San Diego’s Parks Come Alive With Art

On a recent Saturday in May, the sounds of salsa music drifted through the air in San Diego’s Fault Line Park, a small community park in the city’s East Village neighborhood. A group of residents swayed to the rhythms, dancing down the grass-lined paths. As they made their way across, they collected wooden blocks that formed a wall at one end of the park and carried them to the other end, where they reconstructed it. Titled “Walking the Wall,” the communal performance is artist Tim Murdoch’s contribution to Park Social, a six-month-long citywide arts initiative that features 18 site-specific artworks throughout 28 parks in San Diego.

“I wanted the concept of a wall that never rests,” Murdoch told Hyperallergic. The artist fashioned the hundreds of boxes used in the performance from shipping pallets, highlighting a dichotomy between borders as sites of exclusion or sites of exchange, between mobility and separation. “Pallets travel across borders much easier than people do,” Murdoch added.

The combined border cities of Tijuana and San Diego make up the largest binational region in the country, giving this project special significance. “Walking the Wall” will be performed two more times over the next few months, at North Park Community Park in July and at Balboa Park in November.

Keenan Hartsten, “Honeycomb Harmonies”

Planning for Park Social began two years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, along with the companion program SD Practice, through which the city acquired 100 new works from 89 San Diego area artists. Jonathon Glus, executive director of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture, says Park Social was driven by two goals: supporting individual artists who may have lost significant income, and activating park space that was a safer alternative to indoor gatherings.

“We knew that the parks would be our gathering space,” he said. “Because of the weather, the scale and diversity of parks, they’re beloved here.” San Diego’s park system covers 42,000 acres of public space, making it one of the largest in the country.

The Commission for Arts and Culture put out a call for submissions and gathered a group of arts professionals to select proposals. Glus says they were focused on diversity not only in terms of the chosen ones, but also in the artists types of projects and their geography. While roughly a third of the artists selected were Latinx, in line with San Diego census figures, Asian and Black American representation in Park Social was less reflective of the city’s demographics.

Sheena Rae Dowling and Yvette Roman, “Collective Memory” project

In response to an inquiry about the process for selecting artists, Christine Jones, chief of civic art strategies for the City’s Commission for Arts and Culture, told Hyperallergic via email: “To promote the and cultivate potential applicants, the City intentionally targeted outreach to Areas historically underserved, within the San Diego Promise Zone and other communities of concern reflective of the region’s diversity.”

“The City undertakes intentional work to cultivate opportunities and expand networks that have not benefited everyone, and we will continue to do the work,” Jones added.

Park Social officially launched on May 21, but the 18 projects — ranging from performance and sculpture to sound-based works — will unfold across the city’s park over the summer and fall, some existing only for a weekend and others remaining for a longer period. Some projects highlight parks’ potential to bring different communities together, while others view them as sites for solitary contemplation. Margaret Noble’s “Locked Groove,” for instance, covers the border of Plumosa Park with geometric chalk designs that can be paired with soundscapes accessed through an app. For his Paletas Mobile Lab project (one of two tributes to paleteros, Traditional Mexican ice pop vendors), artist and educator Mario Mesquita will gather stories of perseverance over the past two years in exchange for paletas, with the collected stories shared at a closing event. “Honeycomb Harmonies” by Keenan Hartsten, conceived for six different parks, featuring a traveling musical installation glockenspiels and other instruments within a hexagonal stage framed by tire totems.

Sheena Rae Dowling and Yvette Roman, “Collective Memory” project

For their project “Collective Memory,” artists Yvette Roman and Sheena Rae Dowling are holding workshops that invite participants to weave a “memory dome” out of garments they donate, culminating in a picnic at San Ysidro Community Park on July 16 held at the dome surrounded by blankets also woven from gathered clothes. “Using clothing as our main medium invites a sense of touch and being close that we struggled without [over the past two years],” Dowling told Hyperallergic. “Clothes have stories embedded within them.”

Inside the dome will hang 400 fabric strips stamped with words that describe the pandemic submitted by local residents, offering an intimate space to process collective grief. Outside, the blankets will provide a space for more communal exchange. “Family and community come together through gatherings. That had been taken away [by the pandemic]Roman said. “We tried to create a project that was a celebration, but also a space where people could regroup, recalibrate, and re-find themselves.”

Marisol Rendón and Ingram Ober, “In Collaboration with the Passerby” project (photo courtesy the artists)

Mario Torero, who was instrumental in the founding of two iconic sites of Chicanx culture in San Diego over 50 years ago — Chicano Park and the Centro Cultural de la Raza — is creating “Toltec Totems” with collaborator Sarah Bella Mondragon. The four wooden monuments celebrating established and emerging Chicanx artists will be topped with Aztec, Inca, and Mayan symbols. Placed throughout Balboa Park, the site of the Centro Cultural, they will exist as educational and interactive beacons, places for dance, music, and art performances, according to Mondragon. It’s also a way to invite parkgoers who may not have ever visited the Centro to see what happens inside.

“It’s an opportunity not just to broadcast our existence and our 51st anniversary, but also to let other people know about who we are, what we are doing, and our history. It’s a way of educating and interacting with the public,” Torero said.

Marisol Rendón and Ingram Ober, “In Collaboration with the Passerby” project (photo courtesy the artists)

While several of the artworks are located in well-used community parks, artist duo Marisol Rendón and Ingram Ober have chosen the Otay Valley Regional Park, a 200-acre rugged swath of popular land with hikers and cyclists. The untamed stretch is also “home to marginalized populations, the homeless, graffiti artists, and anyone looking to escape the urban setting and be out of the public eye,” says Ober, noting it is also frequented by endangered species traveling along the Otay River . “The basis of the project was identifying the communities that are being served by the park.”

Rather than create static works to be viewed by the public, the pair created three five-foot-diameter spheres with the hope that they will accumulate signs of interaction with those communities. Near a homeless encampment where they had found “very specific aesthetic solutions” of debris, they placed an open sphere made of reclaimed metal. “We were mesmerized by what we were seeing, these moments of grace in this wasteland,” Rendón said.

A concrete sphere was placed near a site popular with taggers as an enticing ground for graffiti art, while the last sphere made of non-native plants was set atop a stump in a grove of Eucalyptus, itself non-native to the area.

“We were excited by the possibility of building something that could be transformed, destroyed, and not knowing what could happen to an object,” Rendón said.

San Diego’s Park Social initiative will run through November 20.

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