Kearny Mesa's never been known as a hotbed of edgy public art, but when the county of San Diego cuts the ribbon at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, and unveils the new pieces on view inside and outside the recently built Registrar of Voters building (5600 Overland Drive), it will solidify the County Operations Center as one of the best places to see interesting, high-quality public art in the region.
"I think people are pleasantly thrilled by the caliber of the artwork," said Gail Goldman, the public-art consultant hired by the county to amass the collection, which is sprawled across the campus' 47 acres.
The $2-million budget for purchasing existing pieces and commissioning new site-specific installations came from a Board of Supervisors policy that allows one-half a percent of the estimated cost of a county construction project to be committed to original works of art. The policy has long been in existence but not invoked for more than two decades.
Installed in phases over three years, the new 31-piece collection includes work by San Diego artists Joyce Cutler-Shaw, Marie Najera, Manny Farber, Glen Crooks, Philipp Scholz Rittermann, Christopher Puzio and Anne Mudge. The latest pieces to be unveiled at the Registrar of Voters are by Jun Kaneko and Jay Johnson. A guidebook providing background on the collection will also be released.
Johnson played a special role in the project. The well-known local artist completed 25 different works and covered approximately 4,000 square feet of wall space across the campus. He was tasked with digging through the old Operations Center buildings before they were torn down and pulling out interesting or valuable archival materials, to be used in his found-object assemblages and sculptural displays.
The process included a somewhat gruesome tour of the Medical Examiner's Office and a few dumpster-diving sessions. Johnson hired a local art historian to help him search through what he described as "some really important things, a lot of interesting stuff and a lot of junk." Among his findings are a document signed by Abraham Lincoln just weeks before his assassination, a map of the county from 1879 and bags of chads, the tiny paper circles that come from people punching out the holes on voter ballots.
"I realized that each one of the tiny pieces represented a vote," he said of the chads, which were creatively incorporated into one of the new pieces on view inside the Registrar of Voters office. "I thought that was pretty significant."
The pieces Johnson created range from beautiful light boxes made from stained-glass windows salvaged from the first-ever San Diego County Courthouse to rather mundane historical photo collages. In one of the works, he's enlarged an old-school voter stylus and cast it in acrylic, turning it into a gorgeous, modern-looking sculpture.
"When I started looking at all the objects, I realized it was all stuff that was casualties of the digital age," Johnson said of the ephemera he ended up including.
"I think it's important," said county Supervisor Ron Roberts of Johnson's work. "While it is art, it's history and a whole lot of other things."
Roberts, who has an architecture background and an interest in the arts, has taken the county's public-art program under his wing. He said the overall goal of the collection at the Operations Center was to show how artwork can become an integral part of a construction project. He said the county will include more public art in future projects.
"If you talk to employees or visitors, they know there's something a little different out there [at the Operations Center]—an added touch," Roberts said.