Aug. 29 2012 09:05 AM

UCSD grad students to uncover Balboa Park's past at Art San Diego 2012

Artist Kate Clark in Balboa Park’s Zoro Garden, where nudists once frolicked. She’s wearing a nude suit made by fellow graduate student Hermione Spriggs as part of the Fair is Fair Art Lab.
Photo by David Rolland

These days, Zoro Garden in Balboa Park is a popular place to tie the knot, but in 1935, it was the site of the most controversial attraction at the California Pacific International Exposition—a nudist colony of mostly young women—that aimed to draw tourists and new residents to San Diego's moderate climate and all the tempting possibilities it held.

Now in its fourth year, the Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair (ASD)—which had 8,000 attendees in 2011 and is expecting 10,000 this year—is taking over the 40,000-squarefoot, indoor-outdoor Balboa Park Activity Center from Sept. 6 through 9, where this year's concept, "New Art City," will take shape with four "districts" representing genres from mid-century-modern art to contemporary furniture design. Fifty-five galleries from around the world will have booths, and while this is an art sale catering to collectors, emerging local artists will share the space, representing themselves with mini-exhibitions, called Art Labs.

In the past, Art Labs were satellite events taking place during ASD's four days (, but the move to the two-acre site in Balboa Park unifies the events. A cross section of local artists' works will be on display, carrying on Balboa Park's nearly 100-year legacy of being the city's cultural epicenter.

Expos at the park haven't always been so refined. Take, for instance, the Painted Desert exhibit at the Panama California Exposition in 1915, in which Native Americans from all over California were put on display for ogling visitors while they made pottery and wove blankets; or, at the California Pacific Exposition in 1935, with the Midget Village—boasted by the park as the largest midget colony in the world.

ASD will be tame by comparison, but an Art Lab produced by the Visual Arts Department at UCSD will take attendees back to the far corners of Balboa Park's past with the showcase Fair is Fair. Master's degree candidates Kate Clark, Hermione Spriggs and Emily Grenader will be in era-specific costumes, reenacting historical events, conducting interviews with park experts and presenting new art works alongside objects and artifacts from expos past, provided by the San Diego History Center. The hope, Clark says, is to ignite conversations about how San Diego's current and former art fairs bolster San Diego's cultural identity, and how a region's identity affects the future actions of its people.

Grenader's art—paintings, videos and photographs—is an examination of crowds of people at events. She'll be responsible for Fair is Fair's technical elements, like the Past- Present Historical Photobooth.

"We'll be using a green screen to transport people into the past," Grenader explains. "There will be a mixture of old, archival photographs from Balboa Park and photos that we've taken." There will be costumes handy for people to slip on, including a nude suit made by Spriggs to fit the Zoro Garden backdrop, and postcard-style photos will be printed right there at the booth.

"They'll all be displayed on a wall," Clark says, "like the rollercoaster pictures taken at amusement parks." Balboa Park postcards from long ago will also be on display.

Fair is Fair has a schedule of events taking place at the booth during ASD's four-day run that "playfully muddles the past with the present," Clark says. Kicking off at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6, Clark, in a three-piece suit provided by SDSU's costume department, is re-delivering a speech by John D. Spreckels, one of San Diego's most influential founders. In his 1923 "Apologia pro vite sus: In defense of one's life" speech at the Hotel Del Coronado, Spreckels posed questions that are still being asked today:

"Now, gentlemen, between ourselves, what is the matter with San Diego? Why is it not the metropolis and seaport that its geographical and other unique advantages entitles it to be? Why does San Diego always just miss the train, somehow? I will tell you. In three words: lack of cooperation."

Clark, who's lived in San Diego for only one year, admits that prior to conducting historical research for this project, she, like many transplants, assumed that the city lacked culture as compared with older, larger metropolises across the U.S. But, she says, San Diego is simply young, and so is Balboa Park.

In the early 1900s, San Diego's population paled in comparison with Los Angeles and San Francisco. San Diegans then were attempting to lay a foundation for the city's cultural identity—Spreckels being a big one; he poured his life and money into Balboa Park, among other things. With the Panama Canal expansion slated for completion in 1915, locals, including David Collier—one of the founding fathers of Balboa Park— sought to draw attention to the city as the first port of call north of the newly expanded waterway. The park was built for the 1915 expo that would celebrate it.

Parallels between the first fair, the expo of 1935 and New Art City are what Clark, Grenader and Spriggs are digging into with their exhibit. Spriggs, who worked with Clark in curating physical pieces of Balboa Park's past, designed the group's program; printed like a newspaper, it's a collage of old photos and snippets from the San Diego Union's coverage of the 1915 and 1935 expos, juxtaposed with Fair is Fair exhibit descriptions. There's a limited number of color prints available for visitors.

The booth also features what the group is calling the Museum Store of Contemporary Artifact. In display cases are marionettes made by Clark and Spriggs that poke fun at what happens when you put a Franciscan Monk, John D. Spreckels and a nudist from Zoro Garden together. "The marionettes are a way of thinking about characters in history that aren't often thought of in playful ways," Clark says.

Along with the new works by Clark and Spriggs, Kim Dulco, a senior park ranger, will be sharing his collection of aesthetic artifacts from the park's past, including pieces of decorative facades from its original architecture. An interview with Dulco at the Fair is Fair booth will take place at 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7, where attendees can get even more of a history lesson.

"We're excited for people to participate with us in any way," Clark says of the interactive exhibit. "This whole project started as a conversation about art fairs cropping up in cities. It's important in this moment for San Diego artists to have a space for experimentation; that makes for a healthier, more solvent city."

Amy blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.


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