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A Backcountry Setting for Art of Sculpturing


Serenity, tranquillity and fresh air are easy words to link to a backcountry place like Ramona, but words like art and sculpture do not come to mind as quickly.

Lewis Weinberg is trying to change that. He has created the Sho-En Outdoor Sculpture Center, a 50-acre expanse near Ramona that incorporates Japanese trees and sculptures from as far as Africa and Europe and as near as Julian.

Sho-En will be the site this weekend of a festival featuring guest artists, music, food and children's activities.

More than a decade ago, Weinberg visited Ramona and saw it as the perfect backdrop for his passion for sculpture. A Chicago resident and chief executive officer of a gasket manufacturing company, Weinberg retired in 1980. He and his wife, Violet, relocated to Ramona where he set about establishing Sho-En, named after the Japanese word for pine garden.

Weinberg found it to be a smooth transition from Midwest manufacturer to sculptor-founder-director of a North County outdoor art gallery.

In the early 1970s, Weinberg, then CEO of Fel-Pro in Chicago, hired California artist Ted Gall to create sculptures using the company's scrap metal to depict the relationship between the firm's 2,000 employees and products. It had long been Weinberg's idea and hope to show how art and industry could be intertwined.

"Years ago, I noticed all the beautiful scrap metal that was generated from the gaskets, and I started to make sculptures out of the scrap," Weinberg said. "I got very much involved. I studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. I learned to weld."

When Weinberg came to Ramona, he brought on Gall as resident artist. What started as a small endeavor with a few trees and some sculptures grew into a nursery, pine forest, indoor gallery and more than 100 sculptures in a permanent collection.

"I came out here to get busy," Weinberg said. "I love art, I love beauty. You get hooked."

The more than 100 sculptures in the permanent collection come from the hands of national and local artists, including Gall, James Hubbell, Heide Tobler, Evan Lewis and Sam Taylor. Altogether, 35 artists exhibit at Sho-En.

The pieces--ranging from a few inches to 35 feet in height--are made of stone, cast bronze, wood, ceramic, copper, metal and marble. Some are brightly painted with auto body paint, others are permitted to rust or weather naturally.

In addition to the sculptures and trees, the outdoor center features numerous Oriental lanterns chiseled from granite. A large collection of Indian symbols and petroglyphs can also be found throughout the grounds.

All of the works at Sho-En are for sale--including the bonsai, plants and trees. The sculptures range in price from $350 for Evan Lewis' steel and copper birdbath to $59,000 for "Earthscape II," a ceramic piece by J. Toki. Near the entrance of Sho-En is Ted Gall's "Charger," a larger-than-life metal horse selling for $34,500.

Sculptor James Hubbell, who lives in Julian and is a friend of Weinberg's, has several forged steel pieces at Sho-En, priced near $3,000. Hubbell also has displayed a cast bronze work selling for $35,000.

Among the sculptures of stone and cast bronze and steel at Sho-En are more than 30,000 Japanese black pines and a bonsai nursery.

The pines reflect the artistry of landscaper and master gardener Frank Koge, who has nursed these trees from seedlings.

With help from his son, Mark, Koge spends his days trimming the trees when they reach a certain height, then training them in traditional Japanese fashion by shaping them with wires and wooden stakes.

The Japanese black pines thrive on Ramona's decomposed granite soil, and Sho-En has deep wells that provide water for them. A drought-conscious drip irrigation system makes the most of the water and strengthens the plants' tolerance to water shortages.

Although Sho-En was started about a decade ago, it was not open to the public until April, 1990. At first, the center mainly attracted artists and landscapers, but Weinberg says that thousands of locals and tourists from all over the country have visited the center since its public opening almost two years ago.

"What we are doing, hopefully, is extending a bit of culture into the back areas of San Diego County," Weinberg said. "This is the name of the game. The combination of the trees and the sculptures is gorgeous. I don't think you can find something like this anywhere else in Southern California."

Touring Sho-En can be done in a couple of ways. Most visitors amble about the indoor and outdoor areas at their own pace, examining the floating pavilion, investigating the bonsai garden and contemporary sculpture exhibits.

However, guided tours for groups are provided by appointment and make up a large share of the visitors at the center.

Saying that Sho-En is off the beaten path is an understatement, and finding it can be a challenge.

The sculpture center is accessible by Highway 67 in Ramona or Highway 78 from Escondido.

Located about 20 minutes east of Ramona, the center is off Ramona Oaks Road, past San Diego Country Estates. Once visitors pass the housing development and leave Ramona Oaks Road, they will go through a winding residential area that eventually empties onto a dirt road.

The final 3 miles--made of a series of dirt roads--are marked with small signs that guide the way. Larger than life sculptures from Sho-En will then be visible from the road.

Regular admission to the sculpture center is free, except for tour groups, which are charged a nominal fee. Visitors are welcome 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, and other days by appointment. To arrange a tour group or for other information, call Sho-En at 789-7079.

At this weekend's festival, there will be shuttle buses to the site from locations in Ramona. Admission to the festival is $5 for adults, $2.50 for children.

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