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The Nature of the Lux Institute

Not yet built, the facility is spreading its wings, linking art and the environment.

April 01, 2001|VIVIAN LETRAN | Vivian LeTran is a Times staff writer

Amid acres of scrubby chaparral and the incessant chirping of birds, an innovative idea for an art complex is taking flight.

The planned $2.5-million Lux Art Institute in Encinitas will be built into a hillside overlooking a wildlife sanctuary and the San Elijo Lagoon in San Diego County.

Construction of the 15,000-square-foot, three-story building below red-sand bluffs (coincidentally named Lux Canyon, after a San Diego family) is expected to begin in the next nine to 12 months and be completed before 2004. Plans call for indoor, outdoor and underground exhibition spaces as well as a plaza, garden, museum shop, library and studio/residence for visiting artists.

The facility and its mission are designed to call attention to the region's natural habitat through art-a concept hatched by Lux director Reesey Shaw.

Lux, the Latin word for "light," refers to sunlight, a natural and perpetual source of inspiration for California artists. The institute's goal is to draw artists from the region and around the world to produce site-specific, traditional or multimedia work inspired by the Southern California landscape.

"With Lux, we're extending the California Impressionist tradition of landscape painting," said Shaw, former founding director of the California Center for the Arts museum in Escondido, a position she left in 1997 in a disagreement with Escondido officials over the direction of the museum. Within a year, she had launched her brainchild, Lux. Shaw, who has lived in San Diego for 30 years, said part of the impetus for Lux is to help preserve the Southland's natural habitats and native plants.

"This is one way we can pay attention to our landscape, since most of us tend to take it for granted," she said.

Without creating an in-house permanent collection, Lux will commission four artists a year-one per quarter-to live on-site. The artists, chosen by Shaw or guest curators, will be the driving force behind Lux's exhibitions and public programs. Most installations will be displayed temporarily.

Founded in 1998 as a nonprofit organization, Lux has slated an estimated $450,000 each year specifically for art programs, such as the artists-in-residence, exhibitions and educational outreach. A formal operating budget has not been considered yet, Shaw said.

Lux received a major boost in 1999 when Ramona Sahm, Lux board president emeritus, and the Sahm Family Foundation donated $1 million to acquire the 4.1 acres-formerly owned by the Encinitas Elks Lodge-tucked behind a preschool, a private school and tennis club. The gift also funded the initial facility planning.

So far, two-thirds of the $2.5 million needed to build the institute, designed by Santa Monica architect Renzo Zecchetto, has been raised, enough to begin construction once the permits and final plans are approved. Lux is also working on establishing a $6-million endowment.

The institute's aim is to change the public's experience of creativity.

"The whole process of art-making [will be] played out, altering the cold, clinical, sterile setting that you find in most museums," Shaw said. "Seeing an artist create a work in progress lends a human element to art, and that is very engaging."

Even without a building, Lux has managed to spread its wings. The "Museum Without Walls" project includes the institute's first commissioned work, "Bird Hub" by Los Angeles artist Daniel Wheeler, which will be displayed through March 2003. The outdoor installation exemplifies the Lux philosophy of combining art and nature.

Conceived as an "avian airport" for migratory birds, "Bird Hub" was commissioned last year in collaboration with the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy to ensure it would not interfere with the lagoon's ecosystem.

The installation consists of three sculptural stations-named Terminal, Tower and Perch-built to observe and identify the 300-plus bird species that visit the lagoon each year.

The travel pattern of birds that flock to and fly in and out of the nature preserve is similar to the travels of thousands of tourists, and visiting artists, who head to and depart from Southern California.

"I thought of the whole idea of travel and navigation of birds and people as tying points," Wheeler said. "The area is one big international airport."

The institute also is nurturing relationships with local educators through the Kids Art Literacy Program. The first installment is the Valise Project, based on Marcel Duchamp's "The Box in a Valise."

Three commissioned artists-Wheeler, San Diego landscape painter Gail Roberts and New York sculptor Joan Bankemper-have produced works of art that fit inside small travel cases that can be transported to classrooms. These "portable museums" include a set of drawers that contain Wheeler's bird ID cards, binoculars and a stand-up map; Roberts' sunglasses, shoes and a camera made from dry leaves and insects; and a bird "palace" with a bath, feed and nesting quarters created by Bankemper.

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