Go into an art gallery and five people staring at the same original Picasso or LeRoy Neiman might offer five different opinions or interpretations ranging from "It's marvelous" to "I don't get it."
The same goes for any art form, from a macramé hanging to a statue to a fountain.
The exception, it seems, is the so-called water feature in the plaza at Tenth Street Place in downtown Modesto.
Certainly, there are varying opinions.
Since it was unveiled, it's drawn varying degrees of criticism from "it squats, like some hideous, misshapen toad," in a Bee community column by the late John Michael Flint, to "It's typical of government art: It's ugly, overpriced and detracts from the plaza," courtesy of Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini.
Indeed, the fountain was costly at $588,400 when it was unveiled more than a decade ago. Compare that with the Burchell Fountain at Briggsmore and McHenry avenues in Modesto, which cost $20,000 to build in 1973 and will soon be demolished as part of a road-widening project.
But the downtown fountain's critics, Modesto resident Peggy Best said, are spending too much time looking at it with their eyes and mocking its intent: to depict a valley framed by the Sierra on one side and the Diablo Range on the other, with the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers flowing into it.
There's another way to view the fountain, she said: with your hands and, specifically, your fingers.
Best teaches blind and visually impaired students at various Modesto City Schools campuses.
From the first time she saw the water feature -- with her eyes -- she knew it would be a great teaching tool for her students. People who are blind or visually impaired rely on their fingers, noses and ears to get the information their eyes cannot provide.
"This is part of being an orientation and mobility specialist," Best said. "You have to try to describe concepts to them. It's so nice to teach the concepts of the rolling hills, the steep hills, and the concept of the valley."
Jerry Morris was a staff photographer at Modesto Junior College until he had open-heart surgery in 2002. They fixed his heart, but when he woke up in post-op, he was blind. He remembers being able to see the fountain.
"And I've seen it since I lost my eyesight," Morris said, meaning that he's touched it. "The different textures, the rolling feeling of the hills in the fountain -- I've always enjoyed it."
Many of Best's students, particularly those with multiple disabilities, don't like to touch things. The water feature helps break down those inhibitions, Best said.
"Because there's water there, and they can tell it's there, they like it," she said. "They might not get the concept of the valley the first time, but eventually they do. They can listen to it, too."
Tenth Street Place is just one of the sensory-rich places she takes her students.
"We explore," she said. "I take them to the mall to teach them about escalators and elevators. I show them where the bus stops. I'm going to start taking them to Kaiser (hospital), where they have that circular (revolving) door. They don't have many of those here in Modesto, but they certainly do in places like San Francisco."
While each of the aforementioned places offers usable and practical experiences, the water feature is art they can touch. It's geography they can feel. It offers depth perception that is difficult to find anywhere else in the city. In essence, it's like having a map in Braille.
True, the feature might not be as majestic or pleasing as the Mistlin Fountain at the gateway to Ripon. Nor is it as simple and practical as the Chief Estanislao Fountain at Courthouse Park in Modesto. And some might argue its not as pretty as the small fountain in front of the McHenry Museum.
But it does serve a purpose, Best said. Its critics, she added, need to look at it differently and use multiple senses as her students do. Or better yet, quit carping and let others appreciate it in their own way.
"Shut up about it, already," she said. "Especially DeMartini. So you don't like it. Well, other people do. I see nothing wrong with it whether I take students there or not."
Because a fountain, water feature or whatever they want to call it really is just another form of art. Some will like it, some won't. Some will marvel at it. Some won't get it.
Beauty, they say, is in the eyes of the beholder. Or, in this case, the fingers.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.