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Photos courtesy of John Maher

It was the “elegant, gorgeous shape” of wooden orchard ladders that first struck artist John Maher.

As the concept took shape in his mind, he thought about Christo’s Running Fence art installation in California in the 1970s, and visualized a hundred brightly colored orchard ladders running alongside highways and freeways. He then thought of using ­signage—a succession of billboards, like the old Burma Shave ads—to remind travelers of the importance of ­family farms.

It took three years from conception to the completion in 2011 of his first Running Fruit Ladders installation along Highway 35 in Pine Grove, Oregon, in the heart of the pear and cherry growing region. Most of that time was spent on planning, applying for grants, finding locations, and obtaining the necessary permits from the Columbia River Gorge Commission and the Oregon Department of Transportation, which argued the installation might be a distraction to motorists and set a prec­edent for unconventional highway uses.

It was frustrating, said Maher, who is more used to working on small-scale art—such as hand-painted black and white photography—in the privacy of his studio. He believed that the ladders would be no more distraction than all the waterfalls, mountains, and windsurfers in the area. But he found there were advantages to the controversy. The “David and Goliath” story garnered wide press coverage, and the many letters from supporters helped him secure the permits.

Donated ladders

Maher had thought there would be lots of wooden ladders available because of the fruit industry’s switch to aluminum ladders and platforms. The first three ladders for the project came from his neighbor Matthew Koerner, and John Byers of The Dalles, Oregon, donated a large number, though not all of them were in usable condition. Months went by, and then, after an article about the project appeared in the Good Fruit Grower magazine, two Washington State growers—Al Heffron of Sunnyside and Chris Lytle of Wenatchee—donated enough ladders for the project to begin.

More than 100 volunteers, including art students from The Dalles High School, helped scrape, prime, and paint 100 ladders red, purple, blue, yellow, and pink (or fuchsia, as Maher prefers to call it) in a former fruit-packing facility at Pine Grove owned by the Lage family. The ladders are 10, 12, or 14 feet tall. He also has a collection of 16-foot ladders, not yet painted, that he might use for another art piece.

It struck Maher, in retrospect, that the bright colors evoke a Mexican fiesta—appropriately so, since most of the workers who used the ladders would have been from Mexico. The ladders seemed to be having fun after ­completing their orchard service.

From its first location at Pine Grove, the Running Fruit Ladders installation was moved alongside Interstate 84 near Mosier, and then to an area in front of the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, where people could see the ladders up close and touch them. At each site, successive signs spelled out:  “When-you-see-these-ladders-remember-what-matters-Family-farms-in-the-Gorge.”

Maher said the ladders are hard to ignore. “And that’s what makes them interesting, especially if there are 100 of them. The idea was to get people to think, this is where the food comes from, as well as just being fun art. It’s something that livens up your day.”

In hibernation

The number of ladders is down to 93 because several disappeared while they were out and about. One time, when the ladders had been taken down and were lying by the road, someone put several of them back up. Maher took the “guerrilla activity” as an encouraging sign.

Since the last installation was taken down from the Discovery Center more than a year ago, the ladders have been in hibernation. Maher said he grew tired of the fundraising and the difficulties involved with such a large-scale project and had to recuperate.

“You don’t just go into your studio and pop something out,” he observed.

But it was gratifying.

“It was very interactive. There were a lot of people involved in it, and it affected a lot more people than I ­normally reach.”

He’s now looking with renewed enthusiasm for more sites for the installation, and would love to find a permanent home eventually. He needs funding to pay for the costs involved, such as transportation, labor, and management. So far, funding has come ­primarily from supporters of the arts and private donors. Maher is hoping to find ­sponsors from agriculture.

The first three installations together cost more than $10,000, but that included the cost of painting the ladders, which was a one-time cost. He estimates that the cost for one installation could be as low as $2,000, depending on the distance the ladders need to be ­transported.

He’s had interest from the East Coast, and there’s been discussion about sending the ladders to Hood River’s sister city, Tsuruta, in an apple-growing region of Japan, but the ladders would fill a 40-foot shipping container and would cost $12,500 to ship. He’s thinking of applying for a national grant that would require the ladder installation to travel between three U.S. states.

“I really want to keep the ladders running,” he said, chuckling at the pun. “We’re not talking about a lot of money, and you get a lot of publicity out of it.”

John Maher grew up in California and studied conceptual art at the University of ­California, San Diego, in the 1970s. He worked for many years as a photographer, before returning to fine art. He has lived most of his life in Oregon. For more information, check his Web site at www.maherart.com or e-mail him at johnmaher@gorge.net