A Local's Colors

San Diego has been host to a number of public-art fiascoes. Most recent was Nancy Rubins's boat-hull leviathan, which was planned to span Harbor Drive. Public outcry sank that before it happened. That revived memories of New York artist Ellsworth Kelly's concrete arch and steel monolith planned for Embarcadero Park and fellow New Yorker Vito Acconci's airplane-parts sculpture garden at Spanish Landing. Both of those 1980s projects were killed before they materialized.

Heading the list of public-art disasters in San Diego is the late Split Pavilion in Carlsbad. In 1987, the City of Carlsbad paid yet another New York City artist, Andrea Blum, $20,000 to design a piece of public art for an ocean-front plot at the corner of Carlsbad Boulevard and Ocean Street. The result, unveiled in January 1992, was 7500 square feet of erect steel bars, concrete, and reflecting pools. Carlsbad's residents proclaimed the Split Pavilion a disaster, saying it was ugly and complaining that it obstructed their ocean view. In June 1998, they voted in a ballot referendum to remove the pavilion. The razing began January 5 of last year. Back in New York, Blum scoffed, "If this is what the community [of Carlsbad] is interested in doing, it sort of shows that it is pathetic, frankly."

When it was all over, Carlsbad had spent over $500,000 on the design, construction, and destruction of the Split Pavilion. Some in the arts community decried the coastal community's actions, which they saw as a lack of respect for art. But artist Leila Van Weelden of Normal Heights looks back on the Split Pavilion as a mistake on all sides. The lesson, says Van Weelden, is "involvement in the community. The artist needs to be in touch with the community at large, not just the arts community, because the arts community isn't solely who they are representing. You have to be in touch with who the people are in the neighborhood. And if the community is somewhat conservative, the artist has to acknowledge that. There was a lack of relationship among the artist, those funding her work, and the community as a whole."

Van Weelden, 42, has painted two murals along Adams Avenue in Normal Heights. One is on the exterior of Park Place Screen & Glass on the corner of Adams Avenue and Felton Street. The other is on a wall adjacent to the Corner Wash Laundromat's parking lot at 35th Street and Adams. A small, expressive woman who floats from topic to topic in conversation, Van Weelden wears cream-colored jeans and a brown sleeveless sweater. Leaning against a refrigerator-size utility box on the sidewalk next to her Park Place mural, she continues her comments. "It was the same thing with that boat-hull project downtown," she says. "What she created would be fantastic on Melrose Avenue [in Los Angeles]. It exuded L.A. to me. You'd expect something like that in L.A. But it's not San Diego, it is not San Diego."

To Van Weelden, knowledge of the particular region in which a piece of public art will be exhibited and consideration for the people of that region is what determines the success of public art. "Take the Split Pavilion again," she explains. "She was looking for something in the shadows cast by the bars. I think she came in and thought, 'How can I make a very visible artistic statement here?' She was assuming that people in Carlsbad are going to be thinking along the lines that she and people in New York think. Maybe in New York some art critic would come out and discuss how the shadows fell and the contrast of the bars against the sea. But, I'm sorry, in Carlsbad? You're not going to get that. She should have known that, and it should never have gotten to the point where the city had to strip something down."

Judging from the pedestrians who stop to compliment Van Weelden on her mural, her art has met acceptance in the Normal Heights community. About 15 feet tall and 30 feet long, this mural is set against a mauve background in two windowlike frames. In the left frame, a teenage girl drives an open-top 1901 Mercedes, her long curly hair streaming behind her. In the right frame, a man in his early 20s drives a 1953 Packard. He leans to his right and peers out the passenger-side window at the viewer. The background in both frames is a mountainside covered with golden grass and coniferous trees. It reminds me of the area around Lake Cuyamaca. Van Weelden nods, "Right. The Laguna Mountains. I wanted to incorporate the landscape of San Diego County."

I ask Van Weelden how she arrived at the final idea for the mural. She pauses and her eyes squint as she looks back six months. "Let's see," she says, "my first cue was to make some kind of allusion to antique row here on Adams Avenue. I figured the landscape was a way to get the antique, earthy feeling. My second cue was to make an allusion to Park Place Screen & Glass. That's how I came up with the window theme, like two windows in time. So that's where it stands, the two images moving from the past toward the present-day intersection, from 1901 to 1953 to 2000."

These ideas didn't occur to Van Weelden -- who came to San Diego via Phoenix, Vancouver, and her hometown of Aurora, Ontario -- out of the blue. Research, knowledge of the community, and luck went into the process. Faced with the blank wall and two minimal cues from the owner of Park Place Screen & Glass, Van Weelden says she "went to the library. In this case I looked at a lot of historical photographs. San Diego has a really rich photographic history. The idea of two shots moving by was because this was an intersection, and there was car activity, and I wanted it to look like it was reflecting what was going on at the main street here. I didn't want to do anything too crazy, too off the wall, because I've found that in San Diego, to please the most, you want to stay a little conservative. So I collected old photographs of cars and street scenes in San Diego. Then a guy down the street who collects Packards came along with a hood ornament and a catalog of Packards, and he was totally supportive. It was going to be a Cadillac, but he talked me into making it a Packard."

Talking about the painted Packard reminds Van Weelden of a story. "I could not get this guy," she taps the mural just below the dark-haired driver of the Packard, "to look like any of the movie-star faces I wanted him to look like. So finally I decided, 'I'm just going to let it look like whoever it ends up looking like.' Well, I have a friend who lives in this area whose son was kidnapped and taken to Lebanon. She swears that I have unknowingly painted her son. I've since seen a photograph and it does look like him -- same hair and facial structure. Around Christmas, she was coming here every day and sitting here soothing herself. She took it completely seriously."

Five blocks east, at the corner of Adams and 35th, stands the Corner Wash Laundromat. To the left of the Laundromat is a small parking lot, and on the left of the lot stands a brick wall that's been painted white. In the center of that wall is Van Weelden's second mural, a dark-skinned woman in a royal-blue dress speckled with stars. She's bending over a garment she is laundering by hand. Her long black hair hangs down over her shoulders. She has deep-set, dark eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips. "There was a huge [graffiti] tag on this wall," Van Weelden says. "If you look closely, you can see where the outline of the large letters is. I came out here one day and asked the Laundromat owners if they minded if I did a mural. They said go right ahead, so I pulled out some paint and started working on it. I didn't have any preconceived notions of what I wanted to do. I just came out here with my paints and brushes. I got a rough concept of a woman washing something because of the Laundromat, but I didn't have any sketches. I enjoyed doing this. I like the kind of art I do when it's just from the moment."

Van Weelden, who teaches art and says she's not just a muralist but works in "all of the mediums," did the Laundromat mural gratis. Her fee for the Park Place Screen & Glass mural was $1800, not all of which she's collected. It took over a month for her to paint the mural. She says it would be a "long shot and a very slow shot" to make a living doing only murals. "There is a business side to this," she says, "that some people may have a talent for. I'm not the sharpest business person, frankly. I think more in creative than analytical terms. I've found that, for most people, you can either be a good business person or a good artist. It's hard to be both."

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