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Mural's Hands Scribble Message to San Diego

March 15, 1989|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — An innovative developer and two activist artists have teamed up to produce a towering and thought-provoking mural that gently questions the city's unofficial nickname.

In the mural, a black hand wields an ink pen to fill in the outlined letters that spell "America's Finest City" at the top of a newspaper. Below it, a brown hand paints the flesh tones on one side of a man's face, while an Asian hand holds a chisel, ready to chip out the features from the stony planes of the face's other side.

The 100-by-70-foot mural, which now ranks as the city's largest, was commissioned by developer Chris Mortenson, who advised San Diego artists Kathleen King and David Naton to design a painting "to grab people, to make people think."

Acknowledging that developers usually "do things safe," Mortenson said, "I just think that a mural of that size and in that location is making a statement anyway, a statement to art in the downtown area and its need.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 18, 1989 San Diego County Edition Calendar Part 5 Page 10 Column 5 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
In a story in Wednesday's Calendar on a mural in downtown San Diego, the name of Paul Naton, one of two artists who painted the mural, was incorrectly spelled.

"We often pat ourselves on the back about being America's finest city, but we often have a lot of shortcomings. If we work hard, maybe it will be America's finest city in the year 2050."

The newspaper mural is painted on the north side of the renovated Arte building, at 6th Avenue and C Street, and carries a date of March 27, 2050, the 200th anniversary of San Diego's incorporation, the artists say.

Mortenson, George Feher and New Zealander Brian Stebbins of Rockford International Ltd. have recently renovated the 70-year-old building that has 60,000 square feet of leasable space.

Mortenson is an aggressive developer in the Gaslamp Quarter district, known for such projects as the Golden Lion Tavern and Exchange Building at 4th Avenue and F Street. He said the mural cost about $30,000 and considers it a bargain.

"Other people say, '$30,000? Spend it on carpet,' " Mortenson said. "I consider it a bargain. Art enriches the environment. It makes a rather typical building special, along with some of the (architectural enhancements) we've done on the inside."

Mortenson wanted a photo-realistic mural from a local artist. He chose King, a self-taught painter, after viewing a historic mural of Pacific Beach, circa 1941, that she completed in August at Cass Street and Garnet Avenue.

King and Naton met during the Pacific Beach mural project and formed Raw Art, a design partnership.

"He (Mortenson) wanted us to come up with what we thought was suitable for a space in the middle of the financial district downtown," King said. To meet Mortenson's objectives, she and Naton developed a huge, realistic-looking newspaper, titled America's Finest City, a reference to San Diego's unofficial nickname.

"It's supposed to be any newspaper," said King who incorporated type faces from several local newspapers. "It's saying the future is news. San Diego is writing its own news, its own future."

This futuristic San Diego newspaper lists its circulation at 2,018,301 daily and 3,018,301 "Summer," in recognition of the city's population growth and its growth as a resort and tourist destination.

The top right-hand corner of the newspaper's front page is folded back, revealing cryptic words and phrases from such inside stories as "shared responsibility," openness to growth, "culture," the visual and performing arts, impact, youth, fighting for neighborhoods, "questioning," "options" and pride.

"It's words to spark peoples' thoughts," King said. "We want to get people to think in those terms and also wanted to be positive and upbeat and forward thinking.

"It's supposed to target what issue is really important to you. Not everyone can be active on everything. We wanted to remind you that thinking about a problem isn't enough. You have to go and do something about it. If you're concerned about your neighborhood, do something. If you're worried about growth, open space and the beauty of the environment, just thinking about it isn't enough because this world has a way of making decisions for you if you don't decide for yourself."

The key to San Diego's truly becoming America's finest city, the artists believe is the involvement of all people, hence the mural's ethnic diversity. They point out that even the man whose face is being rendered has a combination of "European" and native American features.

King and Naton spent five sometimes hazardous months, from October through February, standing on a 30-inch-wide, wind-whipped platform, bouncing against the side of the building, often seven stories above the ground. King did most of the painting, including the hands and face.

Naton did the drafting and scale drawing and painted the "sculptural and mechanical things." He took the duties of navigating the 24-foot-long painting platform.

"I likened it to standing on a boat at a dock, with waves coming in, and painting the canvas, which is on the dock," Naton said. "With every little move, the entire thing would move."

The wind posed a hazard almost daily.

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