"Bakersfield isn't a very sophisticated town, is it," she said. It wasn't a question, just a statement of fact. We were tablemates at a nonprofit luncheon and had been talking about where she was from. "She" had just been transferred here from a much larger city that, apparently, was much more sophisticated.
"What do you mean," I asked, trying to keep the "how dare you" out of my voice.
"Well," she said, "in my city there are parks with sculptures, buildings where they display beautiful paintings, things like that."
Well, so does our city and, like most major and more sophisticated cities, art is right out in the open so that "She," you and I can see them anytime for free. Let's take a walk downtown.
Rabobank Arena and Rabobank Theater boast a beautiful and spacious plaza with magnificent sculptures of running horses. A decade ago, Jeanette Richardson-Parks was in charge of Bakersfield's Centennial Celebration Foundation and now heads the Arts Council of Kern. "That sculpture was sponsored by Tejon Ranch and created by local artist Eric Dobbs," says Richardson-Parks. "He designed them and had them carved from stone in Mexico." Also in the plaza is a metal sculpture titled "Pioneer Spirit," from local artist James T. Russell. Richardson-Parks remembers it was sponsored by the Ablin family. "George did that in Millie's honor," she says.
At the Beale Memorial Library is a sculpture of a mother bear and her cubs. A creation of San Francisco-based artist Beniamino Bufano, it was originally sculpted in the mid-1930s. Head librarian Nila Stearns says it arrived in 1988 and is a favorite with younger visitors. "Whenever we do tours the children gather at the bears," she says. "It's a marker in the library and we begin and end the tours there." Stearns says the children love the granite sculpture for more than its subject matter. "The consistency of the sculpture — it's smooth and round," she says. "The children will crawl up on the base and put their faces against it and feel the smoothness." After Bufano's death, his son inherited the right to cast pieces from the original, and this is one of them. Bakersfield received it from a San Francisco art foundation while retaining its own copy of "Bear with Cubs."
In Beach Park and visible from the corner of 24th and Oak streets is Cancer Survivor's Plaza and its multi-piece bronze sculpture by artist Victor Salmones representing the stages of cancer survivorship. "Cancer ... There's Hope" is valued at more than $100,000 and was a gift from Rich and Annette Block. Bringing it here was the project of the 1994-1995 Leadership Bakersfield class. Scott Garrison was part of that class project. "The deal was, if you provided everything else, they provided the sculpture," he says. "Our group had Tanya Abbott, our link to the American Cancer Society for the sculpture, and we got a lot of stuff donated." That group had a particular passion for the project. "One of our group was an architect, Nash Brown, who did the drawings for us," says Garrison. "Ironically, about a month after we started, Nash was diagnosed with cancer and died before we completed our Leadership year," she says. "Our team was inspired to complete the project and Nash's obituary requested donations to Cancer Survivor's Plaza."
As you cruise through downtown, you might be startled by a huge depiction of the Statue of Liberty splashed across the side of a building. That's the work of Tom Zachary who also painted the '50s mural on the old Woolworth's building on 19th Street, according to Cathy Butler of the Downtown Business Association. "Actually, the first mural (for downtown) was in Wall Street Alley," she says. "We had no money so we auctioned the 'faces' on the mural." Tony Saldano was the local artist for that creation.
Working from photos, Alfredo Cuellar painted the Armed Forces mural on the side of the American Legion Hall near 21st and H streets and also created the EMS mural downtown. That particular mural was sponsored by San Joaquin Community Hospital, Hall Ambulance, both firefighters unions and the Bakersfield Police Department.
It's a shame my luncheon partner didn't arrive here via airplane. Then she would have seen the beautiful art throughout the new William Thomas terminal. David Lloyd is the assistant executive director of the Arts Council of Kern and his wife, artist Gita Lloyd, crafted the Landscape Heritage Project. "It was painted specifically for the terminal and required months of scouting and painting," he says recalling the travel involved. "I remember her being up in Pine Mountain Club trying to do a painting in the rain, then over to Red Rock, then above McKittrick."
Bakersfield's public art is wholly sponsored by private entities, and therein lies the problem, says Richardson-Parks. "We don't have a percent for arts here in Kern County. In Sacramento, their airport art was all paid for from 2 percent of the cost of the airport. They spent $2 million. For the art we installed at the new terminal we spent less than $300,000."
And it was money well spent. Tejon Ranch paid for the tile wall and Greg Iger's stunning photography was paid for by Kern River water interests, including the Kern County Water Agency.
"There's no budget (for the arts) in any of the cities," says Richardson-Parks. "Taft is raising all its own private money for an art project as well." But the push for public art is growing. "Murals and public art are big tourist draws around Kern County," she says. "They're picking up on that."