The massive sculpture breathes new live into La Verne’s public art initiative.
by Jennifer Cuevas
photography by Courtney Droke
It is 6 a.m., and five workers in hard-hats wait patiently near a gigantic yellow crane, a few jumbo mustard-colored trucks and a large blue forklift. Two parking entrances nearest the University of La Verne’s Wilson Library are blocked off. Campus security has surrounded the location with caution tape.
As sun rays begin to peek through the sky, the Sara and Michael Abraham Student Center building’s copper-like panels and rows of spotless glass sparkle with luster. One cannot help but feel that something significant is about to happen. Curious passersby—local walkers, ULV students preparing for class, faculty and staff—gather to see what the commotion is about on campus.
Chip West, executive director campus center and capital planning, paces back and forth. He is the person responsible for the success of the installation of La Verne’s newest landmark—a giant sculpture titled, “Inhale/Exhale” by Phillip K. Smith, III. This is also history in the making. It is the University’s first major public art piece. And the installation orchestration demands military precision. “Oh my God, I’m getting gray hair just standing here! You know, there’s no manual to do this,” West says anxiously.
Just then, “it” appears in sight—an 18-wheeler big-rig loaded with a 54 foot piece of art near the proposed installation spot. The driver sits patiently and waits for the word to move the massive structure closer to the crane. This involves driving at an extremely slow speed and guidance from the artist himself, to avoid scratching the fiberglass sculpture as it threads its way through protected branches of the historic Oak tree, which presides grandly near the whole affair.
After the one-piece sculpture, boxed in the wooden crate, is moved closer to the crane (much like a surgeon making precise, deliberate incisions), the crane operator consults his team and confirms, move-by-move, the coming process, which will get “Inhale/Exhale” to its permanent home in the heart of the ULV campus. The crane operator delicately but confidently lifts the sculpture from its spot in a vertical fashion, straight into the sky. It is remarkable and suspenseful to watch.
Suspended, “Inhale/Exhale” is taller than the surrounding buildings. The crowd emits ’’Ahhs” as they witness the dynamic structure dangling in mid-air. It is a daunting task to lower the sculpture to its waiting foundation. The actual process takes two tries, and every witness cheers when it connects.
This sculpture not only marks the campus’ first major public art piece, but it officially puts the city of La Verne on the map for high-end public art in the County of Los Angeles. “Inhale/Exhale” now adorns the west entrance of the student center with its sister sculpture “Clarity” in the Muriel Pollia Public Square Sculpture Garden. The sculptures are both the work of Indio-based artist Phillip K. Smith, III through a special commission by the Muriel Pollia Foundation, in partnership with ULV.
The man behind the sculptures
Artist Phillip K. Smith, III is at the pulse of modern art and architecture and has been doing so for nearly two decades. The son of an interior designer and developer, Smith has always been passionate about modern design and art and blends them seamlessly in his own creations. After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 1996 with bachelors’ degrees in both fine arts and architecture, Smith worked for more than a decade on the east coast at architectural firms. Smith eventually returned to his beloved desert oasis where he was raised, and started a private firm, “The Art Office” in the city of Indio in 2000, which combines both work for public art commissions and architectural designs.
“I was living on the east coast for 10 years but grew up in the desert. The desert has a very interesting quality of light. The color palate forms in relation to the horizon line and has a general sense of openness and freedom. Also built into this landscape is its rawness. When you are in the desert and are in the middle, there are things in the environment that are beacons within the desert landscape. Those are some inspirations for me,” Smith says. With his firm’s start, he worked primarily on architectural projects and completed art commissions on the side. But that has recently changed. “I would say the bulk of my work, up to 75 percent, is now public art, while the other 25 percent is on architectural design.”
The Muriel Pollia Sculpture Garden consists of two sculptures, “Clarity” and “Inhale/Exhale,” and marks a dynamic focal point in the heart of the University. It was made possible through the generous support of the Muriel Pollia Foundation, which donated $250,000 toward the commission and associated expenses.
Jay Rodriguez, ULV trustee emeritus and chairman of the board of the Muriel Pollia Foundation, explains that the process took approximately two years. “I would say that as a member of the board of trustees, I was at a planning meeting—the kind that makes us look to the future. As a ULV trustee emeritus, I wanted to do something in conjunction with the new student center,” says Rodriguez.
Dr. Muriel Pollia was an arts humanitarian and philanthropist. Since the Muriel Pollia Foundation is dedicated to supporting artistic and humanitarian projects, the opportunity to bring public art to the La Verne community fulfilled its mission. “Between Steve [Morgan] and me, we came up with the idea of putting together a sculpture garden. We made up the framework for it, and I went to the board of the Muriel Pollia Foundation to propose it. They [Jerry Luedders, president and Michael Keegan, vice president] approved the donation of $250,000 to pay for it,” says Rodriguez. But that was only the beginning.
The Foundation wanted the sculptures to be associated with the new campus center. The University accepted requests through review committee of Ruth Trotter, professor of Art; Jay Rodriguez, chairman of the Muriel Pollia Foundation; David Flaten, professor of theater arts; Jon Leaver, assistant professor of art history; Nancy Walker, associate professor of education; Dave Koch, then director of ULV facilities; Denise Guitterez, ULV manager of grant and foundation support; and Lynee Sanute, a student representative. In its first review of submitted public art prospects, the selection committee found no winners.
Then, after reviewing the Palm Desert Public Art Registry, Trotter discovered Smith, who had completed public art projects in the Southern California area. “His work is contemporary and informed by architecture. And, he had created several other successful public art pieces around the country,” says Trotter. She and Rodriguez visited Smith at his studio and asked him to submit sketches for a potential public art piece on campus. He quickly got to work.
“I guess I would say I referred to this process as the brewing process. I went to the University’s website and took photos all over campus and the city one day. I lived the life of a student on campus to get a real feel for the place,” says Smith. After this submerging process, he delved into the creative process.
“I gathered all the images, information, sense of space and atmosphere and let that brew. I thought about how that applies to my own look, and I began to sketch. I sketched on trace paper and made iterations then brought it into the computer and created computer models,” says Smith.
Two spaces on campus called to him as potential art locations: a triangular piece of grass near Miller Hall, where the buildings are tall and sunlight peeks through the Oak trees for his largest piece, “Inhale/Exhale,” and just 20 feet away near the patio of “Barbara’s Place” café, for the “Clarity” sculpture.
“Inhale/Exhale” is a dynamic structure that calls the attention of anyone who steps near it. It is 54 feet in height and caterpillar-like, with undulating lines and reflection from different viewpoints. It is a vertical piece that is red-orange in color and glossy. “It looks like a giant Twizzler licorice,” says junior public relations student Grady Thomas. It is constructed from fiberglass, and there are four separate parts of the entire sculpture, which is based on a triangular geometry.
“When I look at this piece, it has an incredible amount of movement—almost like someone taking a breath and lungs moving in and out. That’s why I named it what I did,” says Smith. “And with the glossy, undulating service, not only will you see your refection in it, but you will look up. I hope that [“Inhale/Exhale”] will inspire people to look up to the sky to their hopes and dreams. At the same time, I wanted it to work like a thumb-print to the new center of campus,” he expresses.
The second commissioned sculpture is entitled “Clarity” that stands smaller in stature (12 feet), but is equally commanding. It is shiny copper in color and made of powder-coated steel. What is immediately obvious about “Clarity” is its formal transformation from the top to the bottom of the piece. Clarity, holds two straight, organized lines, from the base to the middle and the top down to the middle. The straight sections begin to bend, and that is where the artist is truly questioning the concept of clarity.
“Can that center jumble piece be understood without the lower portions? It’s kind of like leaving high school. You think you know what your path is. You get exposed to new ideas—pushed in ways that are unexpected. Why am I living here? Five years later, you are down the road, focused. And you realized all those things in your path that you questioned, are just as clear as you need,” says Smith.
The Muriel Pollia Sculpture Garden marks the beginning of a new era for the school. “It’s wonderful to have dynamic art on campus. ”Inhale/Exhale” is a piece of art that not only marks the future but honors the past. Its orange, citrus color captures the traditions and the spirit of the University of La Verne’s colors [orange and green], and, at the same time, reflects a bit of history with the citrus farms that once were prominent in this community,” says ULV President Steve Morgan. Maxtla Benavides, senior communications major, agrees. “I think it’s pretty awesome. It brings a whole other vibe and culture to campus that didn’t exist before, appealing to a new generation.”
Trotter says the sculptures clearly reach the objectives selection committee objectives. “They are permanent, of high-quality and something that cannot be ignored. The sculptures reflect the livingness of public art and not the deadness of a monument. I am very pleased with the two pieces, and I feel that Phil Smith did an excellent job. The sculptures are vibrant, contemporary, striking and create a dynamism in that space that produces a lively energy and sense of activity as people engage and walk through and around the plaza and between buildings. They create a ‘center’ of campus. I think they are beautiful. Their abstract forms combine organic and man-made forms in a way that, literally, reflects the campus itself.”
What is the legacy that these public art pieces will leave on campus? Smith says, with a huge smile, “That La Verne and the University are invested in art and creativity for future generations.”