squaw Peak Parkway. They will wonder, as archaeologists always do, what kind of people made these things? And why? Were they from another planet? And why did their civilization decline?

Even with help from National Geographic and a cadre of eager grad students, the scientists are unlikely to hit on the right answer: The giant pots were created by noted Massachusetts artist Mags Harries and her designer-husband Lajos Héder at the behest of the Phoenix Arts Commission. The 35 pieces of art were installed along the noise walls on a five-mile stretch of the highway, at a cost of $474,000, in an attempt to mitigate the disruption and disfiguring of the neighborhood caused by the new highway.

The result was a tempest in several teapots. Discommoded residents were enraged that close to half a million dollars had been spent on the postmodern colonnade rather than on, say, sidewalks or speed bumps. "We've got dead trees here, we've got places where they haven't done any landscaping, and people are looking at this garbage," fumes Pat Saehen, whose home has a coffeepol-and-dishes view.

Other complaints came from Arizonans angry that out-of-staters Héder and Harries won the commission. (Local companies, which cast the polyehromed-concrete-and-painted-steel pots, and a Tucson artist, who did additional design work, got 60 percent of the money.)

"We wanted to change the wall so it became like a linear treasure hunt," says Harries, 47. "We wanted to convey a sense that along the stretch you would find wonderful things."

The upshot is that the city council has revised the way Phoenix runs its public-art program to give the city more control over projects like the giant-pot installation. The pots, though, will stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Craig Tribken, a member of the council, believes most of the opposition to the pots came from people who didn't really hate the artworks per se. "People in those neighborhoods that were hacked apart hate the freeway," he says. "They hate everything to do with it. What's important is what those people are going to think a year or two or three years from now. You have to have patience."

Eons from now, of course, archaeologists will still be wondering why a race of giant desert people drove around in such tiny cars.

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