James McDemas lived for art.
As a young child, he would organize his toys by color and shape or hold rocks under the faucet to catch the glint of the running water.
When he was 5, he took a break from mowing the lawn to pick flowers and lay them in vibrant patterns.
He even saw art as he ate and would transform the food on his plate into elaborate designs.
“He never had a focus that was beyond art — ever,” his mother, Carolyn McDemas, recalled in a recent interview.
McDemas’ love for art was all-encompassing and his passionate pursuit permeated his entire life until his death in 2012 following a battle with leukemia.
On Friday, more than 50 family members, friends, colleagues, well-wishers and local officials gathered to dedicate one of his sculptures at its new home: Costa Mesa City Hall.
Called “The Artist’s Vision,” the sculpture is fashioned out of a piece of bowl-shaped playground equipment held aloft by four steel stanchions. The inverted cupola is dotted with holes — allowing light to peek through and appear patterned on the ground.
The way Carolyn McDemas tells it, having public art at the seat of municipal power was indeed her son’s vision.
Not long before he died, the two of them went to see some of his work in an exhibit at the OC Fair & Event Center — just across the street from City Hall.
As they were driving down Fair Drive, “He gestured right here, right where we are, and he said, ‘Isn’t it strange that Costa Mesa is the City of the Arts and there is no art at the City Hall?’” she told the crowd Friday, referencing the city’s official motto.
After his death, his family approached the Cultural Arts Committee about possibly stationing the sculpture at City Hall. It stands today on the edge of the front lawn near the Costa Mesa Police Department.
When the opportunity arose, “We were just incredibly excited,” said committee Chairwoman Andrea Marr.
“We felt for the last couple of years that our mission has really been to add as much art to the city of Costa Mesa, the ‘City of the Arts,’ as we possibly could,” she said Friday. “This was just a tremendous opportunity for us to continue that mission to create another space for art in our community.”
McDemas was born in 1965 and grew up in Eastside Costa Mesa.
He attended local schools, where his teachers encouraged him to indulge his artistic interests. Among the memorabilia displayed at the dedication was a certificate of merit for “Best Male Artist” he received as a student at Woodland Elementary School.
McDemas also took metal and wood shop classes at Newport Harbor High School, which further sharpened his tactile skills.
He went on to attend Orange Coast College, Cal State Long Beach, Santa Monica College and the Santa Monica College of Design, Art and Architecture.
“For me, making art is comparable to being an athlete,” he’s quoted as saying in a book containing profiles of Santa Monica College of Design, Art and Architecture students that also was displayed Friday. “I work as hard as I can, devoting all my thought and energy toward a purpose, and when I feel fatigued, I carry on ‘til I cannot function artistically.”
McDemas would later found his own studio in Culver City.
As an artist, he wasn’t tied down to any one particular discipline. He tried his hand at everything from photography to furniture design and eventually became known for his neon artwork and his ability to craft pieces out of salvaged objects.
“He didn’t want to throw anything that belonged to people away because he felt it was part of their history,” his mother said in an interview. “So he collected everything.”
McDemas was particularly adept at metal sculpting and tapped into that skill to create “The Artist’s Vision,” which was finished sometime around 2004.
After the piece was completed, Carolyn McDemas recalls once visiting with her son and noticing how he kept looking through the openings of the sculpture.
“I asked him if he was looking at clouds,” she said at Friday’s dedication. “He laughed and said, ‘Some see clouds. I see visions.’”