Mural at Cardiff's San Elijo Retail Center suffers indignities

Artist Kevin Anderson sunset painting

A mural at the San Elijo Retail Center in Cardiff-by-the-Sea has gone away. Local artist Kevin Anderson completed the four-by-seven-foot painting a year ago at the request of Commercial Facilities, Inc. The company manages the property, located on San Elijo Avenue in view of the Pacific Ocean and the beach. To the west run South Coast Highway 101 and railroad tracks.

“I did the mural for $600, a lot cheaper than I normally do,” Anderson tells me, “only because I love the area, do a lot of work down there, and know everybody. It started out as a seascape with a sunset. I kept seeing people that I know, and they’d come by and talk to me as I was painting. One day, a guy was sitting around playing the guitar. So, wham, I painted him into the picture and thought, ‘What a great idea. Let’s put some people in there that are from the area, including several that are homeless.’ I even painted in one of the clerks who work at the liquor store.” The mural was painted on wood shaped like a wine cask on the front of Mar Vista Liquor, a tenant in the building.

“Nobody seemed to mind,” says Anderson, “so I finished the mural that way.” But there was a hint of trouble ahead. Mike Paeske, vice president of Commercial Facilities Inc., asked that a cigarette in one character’s mouth be taken out of the painting. No problem. “I believe he thought it was a joint, so I painted over it,” Anderson continues. “If I’m working on something for somebody, they can tell me at any time what they want me to change, and I’m happy to do it. But I did think the cigarette thing was a little strange. He might have not liked the mural from the start, but he didn’t say anything more. And at the end, he paid me in full.”

The title of the mural, painted at the top, is Puesta del Sol, which means “sunset” in Spanish. The people Anderson painted into the picture, however, are now more prominent than the sun.

Anderson, 51, owns a house in Encinitas, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He makes his living primarily as a muralist, and his work can be seen all over Cardiff. “I’ve just been hired to paint a big mural in Solana Beach,” he tells me.

Over the last eight months, Anderson spent significant time in the area doing canvas paintings of the scenery, which is “spectacular,” he says. “You can see Seaside Beach and La Jolla south and Swami’s Beach to the north. Besides the sunsets, the beach, the cliffs in the distance, I was putting trains in some of the paintings.

“Not long ago — I think it was May 4 — I saw a worker with a ladder and paint bucket heading toward the liquor store. As he got closer to the building, I ran across the street and asked what he was up to. ‘I’ve got a work order to cover the mural up,’ he told me. So, right away, I called Mr. Paeske and asked that he stop the work. We went round and round about it, and he finally told me he’d allow a little time for me to remove the wood that the mural is on and take it somewhere else.”

In Anderson’s view, the mural’s fate is due to unwarranted beliefs about homeless people. “But those ideas are so ingrained,” he tells me, “ that there’s little you can do about them.”

I reach Mike Paeske at his Sorrento Valley office. “Over the last couple of years,” he says, “we’ve had issues with transients and vandalism to our property. The sheriff’s department came to us a couple of weeks ago and finally identified a number of individuals who were responsible for it. They told me that the individuals depicted in the mural were the ones. We didn’t want to be memorializing those people on our building, so we asked that the mural be removed.”

Paeske says he has a laundry list of chores and expenses associated with the transients hanging around the San Elijo Retail Center. They include cleaning up trash and defecation and replacing locks that have been glued shut around the building. “The most recent thing was a window broken by a bottle. The alley smells like urine because people are constantly urinating back there. After dealing with all the intoxication and fighting, which is causing our tenants to lose customers, we said we’ve had enough. We let it go for a long period of time and let the sheriff handle it. Finally, removing the mural was one of the things they asked us to do to help enforce the law.”

Surprisingly, the situation has not provoked hostility between property manager and painter. “Mr. Paeske’s tone of voice has been real nice lately,” says Anderson. “But he’s firm on making the change. And it’s not an anger thing with me. I’m just sad about it. One alternative he offered me was to take the people out of the mural and keep it on the building. You may think I’m stubborn or stupid, but something in me is not letting me do that. I’d lose my integrity as an artist that way.

“And it feels like they’re profiling these people,” Anderson continues. “If you walked by the mural, you would think that it’s just a bunch of people sitting around a campfire enjoying a party. It doesn’t portray anything illicit, no drug taking or drinking, just a few people around a campfire with a nice sunset in the background. One of them is playing a guitar, another a harmonica. Even if you knew the people, you wouldn’t recognize them,” Anderson claims. “I grew up with two of them, and they’re not troublemakers. If anything, they make the town a better place.”

In the meantime, Anderson learned that a flyer with mug shots of several people in his mural has turned up in the San Elijo Retail Center’s businesses. Words at the top of the page read “Cal-Photo Image Network Mugbook.” The business owners are asked to call the sheriff’s department if they see any of the people.

There is even a mug shot of Anderson on the flyer. I ask him if he’s ever been in trouble with the law. “Not since I was a teenager in Escondido,” he says. “And then it was just for petty vandalism. I think I know what happened. A number of months ago, a sheriff came around where I was painting and hanging out. He took pictures of a number of us.”

Mike Paeske says he had nothing to do with the mug shots. “We’re in the property-management business,” he says. “The sheriff’s department must have put out the mug shots. They’re trying to get a handle on the lawlessness in this area. The transient population is not making it easy.”

I contact the Cal-Photo office at the California Department of Justice. An official tells me that law enforcement agencies are allowed to give businesses the program’s photos as long as they don’t display them publicly. What they can do is call the police if one of the people in the photos shows up in their stores. The photos are obtained from law enforcement agencies and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Meanwhile, Anderson wondered whether any legal rights could have given him more control over his mural. “It feels like the sheriff’s department is censoring my work,” he says. A search of the Internet turned up two relevant laws. In 1979, the California Art Preservation Act gave protection to works of “fine art,” which meant, at least in part, that the work’s purchaser does not use it for commercial purposes. Anderson’s mural might not have met that qualification, since it was purchased to call attention to businesses. More useful in his case could have been the 1990 federal Visual Artists Rights Act, which protects certain public works of art from being changed or destroyed without giving the artist 90 days to remove them.

On April 2, the Los Angeles Times reported on the legal struggles of artist Kent Twitchell, whose six-story mural on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles was painted over. The mural had been dedicated to pop artist Ed Ruscha. In 1962, Ruscha’s work appeared alongside Andy Warhol’s in a famous exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) called New Painting of Common Objects. “In the case of ‘Ed Ruscha Monument,’ ” according to the Times, “Twitchell settled his lawsuit against the U.S. government and 11 other defendants in 2008, for $1.1 million, believed to be the largest amount ever awarded” under the federal and California laws.

“ ‘I would have been a monster to let it go; the precedent that it would have set for public art would have been terrible — we had to fight it,’ Twitchell said.”

Kevin Anderson finally hired a carpenter to remove his mural from the San Elijo Retail Center, the underlying wood and all. The painting now leans against the wall in his studio at home. Several days later, one of the liquor store’s windows was smashed.

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The artist seems to be rolling with the punches; and it was a punch.

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