Fletcher Hills water tank, Carlsbad's Split Pavilion

Public art's hurly-burly

Consider people who rant on issues about which they believe themselves experts. Everybody holds an opinion on everything -- like a fellow on the radio contending that the National Endowment for the Arts should be abolished because competent artists are all rich; or like Joe Bauer on KFMB who denigrated the enormous water tank of Fletcher Hills.

The tank is 150 feet high and mushroom-shaped, with a 100-foot-wide cap and 70-foot-wide stem. It stands in a residential neighborhood overlooking Santee and the mountains beyond. It was created by two water districts and decorated with stainless steel clouds by Jim Wilsterman, with whom I sat one recent afternoon gazing at the rust-brown monolith from across La Mesa on Boulder Heights. If I hadn't known better, I might've thought it was the landing port for a spaceship.

Wilsterman, who looks like a carpenter, took his degrees from San Diego and San Jose State Universities. A fluent and practiced storyteller, he told me how the tank came to be.

"The freeway 125 right-of-way was decided on back in 1947. It was supposed to come up over Fletcher Hills and pass through the field by Grossmont College and run down into Santee along the hillside. So all the people who lived immediately adjacent to the right-of-way had in the deeds to their houses that the property might eventually be taken for the freeway.

"There used to be two water tanks on the hill. One was built by Helix Water District, to serve mainly agriculture. It was painted red and white checks, like a Ralston Purina bag. Later, Padre Dam Water District built their tank on the same hill. Helix Water District goes from the summit where the tank sits to the south and west across La Mesa. Padre Dam District runs from the summit north.

"When Caltrans was finally ready to work on 125, the old tanks were in the right-of-way. So they had to be replaced. Caltrans funded the project and also prescribed 'aesthetic medication.'

"The water districts [decided] to move the tanks 600 yards to the southeast of where the old tanks were.

"The Helix Water District wanted their tank on stilts and the Padre Dam District was going to build theirs low and squat, and so they decided to stack them, to save money and also allow an interconnection so that if one water district had to shut its tank down the other district could serve the customers.

"In 1992 and 1993 I was working on the Pacific Beach library site with an architect, Manuel Oncina. I was designing a park on the library property. Oncina was asked by the Helix Water District to join a design team, and he determined that they didn't really need an architect, they needed an artist.

"So I was asked to go to a meeting with landscape architects and engineers. I walked into this meeting having no idea what the project was. I told them my philosophy about public art. One of the things I emphasized was my desire and my ability to work with a team, to ensure that public interests and concerns were addressed. I would become an ambassador, someone to go out into the community and work directly with the neighbors and explore doing a project with community members actually building it. I suggested there could be an agreement between Grossmont College, where I taught, and the water districts. The more community involvement we talked about, the more excited they got.

"They hired me as a design team member, and I attended innumerable meetings and listened, and when I told them I'd like to do three proposals, we drew up a contract.

"I brought the proposals to several open meetings, until we got from the community members who attended a consensus on what they'd like to see, and then my design was looked at by the engineers in terms of structural integrity, feasibility, and cost and put forward to the boards of the two water districts, who then voted.

"The districts chose for the tank material Cor-10 steel, for its structural strength and to minimize air pollution and prevent the need to sandblast and repaint every ten years. At first it's a dark tan, and as time goes on it gets darker and darker and finally becomes a brown-black. The Macy's home-furnishing center in Mission Valley is made out of the same metal, and people walk in and out of there and think it's wood or painted -- which is not what people say about the tank. If you bring up the subject in La Mesa or El Cajon, expect to hear the words 'ugly' and 'rusted' and 'eyesore.' "

He claims the public had many chances to influence the design. "Early on, the water district hired a La Jolla public relations company. They sent mailers out to all the people adjacent to the tank. They were invited to attend meetings and give their input. About 50 people showed up at the meetings and asked about how the project would effect traffic and dust. Art was low on their priorities. Mostly they seemed concerned about disruptions.

"There were three large meetings, and the only reservations people expressed were 'It's going to block my view of the mountain,' and 'The artwork might glare and shine in my eyes.'

"Mailers with color pictures of the proposed finished tank including the artwork were sent out, and there was a phone number for people to call. In the projects I've worked on, I've never seen this much community outreach. The few people who didn't like the aesthetics of the tank, or the artwork, I listened to, and the design I made was based on input I got, the idea that the most important thing about the community is our view of the mountains. People say, 'We moved here because we have a great view, we can see Cuyamaca and watch the clouds climb over the mountains in the afternoon.'

"Fletcher Hills was settled when a flume was built from Cuyamaca Lake by Ed Fletcher and some other individuals. San Diego had a very unreliable water source, because the San Diego River would flood and then dry up. El Cajon farmers had all the water they could use; they could pump it out of the ground. Downtown La Mesa had water from the springs. But up on the mesa there was nothing. The flume was the first aqueduct in the state used for drinking water. The water brought the ability to live and farm in Fletcher Hills. The Helix Water District is the surviving entity of the San Diego Flume Company. So the history of this community is intimately tied to the thunderheads over the mountains and the flume that brought the water to us. I saw the project as an opportunity to tell a story, to remind people about what has been done to build our community.

"We live in an arid climate, and when people move from the East Coast, the first thing they do is plant a huge green lawn and a lush tree setting because they want to make it look like something other than what it is. They don't seem to be aware that we don't have rainfall or abundant water, that most of our water is imported. The tank was an opportunity to make people think about our water concerns.

"With the Cor-10 surface, the tank will never have to be painted, and the engineers claim that it should last well over 200 years without being resurfaced. Also, it's the only tank in San Diego able to withstand a major earthquake. The districts are currently going through the water tanks and reinforcing because they found out from the earthquakes in Los Angeles that most tanks just crumble. This one is designed to take an 8.0 earthquake or a 200-mile-an-hour wind, as is my artwork.

"I could've done something on any portion of the tank, and I thought about the shape of a mountain and how the clouds form around the mountains and are drawn to them.

"The color offered the opportunity for contrast. It was dark and the clouds would be light. They're stainless steel, which never needs to be maintained, just washed once in a while. It will not rust. It will not corrode, and it will last as long or longer than the tank. And it allows the clouds to change with the color of the sky; when the sky is blue, they're white-blue; when the sky is gray and cloudy, they look stormlike; at sunset they go red and look bold; when it's clear above and there's a bank of clouds behind you, they look brilliant white. One reason I chose stainless steel -- it can be made refractive, to give the illusion of depth. When you get up close to the tank the clouds pop out, become very deep. And as the sun moves, different clouds become active and dimensional, and other clouds flatten out, because of the way they're brushed -- the light areas come forward, giving an illusion of depth, and the dark areas drop back.

From Cowles Mountain, as sunset approaches, the tank's clouds appear to move, as if to cruise around the cap of the tank like cars on a carnival ride.

"At the meetings, I presented these ideas and got community input, and afterward I changed my design a little. There was a concern about reflectivity, and I pointed out that half of the clouds would be perforated metal, which creates shadows. Because of this and the angle -- with the viewer on the ground and the clouds up high -- you'll never get much glare.

"So after presenting the ideas and working with the community, I put together a final proposal and suggested that we build it at Grossmont College using the students. The water districts asked me how much money I needed. I asked for $92,000, mainly to modify the facility and to build things like an A-frame crane to lift the parts off the assembly jig in the yard. I needed tools and special wiring for the welders, and materials. Nobody got paid to build the clouds. The water districts didn't have to rent a facility, or have insurance, all those complications.

"I set up a series of classes about fabrication and about the public-art approval process. Students came from all over. Some of them lived around the water tank. Some quit their jobs to work on this for two years. We pulled people from as far away as Los Angeles, who would drive down every day. About 30 people were involved at different stages. Immigrants from Vietnam. Students who had been in trouble and were trying to straighten themselves out. Construction workers who had been injured. Disabled people. A Kurd from Iraq. Most of them had to learn everything, they'd never welded before, never riveted, never used a crane. My dad worked on it. He had retired from General Dynamics. We needed help jigging fixtures, and this was like building aircraft, riveting and welding, and he was an expert.

"We had to preassemble parts, weld things, fabricate, weld more parts, then put them together, build a substructure then attach the steel with special aircraft rivets, then go back and cut the clouds out and polish the surfaces. A lot of our work was done in the summer; the temperatures sometimes got up to 110 or 115 degrees in the yard.

"We built the clouds one at a time. They're each 27 feet long and 12 to 30 feet high. Each one weighs about two thousand pounds. The company that built the water tank, Pitts Des Moines, transported them to the site. Pitts Des Moines also built the St. Louis arch. They thought that since our workers were a bunch of students we wouldn't meet their specs, but out of 10,000 welds they only found about 20 that needed to be repaired. There were 102 bolts in each cloud. The brackets to mount the clouds were built at a steel mill in Pittsburgh and they had to be shipped here and matched."

Once the tank was up and the artwork in place, the critics stepped forward. Murmurs grew into protests, and Jim Wilsterman considered himself fortunate to have already experienced the same kind of challenge, and worse, when he served as public-arts coordinator in Carlsbad during the battle over Split Pavilion.

The Pavilion was 7000 square feet of concrete slab, at the edge of a seacliff near downtown Carlsbad. It sat on split levels with concrete benches and square concrete pools, secluded from Pacific Coast Highway by a fence of prison-like bars. Hardly what most of us would call art.

Connie Beardsley of the Carlsbad Arts Council sketched its history.

"An artist was given a section of land by the ocean, for her to develop as a minipark and sculpture. There were models, designs, the information went out, but the public didn't pay much attention. Later, the opponents claimed that it was represented inaccurately, and that the landscape architect's drawing did not show the fence. There was no intention to portray the project inaccurately. The drawing that appeared in articles in newspapers and in a publication we sent out to residents didn't show the fence, but we had a model on display, and the people who were very involved with downtown and the redevelopment area did understand the project. But there was a whole group, surfers and others, who used the ocean, who hadn't paid attention and then didn't like what they saw when it happened. And they organized.

"But the fact that it was an artwork meant that the piece couldn't be altered or removed for the artist's lifetime plus 50 years. So the city's attorney negotiated with the artist an agreement that the piece would be left for 5 years, and then if the public still decided to have it removed, she would give permission. That's what happened just this year. We had two hearings, but only about 20 people came to each of them, and they were the same handful, the active opposition. The city council decided that not enough people had expressed their opinions, so they put the issue on the ballot.

"Part of the problem of the piece is that the people of Carlsbad, while the city is rapidly growing, don't want to think of it as urban. They would like to see it as a quiet beach town. And the image of Split Pavilion is urban. They say it's the fence and the view, but if the sculpture had been of wood or something that was more environmentally sympathetic to the ocean, the community might've accepted it."

Wilsterman added the colorful details. "The people who run the city decided to redevelop the village part and change the image of the place. The redevelopment agency -- the city council wearing different hats -- wanted to make a little park and for it to be drought tolerant, with pools and a view of the ocean. The site they chose was a parking lot that was a gore point, where Pacific Coast Highway came whipping in and intersected a side street at an angle. There had been accidents, and cars would knock over street signs, and in this parking lot fights and drug deals happened. The lot was a hangout for surfers, and naturally they were going to be angry. It was a poor decision to redevelop that spot, but the artist didn't know any of this.

"Andrea Blum designed an interesting park, but not necessarily [one that] fit the character of the community. I think it would've gone okay, except the city promised the merchants that they wouldn't do any construction during the summer, which is tourist season. They hired a local contractor who messed up and was taken off the job. I think he went bankrupt, and the construction continued into the summer during a recession year. They tore the streets up and left everything sit. The merchants got mad so they organized and attacked the artwork. You can't attack the city for a street project, so they went after the artist.

"In response, the city council's attitude was, 'Don't talk about this. The city attorney's office will handle it.' Well, whenever you start retrenching, people suspect that you're hiding something. And the Oceanside Blade-Citizen was looking to sell papers and needed something to fill columns every day. The main opposition was the proprietors of this restaurant and a surf shop and a hotel across the street. They would eat lunch with a reporter every day, and I'd hear them telling him things that I would read about in the next day's paper. Complaints about the art, about how they hadn't been told, it's ugly, it blocks the view of the coast, it's a bad image for the city.

"By refusing to address the issues, the city let the opposition work themselves into a lynch mob who threatened council members and phoned Andrea at 2:00 a.m. -- that's 5:00 a.m. in New York -- with obscene messages.

"In a way, you can't blame these locals who don't want the village to change and who feel put upon by the La Costa people. But they claimed they were left out of the process, when actually there were meetings, presentations, and, in fact, some of them had attended and gone along with the proposal. But it became an issue of us-against-them and the artist in the middle.

"She came out and tried to work with the city to adapt the design, but when she arrived at the Pavilion she found dead fish and dye in the pools. People threatened and wouldn't let her sleep in her hotel. The city manager asked me to serve as her bodyguard when she went down to look at the park.

"The arts office was told to keep our mouths shut, and the city took Andrea to court, to force her to relinquish rights to the artwork, but she got the People for the American Way and Artist's Equity behind her. The Blade-Citizen ran an editorial cartoon of Andrea receiving a bomb on Easter Sunday, inside of an Easter egg.

"They sued her even though the city's attorney told the council they couldn't win based on the merits of the case, that Andrea was within her rights to insist that the artwork remain the way it was. She tried to fight, but her resources were limited and when it got so costly she couldn't afford it anymore, she agreed to settle on a five-year period when the work would stay up."

In June 1998, out of 10,000 voters, 69 percent voted to take it down. Wilsterman said, "I think that never would've happened if the crowd hadn't been allowed to gain momentum, if the city would've addressed the issues and said, 'Look, guys, you had a chance to come to these meetings and in fact some of you said you liked it, and now you've changed your minds -- that's fine, but things were handled in a democratic fashion, and so it will stay.'"

From atop Mount Helix I counted four blue tanks, like lipstick tubes that intruded on the horizon of housing tracts and sky, while the Fletcher Hills tank looked like it could've been a petrified tree or a monstrous plant. Behind it, the mountains were the same brown, only a shade lighter. At sunset the stainless-steel clouds appeared flecked with rose petals.

Wilsterman reflects on his experience with the water tank. "The water district made an effort to see that people were informed. There were newspaper articles. I appeared on television. Mailers went out. So when the discontent started, I didn't understand. The media got hold of it. The Union-Tribune, the Daily Californian, and mainly -- on the radio -- Hudson and Bauer, and Roger Hedgecock. Then the television stations picked it up.

"Later I found out there were only a few agitators who claimed to have 2500 signatures to have the tank painted. If the tank were to be painted, my artwork would have to come down. There's no way to paint the tank with the artwork on it. And to take the artwork down -- that gets into issues of censorship and violation of state and federal law.

"Because of what I'd seen in Carlsbad, I hired the best art attorney I could find and had him write the water district so they were aware that there could be problems. It wasn't a hostile letter. The legal issues are: one, was the work of art commissioned?; two, is the work of art specific to a location?; and three, will it be destroyed if it's taken down?. The artwork is both the property of the agency who commissions it and the artist. The design remains the property of the artist. By international treaties and federal and state law, nobody has a right to destroy a work of art. Portable art, like a painting that can hang on a wall, you can sell or give to somebody else, but if you shred it, you're in trouble. So what do you do with a work of art that doesn't exist except where it belongs?

"I didn't want to cry censorship, but I decided that if my work were taken down, we would go to court. And the award, according to my attorney, would by precedent be seven times the value. According to appraisers I know, the value would be about three quarters of a million dollars. Still, I don't think they reacted to any possibility of litigation. They were going to do the right thing, assess how many people really didn't like it, decide if we had made a mistake.

"But the other side didn't fight fair. They attacked with harsh comments about the people involved, and they belittled the work. My students who had put thousands of hours into the work felt ridiculed. And there was no voice on the other side. Over and over, the complaints of these few opponents got repeated -- that the tank was ugly, that the community hadn't been consulted, that there weren't any public meetings. They said that the clouds attract noise, that they're reflective, that they are a traffic hazard, that airplanes might fly into the tank -- no concerns from pilots, just from these people who claimed they represented the view of the majority of the community. A small group was able to agitate such a large amount of ill will with no community mandate, to convince Hudson and Bauer that it was ugly, that it lowered property values, that it was a bad image for the community, but mainly some real estate interests claimed they couldn't sell houses because of it.

"This group opposing the tank pressured the water district to hold a meeting. August 11, 1997, about a year after the clouds went up. A group called the San Carlos Community Council went to Judy McCarty of the San Diego City Council saying that the people of San Carlos didn't like the water tower, and she wrote a letter to the water district on their say so.

"Another San Diego City Councilmember got involved, and some of the El Cajon City Council pushed through a resolution saying that the tank should be painted, based on these few people, mostly business interests, hammering on the elected officials. Forty-one hundred people responded to the mailers; 3900 were in favor of leaving the tank as it was.

"Support for taking the artwork down or changing it now was eroded, still they held the meeting, and all these people who had all this publicity for a year -- had a Web site, gave free bus rides to the meeting, gave away free pizza to any teenager who'd come and hold a sign -- they couldn't get 100 people to stand up on their side. Still the meeting was packed. Between 300 and 400 showed up to support leaving the tank the way it was. And we didn't organize anything. The opposition got soundly rebuked at that meeting, and the water district voted unanimously to keep it the way it was. But they had gone through a lot, just like I had. We got publicly beat up for a long time.

"After all this, the water district seems happy with the work and proud of their accomplishment, though I imagine they probably wouldn't anytime soon want to risk another beating in the press."

According to the City of Carlsbad Engineering Department, bulldozers are scheduled to descend on Split Pavilion early in January 1999 and transform the artwork back into dust.

Jim Wilsterman has moved on to work with a group called the San Diego Cultural Arts Alliance on a conversion plan for the Naval Training Center. The plan is to turn it into a community center for culture and the arts, to include studios, museums and galleries, retail spaces, and settings for theater and music.

Wilsterman's clouds still adorn the tank beneath which I sat the other day. I stared at the bottom of the tank, imagined the world's largest redwood tree, and wished that people would only rant or vote about issues they understood.

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Ten years have passed, and the Cloud Project is now accepted as a very popular regional landmark. I hear from people all over the world nearly every week regarding this environmental artwork, but the greatest affection comes currently from those who live closest to the project.

I guess the handful of folks that tried to censor this publicly selected, funded and constructed community project must have finally resigned themselves to the conclusion that this work was supported by more than 90% of the surrounded community.

The project stands as a testament to the community volunteers who constructed it, and in spite of efforts to demean this environmental project and the volunteers that constructed it with derogatory and false assertions - good judgment and civil democratic processes prevailed in the end.

Given the fact that we now face global climate change resulting in massive shortages of water in the region, I suspect my intent to create an environmental work to inspire people in the area to think about where our water comes from (instead of attempting to somehow make water infrastructure invisible as we have done for the last 100 years or so) has now been validated to some degree.

I want to say thank you to members of the surrounding community that strongly stood up to political intimidation and manipulation, and did the right thing in this case. As a result, we can be proud that we now have a internationally known and highly regarded site-specific landmark (San Diego’s largest sculpture - on the same scale as the Statue of Liberty!) that contributes to the identity of our community, now and for generations into the future.

Jim Wilsterman

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