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Artful beaches: redesigning a California park

TODAY there is a fairly new breed of visual artist who is not content to solely produce in the studio and endure the isolation and alienation usually associated with the career of an artist. For this breed, it is no longer desirable to emulate the career of the long-suffering 19th-century garreted artist so well exemplified by Vincent van Gogh. Artists have been searching for means by which they can interact more completely with society. These artists are known as public artists, for their concerns are just that - public.

Artistic antecedents for the thrust toward public art lie in the early work of Isamu Noguchi and Herbert Bayer. As early as the 1940s, both artists designed sculptural approaches to parks and playgrounds. The earth was being treated as the canvas and raw material for the first time since ancient man.

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This concern for working with the earth, truly the public domain, blossomed in the 1960s with the work of Robert Smithson, considered the father of Earthwork Art. In its evolution since then, public art has shed its minimalist roots and has reestablished a continuum with Classical, Baroque, and Beaux Arts architectural modes. The visual arts and the built environment have been evolving as a more integrated vision.

In response to an outburst of public support of visual art, bureaucracies such as Art in Public Places programs have sprung up to manage public funding for the arts and to direct these often highly complicated projects that impinge upon local political issues.

A project, recently completed in Isla Vista, near Santa Barbara, Calif., exemplifies the transition of visual art from the studio to public places. Set on eroding cliffs, the park overlooks a breathtaking expanse of sea and sky and stretches along approximately 400 feet of beach footage. Isla Vista has a large student and ethnically diverse population of low- to moderate-income renters who give the park heavy use. The park area itself encompasses two governmental jurisdictions.

Restoring Sea Look Out Park became necessary when the eroding bluffs posed safety problems to park users and a liability threat to county government. The Santa Barbara County Arts Commission and the Park Department co-sponsored the restoration project.

Fronting onto one of the world's richest offshore oil deposits, the site has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for the county since 1969. Inadvertently the ARCO Company, as the supplier of these monies, funded this public art project.

It has been a tremendously successful venture at collaboration on many levels. Not only did Lloyd Hamrol, a Los Angeles-based public artist, work with architect Cem Centindis, contractors, engineers, carpenters, and bureaucrats; he also melded together two pieces of land governed by very different regulations.

The agencies responsible for these parcels had never worked together. The community of Isla Vista was a special one, with quite a politically colorful history. During the 1960s it was a major hotbed of student unrest.

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Through a comprehensive plan of meetings, coordinated by the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, between the community, the artist, and the agencies involved, a mutual trust grew and ensured the success of the project. Hamrol met with several civic groups and individuals in formal meetings, lectures, and one on one in the park itself. Hamrol had been directly invited by the Arts Commission, based on his prior artwork sited throughout the nation.

Lloyd Hamrol's restoration design divided the site into zones of activity. An active zone defined by a large grassy area and decomposed granite paths was sloped gently toward the street border for good surface drainage and provided for sporting activities. A passive zone was created for sea and sun worshiping on the bluff side by a swath of sand establishing the only clean beach in Isla Vista, 35 feet above the ocean. (The local beaches suffer from the chronic oil seepage generated by the offshore drilling facilities.)

This ``beach'' was constructed like a pond, with a vinyl liner installed to gather rain and irrigation water and drain it onto the street through a closed drainage system. In the sand area there are three wooden recreational platforms of different sizes and descriptions. Reminiscent of rafts or sleds, they can be relocated if the bluff retreats enough through general erosion to require it. Conceiving the platforms as public gathering places, Hamrol intertwined the practical and the symbolic.

``Their presentation as rafts addresses both their movement in the event of bluff retreat and their fictional role as vessels of survival,'' he explains. Each raft offers a different seating experience by which one views the ocean and mountains. Identified by a particular masthead motif, vaguely Japanese-inspired, the rafts are echoed by the ceremonial entranceway into the park. To avoid using an earlier prescribed chain-link fence, a planting zone of thorny indigenous bushes was established a short distance from the existing bluff edge, as a natural safety barrier.

The west end of the park site presented a set of different problems. Owned by the Isla Vista community, watered only by seasonal rainfall, this property contained a small vernal pool. This sensitive habitat, with its fragile microsystem of rare plant species, interested many people in the community and nearby university. The finished proposal brought color and vitality to this neglected portion of the site with a mixed palette of perennial native shrubs, arranged to frame the pool zone so that both its springtime presence and absence could be noted.

The restoration project, accepted by both the community and the project review panel, was both a social and bureaucratic challenge: demonstrating that art can bring different cultures and peoples together for the benefit of the community as a whole. The Isla Vista community has a unique ambiance and value system. As the artist best suited to understand all of these particulars, who would be sensitive to the community, Lloyd Hamrol produced a design that is more than the work itself. Sea Look Out Park became special to Isla Vista in an appropriate sense. It has provided a new vocabulary and quality which will grow into other parts of Isla Vista, thereby having lasting influences.

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