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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : A Sense of Place : New Public Artworks Provide Color, Coherence and Warmth to Communities' Urban Spaces


Public art is as old as recorded time. From the first cave drawings to the quintessential bronze sculpture of a general on horseback, such artwork stands as an expression of a community's identity.

Rather than just placing sculptures near buildings, city officials and private enterprises in recent years have sponsored public art projects in California that are integrated into a particular site and that attempt to reflect the area's history or the contemporary local environment. The city of Santa Monica, for instance, has been in the forefront of this approach to public art for more than a decade.

But this summer, public art has really come of age in two other Westside communities. In Culver City, at its new $29-million City Hall, four artists--greatly influenced by suggestions from city residents--have added their voices to addressing the city's history.

Across from the civic center, artist Nobuho Nagasawa is nearly finished installing her luminescent sculpture project, "Truth or Fiction." Two blocks east of City Hall in a small park next to the historic Culver Hotel, a suite of sculptures based on movie props has turned the site into a fantasy play land.

And at Los Angeles County's Zuma Beach north of Malibu, an artist has helped replace its decaying historical entrance with a bright and vibrant harbinger of the natural pleasures of surf and sand.

"Basically we're talking about how you enrich the experience of being in a public place," said Santa Monica artist Bruria Finkel, who in 1982 was one of the founders of the Santa Monica Arts Commission. She chairs the panel's Art in Public Places committee. "You want to create some kind of sense of place."

In 1987, the city installed Douglas Hollis' "Singing Beach Chairs" on the sand just north of the western end of Pico Boulevard. At any time of day, one can sit in Hollis' chairs, homages to a lifeguard's chair, to experience the elements and appreciate the ocean sounds and breezes. This project was the first of 10 site-specific works planned for Santa Monica's Natural Elements Sculpture Park, which was designed to draw more people to under-used sections of the beach.

Finkel feels that any sense of place on most streets is generally rather drab, because street design is left primarily in the hands of engineers.

"You look at any street scape in California, you realize that the engineers had directed the whole thing, because what do we have on the streets? We have cement, then we have directionals, then we have the meters that collect our money, and maybe a street bench to catch a bus," she said. "Everything is directed to the mercantile aspect of the street and the car.

"The whole approach to the street has to be different--a little more color or texture than slabs of cement; an environment that could be uplifting [to] give you a feeling of comfort. . . . Public art brings to the community something that it doesn't have, a different dimension that enriches daily life."

Artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison created the first part of their landscape sculpture, "California Wash: From the Mountains to the Sea," in 1993 near Hollis' beach chairs. The project's plants and meandering path provide an attractive access to the beach while they temper the visual impact of the Pico-Kenter storm drain.

A ground mural is expected to be installed this fall to complete the project. Its map-like configuration of Los Angeles' Westside, with bronze likenesses of endangered or extinct animals and other creatures, will highlight the site's significance as a watershed.

"The artists hope that if people understand how important that area is, they will respect it," said Maria Luisa de Herrera, Santa Monica's cultural affairs administrator.

In front of Culver City's new City Hall, which was dedicated in June, is Heritage Park, a courtyard that contains May Sun's reflecting pool, called "La Ballona"--a tribute to water, specifically La Ballona Creek, which runs through town, and the Gabrielino Indians who once made their home along it.

Tiles at the bottom of the pool depict the fishhooks the Gabrielinos fashioned from abalone shells. Porpoise- and whale-like fetish sculptures occupy the middle of the pool, recalling the importance of these sea creatures to the early inhabitants. Rising from the pool are walls made of brick from the old City Hall that have two photographic images of the creek, one historic, the other contemporary.

A few steps from Sun's pool, a visitor can crank Barbara McCarren's "Panoramic" sculpture of a movie camera and view 33 separate historical images of Culver City. Her camera stands by her "Quotation Courtyard"--eight limestone panels set into four walls, also made from old City Hall bricks, that contain quotations about the individual's role in government.

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