Four underserved neighborhoods are now homes to new public art, compliments of The San Diego Museum of Art's lauded Open Spaces program.
Funded by an experimental grant from the James Irvine Foundation, Open Spaces launched in the summer of 2013 with an aggressive timeline for getting public artwork installed in the art-starved neighborhoods of Logan Heights, Lincoln Park, Lemon Grove and National City. Program coordinator Irma Esquivias says the fast-paced projects were challenging at times, but ultimately demonstrated how quickly and successfully community-driven art can happen. For each project, SDMA went to the neighborhoods with a team of area artists and set up a series of meetings in which attendees decided exactly how they'd spend $30,000. The community was also invited to hands-on workshops where they helped create the work.
"It was challenging because people aren't used to that level of involvement," Esquivias says. "People are more used to the process of, 'tell us what you're planning on doing and we'll tell you if we like it.' I think our method absolutely empowered communities to make public art."
National City resident and community leader Patricia Corona says the people who worked on the art project in her neighborhood feel a definite sense of pride and ownership. Residents created a series of butterfly sculptures currently being installed at Butterfly Park, Las Palmas Park, Kimball Park and Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. Together, the four National City locations are intended to celebrate the beauty of the area while also creating a new "Butterfly Path" they hope people will explore.
"There are around 90 butterflies total," Corona says of the vinyl-covered metal sculptures. "When we made them at the community workshops, families tended to work on their own butterflies, so now a lot of the families say, 'you know, our butterfly is right here,' so they feel very proud of what we've done."
The Lincoln Park community originally proposed a projected light sculpture at the dubbed "Four Corners of Death" intersection of Euclid and Imperial avenues, which has been plagued with shootings and other violence. The city of San Diego, though, sent them back to the drawing board, saying the light sculpture ultimately wouldn't make it through the official approval process due to traffic-safety concerns. Open Spaces artist-in-residence Roberto Salas returned to Lincoln Park and, with the help of artist Todd Stands, went through several iterations before the community embraced the final project. Positive words and phrases written in reflective vinyl in various languages were recently installed around the notorious intersection and in other prominent locations throughout the community.
"They're just words, but I think once you see them all together they work," Salas says. "Of course, it brings up that old argument of, 'is it signage or art?' And no, no it's not signage; it's art. In advertising they're selling things and in this, they are words of inspiration that came directly from the community."
In Lemon Grove, community members are working on painting a large-scale mural on both sides of the walls of a freeway underpass (disclosure: I live in Lemon Grove and attended a handful of Open Spaces meetings). Designed by artist Miguel Godoy, the mural pictures more than 15 varieties of locally grown flora and fauna that community members say have historical or symbolic meaning. The large, colorful mural is also meant to beautify a dark, dilapidated underpass that's been used as shelter by the city's homeless population and has become an intimidating place for kids to walk through on their way to school.
In Logan Heights, Salas and artist Misael Diaz helped the community use their $30,000 to get Radio Pulso del Barrio off the ground. The online station is completely managed and run by the community and features programming created by locals, including shows by members of the well-known art collectives, The Roots Factory and Voz Alta.
Esquivias says she's extremely proud of the four new public-art projects, but she's become an even bigger advocate of all the behind-the-scenes, collaborative work that went on.
"I think of the end result as the physical thing, the tangible thing," she says, "but I think about how important the process was for all of us—that's where the real work was. And I think for a lot of people they became involved in contributing to their own community for the first time. Yes, some were already highly involved, but others weren't."
She says Open Spaces also demonstrated a new, more public approach to art projects that local municipalities could mimic.
"I hope the different cities were able to see how important it is to work with the residents closely to find out what the real concerns are and find out how to support them with art," she says.