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Whale still in limbo

Laguna Beach artist Jon Seeman is taking another shot at getting his metal sculpture of a whale put in the spot it was designed for — in front of the soon-to-be-opened community/senior center on Third Street.

The new facility will have its grand opening from noon to 3 p.m. Jan. 31.

Workers are scurrying about putting in plants and final touches for the 20,000-square-foot facility, which will house the city’s recreational classes and the Susi Q Senior Center.

Lacking will be an art component on the site, which is not only required by the city’s Art in Public Places program, but is, to Seeman, an essential element of the project.

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“Art says it’s for the people,” Seeman said. “It says it’s a public structure.”

Seeman’s sculptures — the whale, a bench and a sculptural mural — were selected in early 2008 by the Arts Commission from a number of proposals for public art for the center.

The pieces bring Laguna’s Heisler Park to the site, with a flock of pelicans, ocean themes and the breaching whale, which jumps out of a spray of steel balls.

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Criticisms derailed sculptures

But the pieces ran into a juggernaut of criticism when they were presented to the City Council for final approval in March. Two prominent landscape architects and others said they would detract from plantings already approved at the site. The whale, in particular, was opposed as being too large for the scale of the building and for possibly interfering with the growth of a new sycamore tree planned for a nearby spot.

In the end, the council voted to accept the works and granted Seeman a $190,000 commission to create them — but to decide later where they would be placed.

It was the largest-ever public art commission in the city — and the first time the council had rejected a public art proposal recommended by the arts commission.

Councilwomen Toni Iseman and Elizabeth Pearson were appointed to a subcommittee to come up with a home for the pieces, which could be the new center, Heisler Park, or some other place.

Unprecedented controversy

This doesn’t sit well with Seeman, who says the pieces work together and should stay together.

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“If they go elsewhere, they will be broken up,” he said. “They are meant to be united.”

Seeman says he’s never experienced such controversy about one of his public sculptures — and he’s had 21 installed so far around the country.

The works were to have been his first public sculptures in the city where he grew up.

Now it looks like Seeman’s kinetic steel-fabricated gate at Bluebird Park will be the first work to see the light of day. The metal gate is now in pre-fabrication and expected to be in place by spring, Seeman said.

A recommendation on all three sculptures will be presented to the council Feb. 3 or 17, said City Manager Ken Frank. Pearson and Iseman have not yet decided what they will recommend.

In preparation, Seeman has erected a life-sized vinyl mockup in a new proposed spot, farther away from a sycamore tree recently planted in front of the building.

Whale smaller

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The whale, originally a towering 16-foot-tall structure, has been reduced in height to 13 feet and moved to a location the artist hopes will be more to the liking of the council — and won’t attract opposition.

The new location was determined so as not to “interfere” with the new sycamore tree, Frank said.

The whale, of rusted steel, will stand on a concrete base, and Seeman wants to put in a glowing red eye he thinks will be appealing. Seeman says he actually likes the whale better now, in its smaller incarnation.

“This is a better solution, so I’m glad we waited,” he said.

If the revised proposal is approved, it will be a year before the art is installed at the site, Seeman said.



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