Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 4
Getting art in the openLocal nonprofits, institutions, and artists work toward beautifying North County with public art
BY JOE PAYNE
The sounds of heavy construction rattled from the corner of Cook and Broadway, the site of the new multiplex to be attached to the Town Center mall. Passersby gazed at the towering walls going up brick by brick, perhaps reminded that a new business is soon to open its doors in the heart of Santa Maria’s downtown.
Right across the street, in the Santa Maria Public Library’s Shepard Hall, where the sound of construction was muffled to nonexistence, a roundtable group discussed the future of the soon-to-be-completed building. The Santa Maria Arts Council and the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission held the roundtable to discuss public art in the North County—and Santa Maria specifically.
Powering the discussion were several members of the Santa Maria Arts Council, Santa Barbara County Arts Commission district representatives, nonprofit representatives, performing arts company representatives, professional artists, fine arts teachers, and county employees. Arts Council president Craig Shafer set the ball rolling for the topic at hand: “It’s not slamming Santa Barbara, but it’s true,” he said. “We are venue poor and public art poor in the North County.”
With that, the discussion began in earnest. Why are Santa Maria and the North County having a hard time keeping art galleries open? Why is there a perceived lack of public art projects here?
When the turn to speak came around to the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department’s own recreation supervisor Dennis Smitherman, he was ready to show the participants a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.
“I am really excited to be able to announce,” he said, “we are going to have some new public art at the theater location.”
When the city first struck a deal for the new movie theater project, the corner facing the intersection of Broadway and Cook became something of a blank canvas. The city is organizing with a landscape designer to shape and decorate the area, but the art slated to hang is already completed, Smitherman explained later.
“One is a 20-foot-long mural by local artist Diane Smith,” he said, “and we have four ceramic tile panels, similar to what you see on the overpasses to the freeway, and those were done by Mike McNutt at Rusted M Studio.”
Both works of art reflect Santa Maria and much of what makes the North County so special, highlighting local scenes from agriculture, wine tasting, fine food, aviation, and more.
“The Recreation and Parks Department has some great partnerships with the arts community,” Smitherman said, “and we definitely want to increase the beauty of Santa Maria, and we are definitely interested in working with the local art community.”
Back when Smith started working on her 20-foot-long mural, she was doing so for the Town Center Gallery; its intended home was the wall of the Big 5 building in Town Center West.
“In my art, I am a story teller,” she said. “I lean heavy towards illustration, so I wanted to tell a story and convey Santa Maria.”
Thanks to some grant money from the Santa Barbara Foundation, the muralist was able to receive some compensation for supplies and time spent, and the frame and Plexiglas cover for the piece have been acquired as well.
“I think public art to a city is the difference between a house and a home,” Smith said. “When you go into a house that is a home, there is some warmth there, and I believe public art makes the city a warmer place.”
Smitherman also stressed that the community recognizes that, despite the perceived lack of visual art, the city still has a great relationship with other media, including performing arts, as seen with the successful “Concerts in the Park Series.”
“We are also excited to announce that we are adding an additional two concerts to our ‘Concerts in the Park’ series,” he said at the meeting.
Smitherman is also involved with the People for Leisure and Youth, or P.L.A.Y., Inc., which promotes local arts events and exhibits and helps facilitate many of the recreational events the city provides. Smitherman and fellow Recreation and Parks Department and P.L.A.Y. Inc. organizer Teresa Rayburn together are hosts of a weekly radio show for P.L.A.Y. Inc. that relates upcoming events and activities for the community.
The show airs Saturdays at 9 a.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on KSMX 1240, and is also available as a free podcast download at santamariaatplay.org.
The city of Santa Maria may have a great face in public art when it comes to the Recreation and Parks Department, but many locals don’t rely on the city to fund and support their public art projects. Rather, they gain support from the community and organizations around them.
The city’s latest piece of public art currently available for viewing isn’t on the main drag, nor is it visible from a moving car, but it is a testament to the generosity and hard work of local artists, volunteers, and private donors.
The Santa Maria Museum of Flight has long included a section of the museum curated by the local chapter of the Ninety-Nines, a women’s aviators club. When deciding what to do with a long neglected patch of weeds and ice plant, the museum donated the space to the local chapter of the Ninety-Nines for their plans of a memorial park for historical woman aviators.
“We took a look at the patch, and we got excited about a memorial park,” said Ninety-Nines member and artist Sunni Gibbons, “and someone said, ‘We could put a mural up there,’ and then we had this idea.”
Gibbons, who had a career in graphic design before ultimately returning to fine art, set about designing the mural. Using digital art and rendering programs, she was able to combine historical photos and her art into several panels that illustrated a historical period in aviation.
“We didn’t have an external idea to say we needed more public art here; it really was an internal thing here at the museum,” Gibbons explained. “We had a need at the museum, and the idea came from that, and it turned into something grander than we ever imagined.”
The park is free and open to the public, and more than a mural has been incorporated into the space. The landscaping, benches, tables, informational pedestals, and bricks were all made possible by donations. The Santa Barbara County Arts Commission pitched in to get the mural panels printed, private donors—including the Gene and Edwin Woods Family Foundation—wrote checks to help pay for the landscaping, the Santa Barbara Foundation issued a grant for the tables and benches, and local Boy Scout Troup 87 helped with the manual labor of clearing out the weeds and ice plant and providing a clean slate for the project.
“It took a year and a half of fundraising,” Gibbons said. “We did raffles, a local pilot gave us a check, I raffled off a couple of my paintings, and I did some grant writing.”
Once the mural and park were completed, the Ninety-Nines had a dedication ceremony, which featured keynote speaker Lt. Susan J. Helms, the first U.S. military woman astronaut, who is now a commander at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The mural depicts many of Helms’ colleagues, as well as predecessors.
Now open to the public to view during regular museum hours, the Santa Maria Museum of Flight’s memorial park is a perfect example of what motivated locals can do when they get support from local arts organizations, as well as the community and neighborhood around them.
On the wall
The city of Lompoc has long been a prime example of how public art can help keep a city looking beautiful, but also make it a destination. Lompoc’s characteristic downtown area—which includes the historic Lompoc Museum, formerly the Carnegie Library—is an integral part of the city’s charm.
“Having public art like that,” Gibbons said, “just look at the example of Lompoc with all the murals. It is a real tribute to the city and the cultural status of the city.
“I think any chance to have public art like that is a welcome addition to the community,” she added.
The Lompoc Mural Society itself is a prime example of a group committed to providing beautiful public art. The group, which has been around since the early 1980s, has continued through the decades due to a dedicated membership and community support. But as time goes by, a whole new set of challenges arises for the volunteer organization.
“It didn’t cost that much initially to do the murals as it does now,” said Vicki Andersen, project administrator for the Lompoc Mural Society. “We have been here since the 1980s, and we need to maintain what we do have; there’s always ongoing maintenance at any time.”
The Lompoc Mural Society happily receives support from the city of Lompoc with a “Round Up” option on city utilities bills. Members of the community can choose to round their payment up to the nearest dollar, with the Lompoc Mural Society receiving the extra cents.
“Anybody who lives in Lompoc or who has property in Lompoc can choose to round up,” Andersen said. “That’s been wonderful for us on a monthly basis; it puts money in our accounts!”
The Lompoc Mural Society also receives support from local businesses in the way of funds and from the city attorney’s office in the way of contracts and permits. When a public art organization is supported on many levels, it can even lead to the emergence of smaller organizations.
“There are other murals in town that weren’t done through us, so it kind of caught on,” Andersen said. “We pretty much just stuck to all the murals having something to do with Lompoc history.”
Though the society has seen many members come and go over the years due to moving away—but mostly old age—Andersen explained, the organization has seen some new membership.
“Now our membership is more just regular people who want to support the murals and the artists,” she said. “There’s this misconception that everybody in the mural society has to be an artist; well, you don’t have to be.
“We have a nice reputation here,” she continued. “Over the years the community has come to own it and enjoy it.”
Allan Hancock College has always served as an artistic hub in the city of Santa Maria. The Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts, for one, makes Santa Maria a destination spot. But fine arts teachers and volunteers under the name Art on Campus are proving that the college itself can serve as a piece of fine public art and lead the surge toward more.
“What we’re attempting to do is establish a permanent collection of the existing art on our campus,” said Hancock gallery director Marti Fast. “The second element is that we have a lot of new construction coming online, and a lot of new buildings being designed by the architects that include spaces for art.”
Many pieces of art have been bought and donated by administrators and staff of the college, which also holds many historical photos and images of or related to G. Allan Hancock. And the new children’s center building will actually include interactive art for the children to take part in making.
“The whole idea is that public art makes our college more engaging and visually stimulating,” Fast said. “We want our students and our faculty and everybody who visits the campus to find a connection with the college.”
Many local artists have a connection with college, either because they work there or have studied there, or just because they are familiar with the fine arts department. For instance, local artist Craig Trapp, though not a teacher at the college, just finished a new mural on the campus to replace his older piece that had become weathered.
“Part of it is there’s been a real commitment on the part of the fine arts staff to be present and active in the community,” Fast said.
Many local arts projects include involvement from Hancock fine arts staff. Bob Nichols, Fast explained, is involved with the Santa Barbara Foodbank’s Empty Bowls. Mike McNutt, the artist whose ceramic tiles will hang with Smith’s mural at the new movie theater, is a staff member in the ceramics department. Fine arts instructor John Hood is also a Santa Barbara County Arts Commissioner.
“Pulling people together, our common humanity, and being able to connect with one another in meaningful ways is what art does so beautifully and better than anything else,” Fast said. “And I think we cultivate that and it makes the world a better place—better designed, better organized, freer, and happier.”
The greatest thing that the community can do to make Santa Maria a place more friendly to public art is get aware and get involved. A letter to a city representative, a proposal at a city council meeting, talking to a county arts commissioner, or offering support to a local arts organization are all surefire ways to help support artistic beautification.
“The Santa Barbara County Arts Commission has a beautiful relationship with the city of Santa Barbara,” said Francis Dawson, artist and 5th district representative for the commission. “The city of Santa Barbara has got together and decided that the arts are vital to sustaining economic growth and making it a place people want to live, and make communities feel that life is happening here on a dynamic level.”
Dawson, a young artist who specializes in landscape design and “living walls,” delivered the initial concept art for the project at the corner of Cook and Broadway. As a district representative, he’s open to listening to any and all questions, suggestions, or ideas regarding public art and the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission.
“Things are changing, but there are some really beautiful things that are happening between groups,” he said. “I think within the next couple of years we are going to see a really huge boom in the arts and how organizations work together.”
And that’s how many chose to view the joint SMAC and SBCAC meeting: as the beginning of a dialogue between the movers and shakers in county art and the community that desires it. People can only appreciate what they’re aware of, and no matter how they stay informed or get involved, the conversation is open. Many ears are listening.
Contact Arts Editor Joe Payne at email@example.com.