We Know What We Like : In Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Oxnard, a growing use of public art brings into focus the way each community sees itself.


Anyone who has walked the full length of the Ventura Pier has bumped into it: the giant copper tube running up from the decking and twisting around like a pretzel, shooting sprays of water sometimes 10 feet straight up into the air.

It’s not an industrial turbine, which it seems to evoke. Neither is it a length of exhaust pipe from a grand old ship, even though it could have been pulled straight from the deck of a 50-year-old steamer.

No, it’s art. Conceptual art. Site-specific art. And whether you like it or not, it’s public art.


Taxpayers spent $80,000 on this piece, titled “Wavespout,” to cap off a massive restoration of the pier. It was designed by San Francisco artist Ned Kahn to “blue-sky” specifications set by the city of Ventura: Simply create something that would engage passersby in the maritime environment.

The water bursts are in sync with ocean waves below. The copper medium is of a maritime age that put Ventura on the map. The thing itself is an enticement to people to make use of the pier.

“Wavespout” is the premier artwork in a young program to create public art in Ventura. Its daring defines the city’s view of what constitutes public art.

Ventura is but one of three cities in Ventura County to recently join a national trend toward fostering public art, which began in America’s urban centers in the 1970s with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Yet the city is singular in its approach.

Thousand Oaks and Oxnard have programs in place, but their approaches to creating public art are different, from each other’s as well as Ventura’s.

Art seems to do that. It divides opinion, brings into focus the way a community sees itself and calls into question why art is needed in the first place. In Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Oxnard, the artwork and the method of creating it reveal the distinctly different communities.


Take Thousand Oaks. Anyone who has visited the Goebel Senior Center there has bumped into the “people,” seated on the bench to the left of the front door. An elderly man reads to a young girl while a teen-age boy, baseball cap in place, beams happily at them. The people don’t move, however. They’re cast in bronze, right down to wrinkles on the nose.

The replication of life and relationship is so convincing as to make this a 3-D Norman Rockwell, an intergenerational feel-good installation if there ever was one.

But that’s how Thousand Oaks wanted it. No provocations. No scratching of heads. Nobody thinking, we spent how much on this? (Taxpayers shelled out $40,000). Without the abstracted challenges of “Wavespout,” this piece, by Colorado artist Ann LaRose, seems to please everyone instantly. Then again, it might be forgotten much faster than “Wavespout.” It depends on how you like your art.

It wasn’t easy for Thousand Oaks to get it so “right.” The artist submissions for the piece in the first round were entirely abstract--a phenomenon that sent an apoplectic City Council back to chambers to start over by sending out more conservative specifications.

Even in the second round, which brought in realistic and figurative sculptures, small-scale models by finalists were placed on display at the Thousand Oaks Public Library for a popular vote. You offend the fewest people that way.

Consider, finally, Oxnard.

Anyone who has entered the Oxnard Town Center off Ventura Boulevard near the Ventura Freeway has bumped into “Flight of Fish.” It’s a field of flying fish made from metal cutouts and mounted on poles rising above a shallow water pool. The fish are coated with reflective “scales” and as they spin in the wind they change color wildly and take on depth, as if moving in a school.


Also consider that Oxnard, which leads Ventura County hands-down in the quantity of public art, didn’t charge taxpayers one cent for this highly successful installation by artist Sally Weber. Instead it got the developer of Oxnard Town Center to pay the estimated $30,000 cost.

Oxnard’s view is that government is stretched too thin already to be paying for art, nice as it is. So it has a resolution in place urging private developers of projects exceeding 100,000 square feet to contribute 1% of costs to the placement of suitable public art.

“Suitable” means that a committee appointed by the council must review and approve any art offered for placement--a developer can’t just go do anything because he or she is spending money on it.

This came into play recently along 3rd Street in La Colonia. There, a major industrial taxpayer, Terminal Freezers, sought to meet its art obligation by painting a wall outside its new warehouse with abstract depictions of freezer compressors. Sanely, the city said no.

In response to the proddings of cultural arts director Andrew Voth, Terminal commissioned Philadelphia artist Frank Hyder to conceive and install a symbolic and storytelling mural.

The mural, mounted in six 4-by-8-foot painted tile panels, is a lush narrative view of the ethnicities and natural resources of this historically agrarian community. It is easily among the finest and most compelling pieces of public art in Ventura County, but has hardly been seen. Whether it is entirely successful in its placement is another story (see below).



The subject of public art has always confounded cultures. Some medieval Romans thought fountains got in the way of city commerce; others thought Christian frescoes were intrusive, even fascistic.

New Yorkers still reel when the subject turns to Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc,” a wall of rusted steel that, upon installation in the 1980s, bifurcated the courtyard behind a downtown Manhattan federal building and had to be removed in the face of protest. It seems the arc looked great from the 15th floor but otherwise blocked office workers from getting to their favored lunch and coffee-break perches. Aesthetics has always taken a back seat to hunger.

And only this fall, Culver City was in heated debate about whether its ordinance requiring developers to pay a percentage for public art could be altered to allow the architectural design of the building to satisfy public art requirements.

In fancier projects, this would make the building itself into the artwork--raising the question of whether architecture can actually be art.

Things in Ventura County, by contrast, have been far less fractious, though some did challenge the propriety of paying art subsidy funds to architect Antoine Predock. (Thousand Oaks allowed its 1%-for-art on the new Civic Arts Plaza to go to Predock for a building that features a pictograph wall.) For the most part, city programs creating art have been cautious, slow to evolve and true to local turf. If the city of Ventura is at times a maverick and bold in its approach, Thousand Oaks is unwaveringly pragmatic and Oxnard unapologetically opportunistic.

The good news is that no matter the method, art--along with spiritual matters, the thing that dignifies life--is being created for a public burdened by the grind of modern life. Individual tastes are just that, but what follows is a city-by-city review of major pieces of public art under way and in place.


Simi Valley declines to require developers or the city to produce public art. Camarillo, too, is without a program, but a planner there makes clear that the city is so highly regulated in its land-use and architectural stylings that officials prefer that any money earmarked for art go into quality buildings and extensive landscaping.


Oxnard is jammed with art that developers have installed. That’s good because it dresses up and brings human scale to some large properties, both commercial and industrial. But that winsome quality is sometimes lost in the industrial-park setting, since people have no reason to visit unless they work there. That is a limiting factor inherent in privately funded public art.

Not all of the work is successful. Most baffling of all is a series of light-refracting columns titled “Connections,” by Robert Behrens, in Told Corp.’s Channel Islands Business Center. These tall black poles along Channel Islands Boulevard lose what coherence and relevance they might have had from the competing nearby telephone poles and recent construction of buildings around them. They simply stick up from the ground, begging the question: What on earth are these things?

And some works by famous artists are, if you will, from their Grade B collections. Hal Pastorius’ geometric sculpture “Cube Root,” situated within the Sares/Regis Business Center off Rice Avenue at Gonzales Road, plainly lacks the play of dimension and engagement of his other work, and fails to speak to the building it fronts. Simply plopped in place, it can only be called “plop art.”

Much of Oxnard’s public art, however, is rich, vivid and engaging. Frank Hyder’s mural outside Terminal Freezers Inc. on 3rd Street in La Colonia is truly first-rate: Painted and fired ceramic tile panels form a “canvas” that features startling fish, boats and human hands of varying hues. The colors are luminous, the strokes bold and raw and in places impressionistic.

The indigenous narrative content is reverential without becoming Hallmark-card sentimental. Sadly, it’s tough to take stock of this beauty while doing 40 m.p.h. on busy 3rd Street, and the only people on foot in these parts are schoolchildren heading home (not one looked up on a recent weekday.)


Sally Weber’s holographic “Flight of Fish” at the Oxnard Town Center, 1000 Town Center Drive, is at first glance a shameless, decorative crowd pleaser. But its ability to manipulate space--get the viewer to feel as if he is snorkeling--is testimony to its transformative power. (If a few fish are missing, it’s because they’re becoming popular among nighttime vandals.)

Rafe Affleck’s fountain sculpture at the entrance of Oxnard Financial Plaza at Vineyard Avenue and Oxnard Boulevard is a winner: Simple bold curls of stainless steel continue their shape in flowing water, all on a large scale.

Arthur Silverman’s “Sails,” a brushed aluminum sculpture at Vineyard Plaza Shopping Center at Vineyard Avenue and Oxnard Boulevard, might be considered nautical kitsch by some but is instead a smartly done thematic sailboat sculpture--if you can see it through all the cars in the parking lot.

A kinetic aluminum sculpture “Flight,” by Lin Emery at the Chevron building in Sares/Regis Business Center, is as bracing as it is engaging, offering one instance in which an industrial park setting seems just right.

Art City sculptor Paul Lindhard is busy with Oxnard commissions, striking among them “Venus of Oxnard,” a travertine marble sculpture at the McGrath Industrial Park near Gonzales Road and Rose Avenue.

Recent commercial developments in Oxnard show a new realism and accessibility in the public art that gets placed. This owes in part to the developers but even more to the panel that chooses the work. The Rose shopping center on Rose Avenue near the Ventura Freeway is a case in point.


Originally, the developer wanted to install a series of 30-foot-tall steel cutouts along the main entrance corridor. It was plain to Oxnard officials that such an approach was conceived as a way to get the most bang for the art buck; cutouts are easy to do, especially if you have the steel in a storage yard. Efficiencies are fine, but there seemed no particular point of reference in the work, no level of engagement that was of the place.

So Andrew Voth and others were dispatched to prod. The result is probably the most popular and most-seen artwork in Oxnard: Mario Nardini’s “Ocean Serendipity,” a group of bronze leaping dolphins at the center’s entrance, coupled with three life-size human sculptures by Gary Alsum near store entrances.

These human sculptures--a boy on stilts, children leapfrogging one another and children in a running race--are modern culture’s most common images, yet never fail to attract a disbelieving and affectionate crowd.

The one shopping center that is an unqualified artistic flop is the new Oxnard Factory Outlet Center, at the Ventura Freeway between Rose and Rice avenues. Oxnard had competed with Camarillo for the stores, and whichever city could accommodate the developers fastest landed the big fish, as it were. Oxnard won, and in its zeal for victory made its art requirements so relaxed as to be virtually waived--that is, unless you consider a faux water tower and faux windmill to be somehow related to art. Aesthetics not only bow to hunger but to the economy.

Still, art seeks a broadened base here. An ordinance is being drafted for the just-elected City Council to consider in the new year. It would require that public building projects--not just private developers--budget 1% of their expenditures for public art.


That’s exactly what Thousand Oaks does--require 1% of public project expenditures be set aside for art. Private sector executives in this master-planned city made it clear at a mayor’s business round-table earlier this year they wanted no resolutions or ordinances that required private developers to commission and site public art. This stems in part from a previous legal challenge here to any such requirement and also a difficult economy in a highly regulated city.


Some of the city’s noted businesses and institutions--GTE, Exxon and Cal Lutheran University--feature prominent displays of art and do so without prompting by the city. But public art in this town is really that which is created by the city for city buildings.

It is slow going. The first piece commissioned under the 1% rule--Ann LaRose’s lifelike bronze figures in front of the Goebel Senior Center on Janss Road near the Moorpark Freeway--took two years in the selection, commissioning and placement.

Carol Williams, who coordinates the art-in-public places projects for Thousand Oaks, says: “It was universally felt that we needed a first piece that everybody could learn to love. We never hear anything negative about it. Because this one is so successful, we may branch out more. And we won’t have that many more chances, because we’re not going to build so many more buildings.”

And the projects that will come up--and with them the artwork that dignifies them--will be ever smaller. Next on the docket is a $10,000 commission for the city’s new maintenance facility off Rancho Conejo.

LaRose’s bronze people on the bench are worth seeing as part of an American art movement in the last 15 years that seeks to engage at a neo-realistic, theatrical level. The pieces play on perception (the figures are hauntingly real) and a sense of dramatic encounter (although still, the figures relate to one another).

Their trick is that they are utterly familiar yet alien. It is a pleasing art, certainly, but slim on challenge; its Norman Rockwellism confirms the way we hope for things to be, rather than jiggle our belief and sensibility.


More diverting is a nearby mural, in the public library’s children’s section. While not part of the city’s program, this 1987 creation by Bradley W. Schenk certainly is a dominant piece of public art for Thousand Oaks.

Large (nearly 14 feet high at one point and over 20 feet long) and powerful (its images are beautifully wrought and powerfully arranged in juxtaposition), it is narrative and delightfully propagandist in that it promotes reading. Miriam from I. B. Singer’s “The Golem” sits near Water Rat, Toad, Mole and Badger from Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows”--and they join a surreal cast of perhaps a dozen more. It’s an adult fantasia as well as a kid’s--a terrifically engaging piece.

What the Thousand Oaks sculpture and mural do best of all, however, is bear up, with fearful symmetry, to coordinator Williams’ explanation of why art is necessary in the first place: “It states who we are and where we’re coming from.”


No sooner did Ventura get Ned Kahn’s “Wavespout” installed at the end of its refurbished pier than it went off commissioning yet another noted artist to again engage people about sense of place.

This time the city, which charges itself a hefty 2% on public projects and requires nothing of private developers, is focusing on oceanfront/downtown redevelopment. An open plaza at the base of California street between the Holiday Inn and a city parking garage is being torn up and redesigned.

Los Angeles sculptor Mark Lere won the $15,000-plus job of consulting with the project architect and designing a suitable artwork for placement at the base of the plaza overlooking the sea. But Lere found that mandate inappropriate, deciding that sight lines to the sea needed to be unimpeded and fearing a “plop art” result. Ventura’s reflex to keep all possibilities open gave Lere room to move.


The result: He is designing back-lit steel panels that will be built into the walkways of the plaza and feature word blocks within giant symbols of the senses--an ear, eye, nose. The idea, he says, is to involve people with written and visual messages to have them think of the sea and the city through the senses that are enlivened by that specific beachside site.

“Public art is not designing a necklace for a done project,” he says. “It has to be connected. In this case, you’ll smell the ocean and see City Hall, but in doing so it must be fun. You’ve gotta have a catch.”

Sonia Tower, Ventura’s cultural arts director, is even more plain on the point. She cites the sameness of America’s cities that, in a great wave of compulsion in the 1970s and early 1980s, purchased Alexander Calder mobiles and Henry Moore sculptures for their public art.

“That’s not us,” she says with a broad smile. “We seek something unique, something that provides an interpretation of the actual space and place you’re in. ‘Wavespout’ does that, though some have complained. Mark (Lere) will do that on California Street. Real art is thought-provoking.”

While the California Street plaza takes shape, consider the one piece of public art in Ventura that predates all city efforts at nurturing culture--and the one that, ironically, may meet the goals of public art as well or better than anything yet displayed in these parts: the wraparound mural at the U.S. Post Office on Santa Clara Street.

A classic of the Works Progress Administration style, this soft-hued depiction of rural agrarian, coastal living is at once naif in its two-dimensional, primitive execution and profoundly complete in its emotional range. Few works of public art can be so accessible and resonant at the same time, so warmly evocative yet thought-provoking.


It seems certain from the range of it that the artist, Gordon Grant, had sufficiently free reign in 1936 to tell his story without having to bow to panel or commission. Of course, those public art days are pretty much over, and we are in a new age of confirming belief or challenging perception.

It all depends upon where you are.