From its beaches to urban places, California inspires the imagination with plazas, fountains and wall spaces containing public art. While murals depicting local scenes steal the show as one of the tourist favorites, California is also filled with abstract sculptures by famous artists whose works appear in New York, London, and points west. Sometimes the sculptures compliment architectural attractions such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, an art piece unto itself.
Painted murals have helped rural destinations such as Oakhurst re-invent itself. Lompoc also has many murals, pretty to look at after the flower fields diminished. One of California’s all-time favorite muralists is Wyland, who has painted nearly 100 ocean-themed murals in what is referred to as Whaling Walls. Wyland met commercial success with his paintings, sculptures and conservation oriented message, then used that as a platform to involve the community in Whaling Wall projects where youngsters are often invited to paint portions of the murals. The largest Wyland mural is on the exterior wall of Long Beach Arena, and you will find other Whaling Walls at San Francisco’s Pier 39, Redondo Beach AES power plant (shown in photo) and even one in Laguna Beach next to his art gallery.
When you travel California, be sure to keep your eyes open for public art. Sometimes the items are simply a gift a sister city has given a community such as a”peace pole”. Other times you may pass by a sculpture and learn that the artwork has a story and controversy behind it, such as “The Magic Carpet Ride”, a sculpture in Cardiff at Highway 101 and Chesterfield Dr. $92,000 was raised and spent by Cardiff-by-the-Sea Botanical Society, commissioning artist Matthew Antichevich to create a bronze sculpture of a male surfer riding a wave. Controversial even before it was dedicated, the surf community was appalled by the surfer’s funky form and effeminate surfing style, they said. The bronze took on the name, “Cardiff Kook”, and has been dressed in a bikini and wrestling mask by protesters who think the sculpture is lame.
Another surf statue in Huntington Beach called “Ultimate Challenge” that nobody thinks is lame, has similarly sparked controversy when someone complained after several decades of its public display on Pacific Coast Highway and Huntington St. that if you take a sneak peak, you will see the surfer’s penis–he’s not wearing any clothes. Discussion actually ensued and a recommendation was made to put a pair of shorts on the bronze statue to cover the surfer’s private parts. Thankfully, outrage and protest over such a suggestion nixed the idea.
Public art can educate, entertain, and spark controversy. In California, expect to see statues and murals of surfers, whales and piers at the beach; carved bears, Bigfoot and Paul Bunyan in the wooded forests; abstract shapes in high-rise cities; rural scenes depicting nature, agriculture and history in the country; and at any turn, you may see something completely unexpected. That’s the beauty of public art–billions of dollars worth of it appearing in California’s public spaces.