Public art is as old as recorded time. From the first cave drawings to the quintessential bronze sculpture of a general on horseback, such artwork stands as an expression of a community’s identity.
Rather than just placing sculptures near buildings, city officials and private enterprises in recent years have sponsored public art projects in California that are integrated into a particular site and that attempt to reflect the area’s history or the contemporary local environment. The city of Santa Monica, for instance, has been in the forefront of this approach to public art for more than a decade.
But this summer, public art has really come of age in two other Westside communities. In Culver City, at its new $29-million City Hall, four artists--greatly influenced by suggestions from city residents--have added their voices to addressing the city’s history.
Across from the civic center, artist Nobuho Nagasawa is nearly finished installing her luminescent sculpture project, “Truth or Fiction.” Two blocks east of City Hall in a small park next to the historic Culver Hotel, a suite of sculptures based on movie props has turned the site into a fantasy play land.
And at Los Angeles County’s Zuma Beach north of Malibu, an artist has helped replace its decaying historical entrance with a bright and vibrant harbinger of the natural pleasures of surf and sand.
“Basically we’re talking about how you enrich the experience of being in a public place,” said Santa Monica artist Bruria Finkel, who in 1982 was one of the founders of the Santa Monica Arts Commission. She chairs the panel’s Art in Public Places committee. “You want to create some kind of sense of place.”
In 1987, the city installed Douglas Hollis’ “Singing Beach Chairs” on the sand just north of the western end of Pico Boulevard. At any time of day, one can sit in Hollis’ chairs, homages to a lifeguard’s chair, to experience the elements and appreciate the ocean sounds and breezes. This project was the first of 10 site-specific works planned for Santa Monica’s Natural Elements Sculpture Park, which was designed to draw more people to under-used sections of the beach.
Finkel feels that any sense of place on most streets is generally rather drab, because street design is left primarily in the hands of engineers.
“You look at any street scape in California, you realize that the engineers had directed the whole thing, because what do we have on the streets? We have cement, then we have directionals, then we have the meters that collect our money, and maybe a street bench to catch a bus,” she said. “Everything is directed to the mercantile aspect of the street and the car.
“The whole approach to the street has to be different--a little more color or texture than slabs of cement; an environment that could be uplifting [to] give you a feeling of comfort. . . . Public art brings to the community something that it doesn’t have, a different dimension that enriches daily life.”
Artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison created the first part of their landscape sculpture, “California Wash: From the Mountains to the Sea,” in 1993 near Hollis’ beach chairs. The project’s plants and meandering path provide an attractive access to the beach while they temper the visual impact of the Pico-Kenter storm drain.
A ground mural is expected to be installed this fall to complete the project. Its map-like configuration of Los Angeles’ Westside, with bronze likenesses of endangered or extinct animals and other creatures, will highlight the site’s significance as a watershed.
“The artists hope that if people understand how important that area is, they will respect it,” said Maria Luisa de Herrera, Santa Monica’s cultural affairs administrator.
In front of Culver City’s new City Hall, which was dedicated in June, is Heritage Park, a courtyard that contains May Sun’s reflecting pool, called “La Ballona"--a tribute to water, specifically La Ballona Creek, which runs through town, and the Gabrielino Indians who once made their home along it.
Tiles at the bottom of the pool depict the fishhooks the Gabrielinos fashioned from abalone shells. Porpoise- and whale-like fetish sculptures occupy the middle of the pool, recalling the importance of these sea creatures to the early inhabitants. Rising from the pool are walls made of brick from the old City Hall that have two photographic images of the creek, one historic, the other contemporary.
A few steps from Sun’s pool, a visitor can crank Barbara McCarren’s “Panoramic” sculpture of a movie camera and view 33 separate historical images of Culver City. Her camera stands by her “Quotation Courtyard"--eight limestone panels set into four walls, also made from old City Hall bricks, that contain quotations about the individual’s role in government.
Passersby can contemplate the words of, among others, Albert Einstein, Coretta Scott King, Cesar Chavez and Plato, who wrote: “The punishment which the wise suffer, who refuse to take part in the government, is to live under the government of worse men.”
Inside the building, 27 paintings by Blue McRight portray various aspects of Culver City’s past, including Laurel and Hardy, the Culver Theater and Harry Culver, the city’s founder. The three offset screens of Ed Carpenter’s “Hanging Garden"--made of leaded hand-blown, rolled and dichroic glass--serve to shelter the third floor’s open-air atrium.
“What is so wonderful about this community-based program is that [all the art projects] talk about Culver City,” said Michelle Isenberg, an art consultant hired by Culver City in 1991 to help create a city arts program. “They couldn’t be in any other city.”
In the city’s Town Square area, at Culver Boulevard and Main Street, artist Renee Petropoulos celebrates the illusory wonders of movie making with “Some Stories"--10 sculptures, resembling typical movie props, that are strewn about the area.
An oversized horseshoe-shaped steel magnet juts out from a light standard, attracting visitors to the sculpture garden. Or one can sit before a fake fireplace made of flagstone and river rock and pretend it’s just like home.
The artist says she has spied men primping before the “Vanity,” a makeup stand with mirror placed near the park’s entrance. Three young girls have been seen in the large concrete “Cauldron,” having adopted it as their playhouse, and someone once tried to take home the shiny red, white and green “Tiny Car” that idles near a parking lot, Petropoulos said.
Most of the city’s residents will probably never step foot in Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Child Development Center, but that does not stop motorists from appreciating the joyful exuberance of the center’s brightly colored gates and fence as they drive by them on Clarington Avenue.
Their playful geometric forms and primary colors are the creation of John Okulick. About 175 feet of fencing presents a series of curves and straight lines that suggest movement, like that of a roller coaster or other amusement park ride.
Next door, attached to the corner of another Sony building, Michael Hayden’s “Lumetric Sculpture” reflects light in constantly changing patterns.
Art in public spaces is not new to Southern California. During the Great Depression, dozens of artists were hired by the federal Work Projects Administration (WPA) to create art for the agency’s numerous public building projects. Where Wilshire Boulevard meets Palisades Park in Santa Monica, one finds the 16 1/2-foot-tall, cream-colored cast concrete “Saint Monica,” a 1934 sculpture of the city’s patron saint by Eugene H. Morahan.
But many recent public art projects, including those in Culver City, have been spurred by city ordinances referred to as “Percent For Art” programs. These regulations, established within the past 10 years, require developers to set aside 1% of the construction costs of major new public or commercial developments to be spent on public art.
“Some public space is so cold and unattractive, and it needn’t be. I can’t think of a fence, a bus bench or a door that couldn’t be better done with the input of an artist,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs. “It’s functional but much more aesthetic, and lots of times it doesn’t cost more.
“It’s critical that people be able to have a relationship to aesthetic or cultural functions in their daily life, not just in a museum,” he said.
A key element to many of the projects that are financed by government funds is mandatory public involvement. “The community’s input is what really ultimately shapes the art,” Finkel said.
For an artist, that complicated process can take several years and be somewhat contentious. Citizen art committees, residents, city planners and elected officials all have something to say about public art proposals, whether or not they have had any formal art training.
“You’re not prepared in art school for this kind of realm,” said Laguna Beach artist Marlo Bartels, who has worked on public art projects for the past 14 years. “Public art gets taken away from what an artist can do. It gets committeed out.”
Bartels was free from having to receive a public committee’s approval for his artwork for the entrance at Zuma Beach, because it was a county-funded project. Before beach-goers reach the sand, they must drive by his handmade tile mosaic platforms filled with images of shells, dolphins, stars and other natural images. Other colorful tiles form the letters of the words “Zuma Beach” in the entry signs.
“The old Zuma sign was a part of my life, a landmark,” said veteran lifeguard Scott Hubbell, who is also a production consultant to the television show “Baywatch.” Bartels’ tile work is “reminiscent of my attraction to the Watts Towers when I was a child,” Hubbell said. “It’s so refreshing to have something that is new and makes you feel good. The gateway makes you take notice that Zuma is a regal beach. . . . [Art] helps people to treasure their community and respect the land.”