People admire the Surfing Madonna mosiac under a railroad bridge in Encinitas… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Our Lady of Guadalupe mysteriously appeared in Encinitas a few days before Easter, not on a piece of toast, but riding a surfboard with her palms joined in prayer and an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile.
She arrived seemingly out of thin air — beautifully rendered in a 10-foot-square mosaic of stained glass and stone that had been attached to a concrete railroad bridge without anyone noticing.
Mother Mary's stance in the tube of a Tahitian-sized wave indicated she was no amateur. Her right foot forward on the board made her a goofy foot. Who knew?
"Save the Ocean" was spelled out down the artwork's left side. Locals in this funky San Diego County beach town called her the Surfing Madonna. Pilgrims paid tribute, taking photos and leaving flowers and the occasional votive candle.
City officials, though, labeled the work graffiti and began the process of having it removed. The affair was reported on locally and eventually went viral, with Facebook and Twitter pages rallying to save the Surfing Madonna.
"I didn't expect the kind of reaction it got. We put it up at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, so it's not like I was sneaking around," said Mark Patterson, a 58-year-old long-time local who came forward earlier this month to claim authorship. "I've driven past that railroad bridge a million times. It always looked to me like a perfect frame."
Not for long. This week, Patterson and his attorney reached an agreement with the city. Patterson was fined $500 and will pay for removing the Surfing Madonna from under the railroad tracks and any damage that's been caused.
He also will reimburse the city $2,125 for the art consultant it hired weeks ago to evaluate how to remove the mosaic — eight panels glued to backing which was screwed into the concrete bridge — without shattering it.
"We recognized the workmanship in the piece," said Deputy City Manager Richard Phillips. But there were issues of protocol and safety; people were absentmindedly walking into traffic looking for the best angle to take a picture.
Finally, Patterson agreed to "refrain from placing any works of art on public property without city authorization."
People speculated about who was behind it, this guerrilla artist with an environmentalist's agenda.
Turns out, Patterson is mild-mannered non-Catholic "free-ranging spiritual thinker" with a love for the ocean who left his corporate job to follow an artistic vision.
He had long carried a sketchbook in which he doodled. The Surfing Madonna first appeared in its pages in 2005. Why? Patterson doesn't know. The inspiration returned in 2009 in a much more refined image.
Last year, Patterson traveled to Italy for a two-week course in mosaics, something he had been doing for years as backyard projects.
"When I showed them my vision, they immediately got it," he said. "I was looking at my life, how I've worked for a long time at a job I was good at but didn't necessarily love. I concluded it was time for me to do something I love."
It took nine months to assemble the intricate puzzle of glass and stone and bring the Surfing Madonna to life. It took him and a friend a few hours to attach it to the bridge.
"It was intended to be a gift to the community," he said. "It was the perfect spot, right by the beach, to get the message across that the ocean is in crisis. We're facing mass extinctions. That's really the point of all this …trying to help people wake up."
Patterson plans to eventually find a new home for the mosaic in Encinitas — with all the proper permits.
On Wednesday, as word spread that the Surfing Madonna was soon coming down, she welcomed a steady stream of visitors who wanted to see her in her original element, take a snapshot, lay a hand on her cool surface.
"It really needs to be in a museum," said Tom Matters of El Cajon.
"I think it should stay right where it is," said Jeremy Evans of San Marcos. "We need a little culture around here."
"She's just so beautiful. I feel like I'm making a pilgrimage," said Renee Cox of San Clemente, who placed on the sidewalk before her a plastic orange juice jug full of gladiolas. "It's really a powerful message. Once I heard it was going to be removed, I just had to see it."
Good thing she didn't wait. Wednesday night, workers arrived and the Surfing Madonna disappeared as quickly as she had arrived.