Public Exhibition

One of Blair Thornley’s panel illustrations crowning the North Park parking garage (photo courtesy Wolfgang Hastert)

By Christy Scannell

Quirky fiberglass cows have paraded through La Jolla, whimsical birdhouses found their perch on Cortez Hill, and several plantings of Urban Trees have sprouted along the Embarcadero.

Now, public art in San Diego is going to the dogs-or, more precisely, to Fido’s flat. “Bowhaus,” an installation of 101 creative interpretations of doghouses, is the fourth community art outreach project from the local chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). Artists from amateur to accomplished may apply for a shot at creating a doghouse for display and possible auction. Petco is the title sponsor, and a portion of proceeds will be donated to local animal advocacy organizations.

“Art is so subjective,” says AIGA board member and Bowhaus project chair, Nicole Knox. “We wanted this to be a bridge that uses our local artists to showcase design in a way that anyone can relate to.”

Slated for a September unveiling, Bowhaus is a nod to the early 20th century Bauhaus art movement that meshed art with architecture and technology. It follows AIGA’s other public art efforts, including the Urban Art Trail, a series of painted murals and utility boxes in downtown’s East Village; the Tweet Street birdhouses on Cortez Hill; and Benchmark, a collection of creative benches, now at Liberty Station.

A call for artists opens this month for Bowhaus, and organizers are still scouting a location to display the doghouses. Knox says initial community response to the project has been reassuring.

“It’s been a rough four years for businesses and organizations, but you can tell the timing is right because it is striking a chord with people right away, and they engage immediately,” she says.

Making the connection between people and art is AIGA’s core mission, Knox says, and it is what sets public art apart from gallery or museum art experiences.

“Some people are inclined to seek out galleries-and that’s great-but the everyday person might never do that, so public art is a way to infuse art into life in ways people might not typically interact with,” she says. “It provides a crossroads for community and design.”

Amos Robinson knows about the impact public art can have. A local metal sculptor-he is a featured artist at this year’s Mission Federal ArtWalk in Little Italy-Robinson was relaxing at home with his wife one Sunday when a woman visiting from Washington called.

“She was down at the (San Diego) Embarcadero with her girlfriends, and they called just to say how much they appreciated my work there. It’s stuff like that that makes me a big fan of public art and what it can do,” Robinson says.

The women were viewing “My Bike,” which depicts a bicyclist in mid-air, strands of stainless steel hair flying back in the San Diego Bay breeze. It’s one of five sculptures Robinson has created for the Port of San Diego’s rotating “Urban Trees” installation. Now in its seventh year, the annual exhibit includes 30 commissioned tree interpretations along Harbor Drive, from Hawthorn Street to the Cruise Ship Terminal.

“I want to bring something to the public that is positive,” says Robinson, a self-taught artist and former designer of industrial air pollution control equipment. “I don’t care for dark art; I want my art to be fun, put a smile on your face or bring back a memory from your youth.”

Like Robinson, Jeffery Laudenslager had no formal art training, yet the Encinitas-based artist’s public and commissioned kinetic sculptures-3-D sculptures that move via wind, motor or human touch-are some of the most notable in the county, having won several Orchid awards from the San Diego Architectural Foundation.

Laudenslager’s 36-foot “Archimage” stands guard at the Torrey Reserve business complex in Carmel Valley and is viewable from the I-5 freeway and the nearby Ruth’s Chris Steak House. His “Skyscapes” kinetic wall sculpture greeted visitors to Lindbergh Field’s Terminal 2 from 1998-2004. Currently, he is working on “Quishi,” a 35-foot kinetic sculpture commissioned for the entrance of San Luis Obispo’s historic downtown area. While public art can take many forms, kinetic sculptures are ideal for the outdoor aesthetic, Laudenslager says.

“With kinetic sculpture, you get a very satisfying, tai chi kind of experience, like watching slow moving mechanical objects,” he says. “It just adds another dimension to it.”

The immobile quality of most public art worried artist Blair Thornley as she was designing 16 panel illustrations-some as tall as 46 feet-to grace the upper perimeter of the North Park parking garage near the intersection of University Avenue and 30th Street. The works, which she completed gratis for her North Park neighborhood, were commissioned by the San Diego Redevelopment Agency and took more than a year to complete.

Thornley, a professional illustrator whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and other publications, drew the humorous pen-and-ink pictures at regular publication scale, trying to imagine how the enlarged final panels would appear to people looking up at them from the street. But it wasn’t until they were installed that she saw how distance and the angle of sunlight can play with the art, alleviating her fears about how the public would relate to her work.

“It’s been really amazing to see how parts peek out from around the corner as I walk toward them, or how different aspects seem to light differently the closer or farther away I am,” she says. “I wanted it to interact with the viewer and it seems to do that.”

That interaction between artists and the public could soon be diminished if a proposal from Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office to suspend public art funding-a plan the mayor says would save the city $1.6 million through 2012-is approved by the San Diego City Council. The council’s Budget and Finance Committee discussed the mayor’s plan in February but is waiting for more information from the mayor’s office on impacts and savings before the full council considers the item.

Amos Robinson calls the mayor’s plan an “emotional” decision. “Maybe not everyone gets worth from public art, but when I do a public art piece, it’s not just me in the studio-it’s the thousands I spend at local businesses for supplies. Probably 80 percent of what I spend goes right back into the community,” he says. “If we support things like public art, we are supporting the community in many ways, including financially.”

Robinson calls the Port’s $5 million plan to create a light show on the Coronado Bridge, now stalled as it awaits a funding source, “a non-productive use of (public art) resources.” The Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, among other sites, already use that concept, he says, so San Diego is passing up a chance to use that money for a more distinctive project.

“Public art, if chosen well, can be a great investment and draw for a city,” he says. “If you are taking public money, you need to do the best for the public.”