Sculptures Offer a Clear View of Smog


A seven-foot-tall, purple and orange speckled metal figure stands in a semi-arid African landscape area at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia.

With an automobile muffler for a head and exhaust pipes for most of its body parts, the serpentine figure extends what looks sort of like a left arm, consisting of two square panels connected by a hinge and opening like a jaw. The top panel is a plexiglass sheet overlaid with a stencil of a pine tree; beneath it lies a mirror that reflects the image above.

As motionless as it seems, the work of art is growing from minute to minute. Air pollutants--fine particulates of dirt, dust, soot and grime--are accumulating on the transparent sheet of the environmentally interactive sculpture.

After about eight weeks, the stencil will be removed to show an image that will appear to be etched in glass.


The sculpture is one of seven similar “smog collectors” created by environmental artist Kim Abeles. It is part of the series, “Thirty Days in California,” which was originally scheduled to end Dec. 7 but has been extended through the month.

The artworks, featuring unusual sculptures and a variety of images at other public sites, were commissioned by the state Bureau of Automotive Repair. The agency, which regulates auto repair shops and smog-check facilities statewide, sponsored its first public showing of the artworks in order to help people visualize pollution, officials said.

“Smog is such an ethereal, everyday concept that we have a tendency to take the term for granted,” said Craig Rexroad, an agency spokesman. “We thought that if people could see it, it would bring home the idea of how dangerous it is.”

Abeles was perfect for the task because of some of her previous work, Rexroad said.


The 39-year-old artist, who moved to Southern California 13 years ago, said she first began to relate her work to smog after a 1985 incident. One day, she observed a wedge in the ridgeline of the distant San Gabriel Mountains that she had never seen before from her studio in downtown Los Angeles.

“The mountain was so spectacular,” she said. “It seemed so odd that I’d been there for seven years and never seen it.”

The artist said she photographed the mountain daily, waiting to see it again as distinctly as that first clear day. One year and two months later, she finally finished the project.

Her fascination continued. During a first-stage smog alert in September, 1987, Abeles walked from her studio at 2nd Street and Broadway toward the same peak until she could see it clearly. The path, a northeasterly route, literally took her through the houses of some very understanding people, across their lawns and under freeways, she said.


Ten hours and 16.5 miles later--only after reaching the base of the mountains in Altadena--could she finally see the peak clearly.

“I was really quite a mess by the end,” Abeles said, laughing. “The woman in the house at the foot of the mountain invited me in for a drink, and the bus driver gave me a free ride home after they’d heard what I’d done.”

Regarding the “Thirty Days in California” exhibit, Abeles said she was delighted to be commissioned by the state and appreciates the opportunity to display her work in settings outside of art galleries.

“Appearing in galleries is like talking to the converted,” she said. “I want to be with people who aren’t interested in art, or haven’t thought about the issues I’m interested in.”


For the show, Abeles also used auto exhaust parts to fashion the tables that accompany the sculptures.

The tables hold exhibits providing bilingual information on smog and air pollution in which Abeles explains the health hazards and provides practical tips to help curb pollution--ranging from car-pooling to simply keeping tires properly inflated for better gas mileage.

“It’s important that people understand what they’re seeing,” the artist said. “I wanted to give them information: For example, that cars provide 70% of all air pollution.”

“It’s unusual,” said arboretum visitor Bill Van, 48, of West Los Angeles, as he studied the sinuous sculpture. He laughed abruptly when he realized that it was constructed out of parts from a car exhaust system.


“We’re living in a big garage with all the cars around,” Van said of society’s reliance on the automobile for transportation. “We need to publicize the pollution (problem) even more.”

The sculpture is next to the arboretum’s Air Pollution Greenhouse, where identical plants are being grown separately in filtered and polluted air to demonstrate the damaging effects of pollution.

Other sculptures in Abeles’ series are on display throughout the Los Angeles Basin--at the Olvera Street courtyard and the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles; at the Riverside Museum of Photography; at the Norman Feldheym Library in San Bernardino; at the Cal State Fullerton Art Gallery, and at the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro.

All of the works will be brought together during a news conference at the beginning of the new year. At that time, the smog levels at the various sites will be compared.


The sculpture series will then travel to various locations within the state for further experiments, officials said.

Abeles, meanwhile, has plans for more smog-related art. They include reproducing photos of landscapes from the 1940s--including some of the works of the late photographic artist Ansel Adams--a time when much of the environment was still unpolluted.

Another project features a series of busts of presidents, starting with William McKinley, along with their quotes about pollution, smog and the environment.