VENTURA : Artist Puts the Final Spin on Statue in Park

With the ease of a child spinning a top, artist Eric J. Richards turned his nine-ton sculpture as it hung suspended from a crane, seeking just the right position for the Chumash Indian flute player to come to rest at Arroyo Verde Park in Ventura.

After six months of work, the $10,000 sculpture commissioned by the city of Ventura was ready for display Wednesday as part of the Art in Public Places program.

The forged-iron statue, sitting atop a huge rock mined from a quarry near Ojai, will greet park visitors from its resting place just yards from the main entrance.

"I wanted to show my respect for the Chumash," said Richards, 36, explaining how he chose his design. "They preserved the purity of the land for 10,000 years here."

A career artist whose work mostly involves public art displays, Richards was selected to do the sculpture during an open design competition sponsored by the city. Ventura funds the Art in Public Places program with fees collected from developers.

Using live Chumash Indians as his models, Richards sculpted a young man with long flowing hair who is playing a Towoli'lay , a traditional Chumash flute.

Hardly distinguishable from the iron now--but which with time will weather into different colors--are a brass feather hanging down the back of the Indian's head and stainless steel in the Chumash's clothing.

To help set the mood for the piece, Richards had a Chumash friend, Lee Roy Robles, play a drum and sing songs in the Chumash language as the mounting pins were driven into the stone.

"I wanted to represent the fact that the Chumash are still alive," Richards said.

A handful of family members and friends gathered Wednesday at Richards' studio near Ventura Avenue in Ventura to watch a crane load the sculpture onto a flatbed truck for transport to Arroyo Verde at Foothill and Day roads.

Once at the park, Richards studied the way the sunlight streamed through the leaves behind the statue, and he pushed and spun the sculpture in the air before deciding exactly the angle at which it should rest.

Minutes later, parks supervisor Jerry Revard arrived to inspect the scene. Pleased with what he saw, Revard said the natural stone on which the Indian sits "blends in well with the theme of the park--it's a natural park."

Then, while noting that he was not involved in the selection of the artwork that was to be placed in the park, Revard said he was nonetheless gratified with the choice.

"Personally, I have an interest in the Chumash culture," he said. "So I like the [statue's] subject matter."

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