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The Region

Signs of Peace Emerge Amid Political Wars

Some find that the play of sunlight and shadow in the Ventura County Government Center makes for a soothing, though fleeting, image.

September 04, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Plenty of fights have taken place inside the Ventura County Government Center, home away from home for the Board of Supervisors and other battling county power brokers.

But for one minute each winter, the bustling center gives peace a chance, thanks to Mother Nature and a quirk of architecture.

If the weather is just right, sunlight pouring through glass-paned skylights aligns with support pillars, casting, in the view of some, five perfect peace sign shadows across the building.

"Some people see rockets or sometimes planes," county attorney Don Hurley said. "But I always see peace signs."

Hurley, 59, an amateur photographer, grabbed a camera when the phenomenon occurred last year at 9:15 a.m. on Feb. 26.

The resulting composition of shadow and light became an instant hit, appearing as framed art on office walls across the government center.

As word of the print spread, Hurley found himself handing out copies to a wider audience. The Vietnam veteran surmises people find the shot comforting in a turbulent, post-9/11 world.

"It's an interesting, almost soothing photograph," he said.

Martin Hernandez, an aide to Supervisor Kathy Long, received a framed copy from his boss for Christmas last year. He put it up at work.

"I look at that when I get a little crazy and it reminds me that everything is going to be all right," he said.

Attorney Michael Case noticed the print during a trip to the government center. The shot is now on display in his Ventura office, Case said.

"I thought it was remarkable," he said. "The shadows hit every pillar. The balance, the location, the lighting -- everything is just right. If you were trying to dream it up on your own, I don't think you could do it."

The print sparks lots of comment, Case said.

One visitor exclaimed, " 'Wow! So many B-52s at one time,' " Case recalled. "I looked at it and realized that, yeah, you could interpret them as bombers. But I'm a liberal and I see peace signs. It's like an ink-blot test."

People often ask Hurley if the photo has been altered or somehow staged. Or they question whether the building's architect aligned the skylights and pillars that way deliberately.

The government center was designed in 1975 by Carl John Warnecke & Associates of Beverly Hills. County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston was on the design committee at the time and said the goal was to create an open, airy landscape that made use of natural light.

Skylights were installed across the roof to accomplish that, Johnston said. "It wasn't intended," he said. "It is just one of those serendipitous things."

Hurley, a 23-year county employee, first noticed the oddity a decade ago. It appears around the same time each year, usually in late February, he said.

But the winter sun must be low and bright -- conditions that combine only every few years, Hurley said.

In the winter of 2002, he decided he would try to capture it on film.

Enlisting the help of receptionist Mary Thomas, who notified him that the convergence was imminent, Hurley was able to snap off three shots on his 35 millimeter camera before the image shifted.

He left the film in his camera for several weeks, forgetting about the shots. When he finally had them developed, he was astonished to see how well they had come out.

One of the photographs won first place in a competition for municipal employees sponsored by the National Arts Program, a nonprofit group that encourages works by local artists. The print was published in the group's magazine.

It can also be viewed on the program's Web site at www .ntlartsprog.org.

Hurley is enjoying his moment in the limelight. It's a nice break from the grind of filing conservator petitions on behalf of the infirm and aging.

Come February, he will be looking for the peace signs again. But the image he captured may have been a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

"They've changed the lighting inside the building," he said. "I'm not sure you'd get the same effect."

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