By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Area artists featured in library exhibit
One hundred years ago, San Diego was experiencing a situation that today’s residents feel all too familiar with –– severe drought. Out of desperation, the city council of the time hired Charles Hatfield, a self-proclaimed “moisture accelerator” with an uncanny record of success.
The result of the city’s desperate act became known as “Hatfield’s Flood” because whether through Hatfield’s rain-making process or by a plain, old act of nature, more than 30 inches of rain fell in a period of four weeks resulting in homes and bridges being wiped out, dams collapsing and farming communities being swept away.
In the spirit of Hatfield’s time and with our own drought looming large in our consciousness, the Art Gallery on the ninth floor of the San Diego Library is presenting “Rainmaker” –– a collection of works by 12 artists that focuses on themes of water, drought, history and the future which runs through Nov. 29. Two of the featured artists have strong ties to East County and are known for their works involving water and rain.
Even if you are not familiar with his name, almost everyone in the eastern parts of San Diego county is familiar with Jim Wilsterman’s art. Driving down state Route 125 near Grossmont College, where Wilsterman works as a sculpture professor, you can’t help but notice one of his more public art pieces –– the cloud-adorned water tower used by the Helix and Padre Dam water districts.
“The people in this area are the only people who can see where their water comes from in San Diego because they can see the clouds over the mountains and that rain goes directly into the water system. So the clouds on the tank were about that,” said Wilsterman, adding that the tank’s unusual color was also a conscious decision.
“The other thing we did, that was an environmental thing, was not paint it, which a lot of people didn’t understand, but by not painting, it saved the amount of pollution that 100 cars put out in a year,” he said.” That’s how much volatiles are in the paint that they have to use on water tanks.”
Instead of painting the water tank a traditional sky blue, the design team used a metal alloy of copper and iron that prevents rusting on the inside and also gives it its unique color on the outside, which starts out a rusty color but will turn to an earthy brown-black over time, he said.
The earthy tones of the water tank are very similar to the look of the pieces Wilsterman created for the Rainmaker exhibit. The long, rectangular, steel-framed, glass cases in the library art gallery hold what appears, at first, to be pieces of the earth recently battered by a rain storm. However, the pieces are actually created by allowing rain to fall on a smooth pulp made from the fiber used in auto filters and paper money.
“I wanted to capture rain directly, the impact of rain on the earth,” he said. “When I first did it, I thought it didn’t work because it would just be a puddle of water. So I pushed it aside and let it dry and as it sunk down the craters stayed.”
Wilsterman’s interest in capturing the rain started with noticing the effects rain had on the earth following local fires. “My concern was, right after we had those fires, the effects that fire and development has had on the area and the cycles of regeneration that occurs after rain finally comes.”
After the rain makes its effect on the pulp mixture, Wilsterman uses ash and soil from the scorched earth to give his pieces their color. He also sometimes uses items he finds from the fires, such as burnt feathers, melted firefighter badges, coins and other debris. But even without the added elements to the pieces, the raindrops themselves create stunning images.
“It’s pretty interesting. There are infinite variations because the rains are never the same. Sometimes there will be just three drops or four drops and others I have to pull out of the rain because it would just flood the piece.”
All of Wilsterman’s works are dated with the day they were exposed to rain and in the past he even kept track of the amount of rainfall there was to a particular storm, the duration of the storm and other data, but he stopped sharing that information because he didn’t want the public to look on his art in a scientific way.
“To me, when people look at this, I want them to experience it as a visual thing, a tactile thing,” he said. “I want people to respond to this in a more emotive way.”
Besides his rain-capture art and the water tank, Wilsterman has created other water-related projects including the Pacific Beach Library seashells, art for a park in La Costa that deals with water and an exhibit demonstrating the difference between modern lo-flow and 1970’s toilets.
“It had a button kids could press to flush it and it had little Mylar fish swimming around,” he said. “It was cute, but it got the point across.”
Getting his point across about our dry environment and how our water use effects it is one of the main reasons he creates the art that he does.
“I’m trying to get people to think about our environment and our rain cycles here,” he said. “I grew up here so I’m used to not having a lot of rain. I think a lot of people that live here are not from here so they are not used to our chaparral environment. Up until recently, they wanted to put in big lawns and try and make the environment something it wasn’t.”
San Carlos artist Sheldon Wood has been producing art in one form or another her entire life but only in the last five years has she participated in the juried competitions at the San Diego Art Institute that got her discovered by Susan Myrland, the curator of the Rainmaker exhibit.
For Rainmaker, Myrland chose Wood’s piece titled, “Drought Dreams.”
The art piece was created by layering large watercolor paintings on top of each other and then carving away pieces to “see what’s interesting” inside, said Wood.
Wood said she drew inspiration for this series of 3D watercolors from artist Maya Lin, who is known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as well as trips to the thermal pools in Yellowstone National Park.
“Over time I became interested in problems of water and the lack thereof,” she said. “Drought Dreams” was the first in a series of 12 art pieces that relate to water, she said.
Besides the abstract watercolor series, Wood also paints oil on panel “in a realistic manner.”
“My focus is on human interaction with the natural environment,” she said, adding that she draws inspiration from art museums, books, travel and “taking pictures of interesting sites for possible artwork subject matter.”
Wood spent 15 years working as a graphic artist before turning to fine arts. In addition to her travels and her painting, she also volunteers as an art docent and reading tutor for the Santee School District.