Craig Stone: Making Places Public

8:30am | Craig Stone is a celebrated artist, best known locally for Shadows Casting on the Shore. He's also a long time professor at CSULB, teaching both Fine Art and Native American Studies.

Today he'll be overseeing the installation of "Image Emergence: Promenade of Clouds," a new public art work on the Promenade. The work, now three years in the making, is part of a larger reworking of the walkway by landscape architect Jon David Cicchetti, which begins on the North side of Ocean Boulevard with a sidewalk mosaic by Cicchetti that connects to sidewalk LithoMosaics by Robin Brailsford in the newly improved Transit Mall and continues North from there to the City Place parking structure. 

Sander: Tell me a little bit about the initial process of the proposal, the request for proposals. What were they looking for? What were they asking for? And how did you engage in that initial, early discussion?

Craig: One thing that people are probably very unaware of when it comes to things that are built in the public sphere is that there’s often what’s called a RFP, a Request for Proposal. And that proposal, whether it’s for a contractor or whether it’s for an artist, it spells out very specifically what type of thing they’re looking for. They provide a very specific materials list. Stainless steel, concrete, and mosaic were some of the materials.

For this particular project people will be driving on Ocean, and we want to signal people in, so they specified vertical elements coming up that would be large scale to signal to people that there’s something here, that something different is taking place here. So they had specific requirements.

Thematically, they were interested in outer space, the future, and looking to the heavens and then, perhaps, from the heavens, looking back to Earth. So, we were given a set of constraints like that. The central block had a different theme, and it was “where we are right now,” but ours was to look to the future.

In thinking about looking to the future, if you take everything that’s happening right now, and people’s conjecture of what the future will look like, what typically happens is you end up with something like George Jetson. It becomes something that’s dated pretty quickly. It’s about this moment’s idea of what the future might look like. But, if you actually think about what will have resonance in the future, it’s usually those things that have had resonance since ancient times, and all the way through 'til now.

So we were looking at structures, at spiral structures, at things that radiate from a central point, like a radial structure. What have people looked at to decide or interpret what the future might be like? There are a few things we ended up referencing in the piece.

There’s flocks of birds coming together. From ancient times, and in both Western and Native American traditions, one can interpret those flocks and those images to predict the future. People do the same thing with clouds. People often talk about things within clouds. Seeing things in patterns is something that’s kind of the basic core. We call this idea “emergence.” People will look at a cloud and, in something that’s just disorder, they begin to see order. So, they begin to see images. In that way, clouds can function like Rorschach tests, and whatever you’re thinking about will influence what you see in this seemingly disorder. So, that became the theme for the project that we ended up proposing.

I say “we” because, in Public Art, Public Art’s really a collaborative effort. You’re an individual artist but you’re collaborating with landscape architects, graphic designers, community members, and different government agencies. You’re always involved in a process where there’s always feedback, a back and forth. In many ways it’s closer to a design process rather than just the individual artist having his or her vision and then taking it out of their studio and plopping it. There’s a lot of artwork that’s like that but, in some public art models, our interest is really in this kind of collaborative situation. Even though it’s “quote” my project, you’re always working with other people.

Sander: When you’re moving through this process of first-engagement with a proposal, formulating your ideas, and then presenting them, how much back and forth, really, is there? I mean, do you have an opportunity, as an artist, even before you put the proposal together, to actually talk to business owners, residents, community members? Do you have that opportunity? Do they create that opportunity for you?

Craig: Sometimes it’s structured into the program. Belmont Shore’s a good example. There are all these different constituencies in Belmont Shore. There’s no such thing as a community. There are constituencies. You have residents, business owners, people in restaurants and bars, school children, folks who come for recreational purposes, and there’s the shoppers.

In that situation I would go and have meetings with all these different groups. In other projects, you might do something for the Department of Transportation, and in a situation like that, there may have been a whole lot of research and community meetings that preceded what you do. They give you a binder and, in it, you’d read about all the ideas and concerns that the community has had. They have people from those groups who are on the selection panel. There’s feedback that happens there.

In some situations there may be a lot of community interaction before, in other situations the artist is doing that community interaction, and in other situations like we did when they did this opening of the park, we did a feedback situation there where we showed our proposal. The people who are actually in this community right here, one block away on the Promenade, we got their feedback. So that’s the way that this project has proceeded. They’re all different.

Sander: There’s a balance, obviously, because you don’t want the community to become like a hands-on design collaborator. At the same time, you want to understand what the character of the place is. Do you know what I mean?

Craig: Yeah. It’s a curious thing because, in some situations, you want the community really engaged. In other situations it’s so vast it would really be crazy. The artist is selected because the artist has certain aesthetic qualifications and a certain attention to thought and detail about production, about making things.

People will say that the thought per square foot of an architect might be so much thought per square foot but, for an artist, it’s generally assumed that the thought per square inch is probably equal to the thought per square foot. For some artists, they’re better off not interacting with anyone. For some artists, they really need to interact with other people.

The kind of art that I do, at least in the public arena, is to try to use what’s existing there, the street or the concrete, and bring it together. I try to create something that seems integral to that place.

The older model is something they call “plop art.” That’s usually what happens when people try to create difference in urban areas. They buy these things, whether made by an artist or by somebody else, and they just bolt it down to the concrete. But there doesn’t seem to be any kind of integral relationship. If you can bolt it down you can just kind of bolt it off.

That gets us into the second concept: Artist-added value. All the people who design and build things come out of design backgrounds. They’re landscape architects, or signage designers, or graphic designers, industrial designers, architects. They’ve been trained in a particular way and, in their training, what happens is that there is a tendency for people to evolve to an efficiency model. The efficiency creates: What’s easiest? What’s the simplest way to do it? What’s the most effective way to do it? We want the biggest bang for our buck. There’s a tendency for people to make things that are really sharp and crisp. And it’s really interesting, well-thought out, stuff.

There are a bunch of codes that drive this. If you build in the public sphere, there are all these codes that you have to adhere to. In California, the joke is that we design our cities to make automobiles happy. We design our parking lots to make automobiles happy on the biggest shopping day of the year, as opposed to trying to design our cities to make the human experience of our cities enhancing, you know, or enjoyable.

There are all these kinds of ideas out there in urban design. The artist-added value is that the artist can come into a project and collaborate with a landscape architect, or with an architect, or be on a design team, and collaborate in a way that other people aren’t going to do.

That gets us into this third concept: A sense of place. Because we have these codes, because people design for efficiency, one of the things people have said about urban art’s existence is, “So this worked really well over here. We’ll repeat it over there. We’ve already got the design. It won’t cost so much. Here’s the same thing.” You end up getting all the same designs, all the same stuff, repeated. It’s like franchised things, you know, like Starbuck’s or McDonald’s. There’s a certain comfort level that they’re the same but, in terms of you having a sense of place, like what makes where you live different, if you’re just repeating all this stuff, it actually disorients people.

You can think of going to a city you’re unfamiliar with, and how quickly you become disoriented, unless there’s some kind of landmark, unless there’s something that’s tangibly different. Belmont Shore is an interesting example because it has all of those stained shadows. All the stained shadows give Belmont Shore a sense of place that is unique. You don’t see stained shadows from parking meters anywhere else that I’m aware of.

If you create a sense of place, it creates a sense of civic pride and ownership, and people know their boundaries. This is our community. And when it’s our community then there’s a sense that it’s different, that it’s unique and, because of that, they care about it, and they need to take care of it.

Jack Mackie is an artist that I really like, and I like him as a theorist too. Twenty years ago, he said that public art is the art of making places public. To do this, the art would help create public conversations or interactions. It would stimulate, in some way, people to interact in the public sphere in ways that they don’t interact normally. So the artist-added value in Belmont Shore would be that when kids walk down the street with their parents, those little kids would see the shadows and start some dialogue. They haven’t seen it anywhere else. They would start conversations.

Jack has a certain criteria. He says, “People talk to each other. People start dancing. People kiss and embrace. People sleep.” So he’s saying if you have a public space and you can create those responses in people, if the comfort level is there to interact with people you have not interacted with before, then that’s the value.

Sander: When we were looking at the site, I began to understand the scale of the pieces, and the scale of the whole thing. You were talking about the mural at the North end of the Promenade that’s on the South-facing wall of the parking structure at City Place, and how you were really trying to connect your work to it. How does your work fit into this interesting space that’s been created for it?

Craig: When I’m approaching art in public places, I’m not thinking of making objects. I’m thinking about creating an experience that won’t be the same each time. In Belmont Shore, depending where you walk, you’re going to encounter different kinds of images. You really have to walk all over to see it in its entirety.

I get phone calls or emails from people who tell me, “Oh, I just saw that you put a new shadow in,” even though we may have put it in a long time ago. So, that’s the idea. We’re creating an experience that’s going to change each time you see it. That’s one thing I’m trying to do here.

There are these sculptures and they are really large, like 12 foot by 16 feet tall in the front, right off of Ocean. Then they diminish, they get smaller as they go North. These are images of clouds, and then there’s sculptures which are in the shape of clouds, and then within those clouds there are all these images. They work almost like a film negative. They are up at least ten feet above your head, and it casts these shadows, and the shadows create these images.

When people walk, some look up, some look down. When you look down, depending on the lighting conditions, you would start seeing images in the shadow of these clouds. And, so there’s this sense that no matter what day you came, or time of night, you would have a different experience. That’s very different from taking something and just bolting it in place.

In addition to the actual shadows, we’ll be staining shadows into the surface of the walkway. People might be fooled into thinking it’s an actual shadow. The illusionary aspect is something I’m very interested in because it makes people begin to look at how they perceive things. They look at one shadow that I’ve stained. They begin to look at another shadow. They begin to look at these interactions. They become more aware of their environment.


This is the first installment of my conversation with Craig Stone. In the next installment, we'll delve into his career.

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