Feb. 22 2012 12:56 PM

The artist's public-art piece illustrates the Port of San Diego's new direction

Roman de Salvo

    Roman de Salvo stands back, looking at the puzzle of tree trunks and large branches he's laid out across the corner of a rented asphalt parking lot in Poway. The trees have essentially been filleted—cut down the middle with a chainsaw—and spliced back together into a twisting, vein-like pattern. They lay on the ground belly-up, with the wood grain and growth-ring innards beaming with natural beauty.

    De Salvo's trees will eventually be sanded, treated and mounted with the exposed grain face down in a hanging trellis-like sculpture at Ruocco Park, the Port of San Diego's 18th public park scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. Located on a 3.3-acre lot just north of Seaport Village and designed by landscape architect Dennis Otsuji, the park is being funded through a public-private partnership, with the Port putting in $3.8 million, the Lloyd and Ilse Ruocco Fund covering $3.5 million and half a million coming from developer Doug Manchester, who was required to contribute the money as part of a deal in the 1990s that allowed him to expand the waterfront Hyatt hotel.

    “The park basically gives public access to the water,” de Salvo says. “I'm sure you're familiar with the woes of the bayfront. Anyway, I decided that I wanted to celebrate that access with the work and kind of welcome the city to the water and to the park with a kind of gateway sculpture.”

    From the street, the piece may not look like much, de Salvo says, but when people walk through it, they'll be presented with a beautifully framed view of the bay and park. He got the idea from the park's namesake, modernist architect Lloyd Ruocco and his wife, artist Ilse Hammon Ruocco, who set aside a trust 25 years ago with the intention of funding a centrally located public park featuring “exceptional urban design.” De Salvo visited some of Lloyd's buildings and noticed something about their architecture. From the outside, the structures were relatively plain, but inside, the windows and beams thoughtfully framed the outside views and landscape.

    “There's this sort of astonishing thing about experiencing his work,” de Salvo says. “You don't know you're being set up like this until you go through the door, and there it is; it's like the curtains are unveiled on this wondrous situation.”

    When I first met with de Salvo to talk about his piece for Ruocco Park, the artist was sun-kissed and dirty-handed, busy finishing another outdoor public-art project, a piece he calls “Grape Maze.” It's a large-scale wooden maze mounted on the outside walls of the museum at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. Eventually, a grapevine will be trained to work its way through, solving the maze as it grows. The piece was meant to activate the museum's courtyard, yet the building sits largely unused, save for special events, in part due to budget cuts that paused the museum's exhibition programming. It's expected to remain closed through the end of August at least, but funding for “Grape Maze” was already secured, so the piece has to go up now.

    It's ironic, says de Salvo, who imagined the art piece as a fun way to spark conversation and interaction during the museum's public events.

    But unexpected outcomes and added challenges are something de Salvo's learned to deal with when working in his preferred realm of public art, which can be unpredictable. De Salvo's first unofficial public piece—a fountain of water that spurted up through a floor drain every time a toilet was flushed and was constructed without permission in a bathroom at UCSD (where de Salvo got his master's degree in fine art)—lasted unscathed for almost six years. Meanwhile, his 2003 public-art project for the city of San Diego, “Crab Carillion,” an installation of almost 500 chimes on the 25th Street Bridge in Golden Hill, has been hit by a few cars and no longer sings with its intended musical palindrome.

    Also, navigating the approval process and politics that surround public-art projects is no easy task, de Salvo says, but he's learned the art of shepherding his proposals through by making sure he communicates his ideas clearly and infuses  commissions and panels with his enthusiasm.

    De Salvo's represented by Quint Contemporary Art and says he's happy to do site-specific gallery and museum installations when he's asked, but he's absolutely more at home outdoors, famously using subtle, ordinary materials to produce unexpected, sometimes extraordinary outcomes.

    “I like everyday stuff in an everyday scenario,” he explains. “People are not going through their everyday lives expecting an encounter with art. So, they're not necessarily even sure what to make of my work sometimes…. It's not in the context of art, so the experience of it by the everyday public—they don't have their guard up, so their response seems more natural to me.”

    For de Salvo's Ruocco Park project, he harvested already dead trees from Sherman Heights and Ramona with the help of an arborist and a crane operator. The medium itself is the ordinary materials de Salvo likes so much, but the way he's carefully sliced and pieced the trees back together, creating an entirely new, organic composition—that's where the extraordinary comes in.

    On Feb. 10, the Port of San Diego released its first-ever curatorial strategy. Partly due to criticism of its art program in the past—like the “Urban Trees” sculptures, which were always a crapshoot in terms of quality, or the big, schmaltzy “Unconditional Surrender” sailor-kissing-nurse sculpture that'll be removed at the end of the month—the new policies were put in place to help raise the standards and guide the Port's public-art policies through 2016. The plan includes specifics, like a new artist-residency program, and lays out a broader goal of focusing on “site-specific, ephemeral and environmental works that respond to the natural geography of the tidelands.”

    Even though de Salvo's piece was commissioned before the new policies were in place, Yvonne Wise, the Port's director of public art, says it's precisely the kind of work the Port will look to install in the future.

    “From his usage of materials to exploration of site and place, his aesthetic vision and artistic approach very much fit into our new direction,” Wise says.

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