An empty lot in San Diego’s City Heights becomes temporary sculpture gallery

Tarrah Aroonsakool stands near her tall, metallic-looking sculpture that juts into the sky. It's called "Resilience."
Artist Tarrah Aroonsakool with her character sculpture entitled “Resilience.”
(Nancee E. Lewis/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Artists pay tribute to City Heights’ diversity with ‘Characters,’ an open-air art installation that opens to the public Saturday.


A group of San Diego artists has been working with a variety of materials — scarves, wood, chicken wire, old tires— to build sculptures that tell stories in an empty lot in City Heights.

The 12-foot, three-dimensional figures are all part of City Heights’ “Characters,” an open-air gallery inhabiting what has been an empty lot on the corner of University Avenue and Interstate 15.

The figures are meant to represent individuals, issues and topics relevant to City Heights.

There’s a sculpture of a man made from used tires, mufflers and automotive fluid containers. It is designed to highlight air pollution issues in the community.

There’s a larger-than-life spider family made from various types of wood, to represent diverse families of City Heights.

And a sculpture of birds made from chicken wire, to spotlight the area’s migrants and refugees’ travels from their homelands to San Diego.

The sculptures are the creations of 15 local artists — half of whom live in City Heights.

The installation called, City Heights "CHARACTERS" Open Air Gallery at The Lot, will have a grand opening on April 24.
The installation called, City Heights “Characters” Open Air Gallery at The Lot, will have a grand opening on Saturday, April 24.
(Nancee E. Lewis/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Artist and curator Jim Bliesner has lived in City Heights for more than 45 years. He said the goal is to fill the vacant lot with something that connects residents with local art. It also creates an opportunity for local artists to showcase their talent.

“I think art ... stimulates creative thoughts, positive thoughts about your environment,” Bliesner said. “It creates new possibilities in people’s minds about the role of art, and it adds to the community’s character.”

The installation will open to the public on Saturday at 3 p.m. It’s free, and there will be music and performances by the Fern Street Circus.

Visitors are encouraged to wear sturdy shoes and face masks and to practice social distancing. The project is sponsored by Synergy Arts Foundation, City Heights Community Development Corporation, City Heights Business Association and Wakeland Housing.

Bliesner said the lot is slated for a development of mixed-use building with affordable housing, but that’s not for another two years. In the meantime, adding the sculptures prevents the vacant lot from becoming an eyesore in the neighborhood.

Jim Bliesner invited local artists to create sculptures on an empty lot in City Heights.
Artist Jim Bliesner invited about a dozen local artists to create sculptures which are now on display on an empty lot at the corner of University Avenue and the Interstate 15 in City Heights.
(Nancee E. Lewis/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The concept of “characters” came from wanting to highlight the neighborhood’s diversity, he said.

The neighborhood is 58 percent Latino, 16 percent Asian, 12 percent Black, 11 percent White and others, according to the San Diego Association of Governments. More than 49,000 of its people speak a language other than English.

Participating artists include Remy Bermúdez, Cindy Zimmerman, Elida Chavez, Kay Aye, Carlos Quezada, Dianne Brunner, Randy Lane, Iain Gunn, Pete Evaristo, Edwin Lohr, Tarrah Aroonsakool , Anthony Dramani, Vincente Rivera, Melody De Los Cobos, Marcus Montes, Mia Mercado and Villa Mills.

Each artist was given a 12-foot wooden pole and $100 to build their sculpture. Some, like artist Aroonsakool, got creative with materials.

Aroonsakool used chicken wire to make a sculpture reminiscent of a flock of birds. The wire is meant to look light on its own but stronger when it’s wound up together, which is meant to symbolize the resilience of residents in the community, she said.

The birds are all different, to highlight the diversity of the community. It also symbolizes how people migrate to the community because of its beauty, she said.

Artist Anthony Dramani with his painting titled "Heaven on Earth," which represents the City Heights area.
Artist Anthony Dramani, 19, with his painting titled “Heaven on Earth” which represents the City Heights area.
(Nancee E. Lewis/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Aroonsakool, who has been working with art for several years, said she hopes the installation draws attention to the neighborhood’s unique residents.

“I think it will show that there is beauty that can come from the neighborhood,” Aroonsakool said.

Artist Remigia Bermudez stands near her sculpture titled "I Am"  that honors past, present and future relations in her life.
Remigia “Remy” Bermudez stands near her character sculpture titled “I Am” which represents all the people and places who have molded the artist into who she is, she said.
(Nancee E. Lewis/For the San Diego Union-Tribune )

Dramani, a refugee from Uganda, said he often hears people speak negatively about City Heights because of crime, but he sees a place filled with beauty.

He painted two images for the installation. One has images of flags to represent the refugee community and the other is an image of a person, a tribute to a middle school friend who also was a refugee.

Dramani said he hopes the installation inspires youth in the neighborhood to use their talents to express themselves through art and make City Heights a better place.

“I view City Heights as my home, and I see City Heights as a beautiful place with unique people,” he said.

The sculpture "Blue Boy," by Iain Gunn AKA Animal Cracker Conspiracy, shows a figure atop a pole taking a step.
The sculptures are temporary because the lot is slated for development, but organizers wanted to make sure the lot was activated in the meantime for the community. Pictured here is “Blue Boy” by Iain Gunn.
(Nancee E. Lewis/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)