Terry Sullivan maneuvers his Honda civic around Brea’s streets, driveways and office parks with skill and a spot-on sense of direction.
He and his partner of 11 years, Dena Sommer, are on a mission, of sorts. They are the unofficial curators of Brea’s Art in Public Places program. Their self-appointed responsibilities lead to many miles behind the wheel. Brea’s public-private collection of 183 sculptures, bas reliefs and other artworks is spread across the city’s 12 square miles.
On this day, they’re taking a visitor on an abbreviated circuit of the collection, which they estimate is the second largest array of public artwork in the state.
We start at some of the most recent pieces, four new abstract sculptures from Jerome Gastaldi, put up by the developers of the Calligraphy apartment buildings on Central Avenue. Later, we pull up besides Laddie John Dill’s “Tribus,” shiny, colorful panels of cement and glass oxide at the entrance to an Albertson’s Distribution Center; there’s another of his pieces, “Cobalt Basin and Range,” on an opposite corner.
We head off to the city’s northeast corner and Blackstone Homes residential development, cruising along Santa Fe Road. Sullivan points out nine brightly colored and fanciful tile works on either side of the road, commissioned from Laguna Beach artist Marlo Bartels.
Next, we park besides Michael Amescua’s “A Moment of Tranquility,” a piece with two standing figures and three tall panels with cutouts that allow a play of light and shadow. The couple bemoan how the paint has been allowed to fade on the 1989 sculpture.
Outdoor artwork takes a beating from the elements. Sullivan and Sommer joke how they had adopted a nickname for Kati Casida’s “Bluebird” when its paint faded: they called it “brown bird.”
Sullivan is anticipating more bad news when he turns onto Saturn Street. At the end of the cul de sac is “Mustangs,” three realistic wild horses frozen in full gallop, their tails flying, hooves off the ground.
Sullivan had visited artist Ray Persinger’s life-size bronze horses a few days earlier and they were looking pretty filthy, he said. But now, peering through the windshield, Sullivan exclaims with happiness. The sculpture has been cleaned, and perhaps even polished.
“We get pleasantly surprised at times,” says Sommer.
Sullivan and Sommer aren’t just art lovers. They’re friendly watchdogs. They let city officials know when something is amiss with one of the art pieces. They find out about the unveiling of new artwork from art commission meeting minutes, and Sullivan said he’s continuously reminding officials to post the minutes.
And they keep tabs, too, on the companies that own these pieces, which can be tricky, especially when businesses change owners.
At the Brea Mall, Niki de Saint Phalle’s whimsical sculpture “La Lune,” put into a fountain in 1990, has been in storage for months while the mall was undergoing renovations. Sullivan and Sommer have been calling to find out when it will be put back, but so far have gotten no satisfactory answer. (A spokesman for Simon Property Group, which bought the mall in the late 1990s, said he was not authorized to comment about future exhibition of the piece, but said city officials have been told of the company’s plans.)
Documenting the Collection
Between 2008 and 2012, Sullivan and Sommer spent every Sunday morning going around the city to find and document the entire collection. Sommer took photos, sometimes standing in the street to get an unobstructed image of the artwork.
“I had to get on my belly and look straight up,” to photograph “Oil Drill,” she says. During the 2008 financial crisis, “They (the city) couldn’t keep watch on each piece. They had to do layoffs and cut hours. So naturally a project like APP is not going to get a lot of attention in times like that. We were filling in the gaps.”
The duo, both 73, published a book of the complete collection seven years ago, and hope to update it soon. They’ve also created a website, breasartinpublicplaces.com, which has an interactive map of every piece. Their current project is to bring more publicity to the program, which dates back to 1975 but is not particularly well-known, even in Brea. (The city also has a website for the collection.)
“About two months ago, we had a meeting with one of the people who is on the cultural arts commission. He found out about us and found we’ve always been frustrated about how little knowledge people have about it,” Sullivan said. “We got together to brainstorm (how) to do things. I have an Instagram page. I’ve now started posting everyday on Next Door, information about one piece and the artist and a photo.” Sullivan figures he’ll be done with those daily posts by Christmas.
Finding Love and an Art Partner
How Sullivan and Sommer fell into this volunteer mission is also a love story, intersecting with their own personal reunion. They met in kindergarten class at Laurel School in 1950 and remained friends all the way through high school and while at Fullerton College. They then went their separate ways and lost touch with one another.
Sommer got a master’s degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and KNX radio. After marriage and two children, she switched gears and worked as an executive administrative assistant, including for four presidents of Fullerton College.
Sullivan was in the military, graduated from college, and then went into business, managing restaurants and later providing computer systems training. In 2008, they both joined the planning committee for their 45th high school reunion and became reacquainted. Within a few months, they were dating.
Sommer, who has lived in Brea for most of her life, had been thinking about the Art in Public Places program as something she’d like to investigate when she retired.
“I saw ‘Prelude’ every time I drove to work and I thought, ‘Oh, that is such a wonderful piece. When I retire I want to find every piece that’s part of the APP,’ ” she said. With Sullivan, she found an art partner, as well as a romantic partner.
The Art in Public Places program was spearheaded by Wayne Wedin, who was city manager at the time. (He later served on the city council and as mayor.) A vacation in Europe impressed upon Wedin how public artwork could distinguish and beautify a city. Orange County’s burgeoning towns were using architectural details, such as red tile roofs or historical street lamps, to differentiate themselves, Wedin said in a phone interview. Brea should become a city of public art, he thought.
“The whole idea is if you look around Brea there’s lots of artwork,” Wedin said. “Many of the projects would have a reception when the artwork was finished. As a city person, I’d go from one group to another, chatting. One group would say, ‘This is the most god-awful thing. My child could do better,’ and another group would say, which I liked better, ‘Well, this is insightful.’ Art is in the eye of the beholder.”
After 44 years, there have been minor tempests over individual pieces. Sommer has heard complaints about nude statues. Carlos Terrés’ “The Wildcat,” in front of Brea-Olinda High School, caused a rumble of discontent back in 1992 because the artist incorporated feathery features into the massive bronze feline. The artist told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times that the feathers were meant to represent an eagle, an Aztec symbol of intelligence. The grumblers complained it didn’t look like a real cat.
The Private-Public Arrangement
It’s possible the program’s public-private arrangement has saved it from having additional and more serious controversies. But it also might contribute to the program’s low-key profile. Artwork is commissioned, owned and is maintained—it’s supposed to be maintained—by the private developer. Pieces sometimes face fast-moving thoroughfares or are hard to see because of shrubbery, so they remain unknown.
Depending on the cost of a development, owners must set aside 1 percent for artwork that is accessible to the public or give that 1 percent as a donation to the city’s artwork fund.
The city has an art commission that reviews the projects to make sure they adhere to city guidelines; for example, pieces need to be lit, said Community Services Management Analyst Jennifer Colacion. The commission does not get involved in the subject matter of the pieces or artist selection. Colacion said the city’s art fund currently has about $80,000. The city council and staff decide how the money is spent. Sullivan and Sommer would love to see some of it go toward sculpture maintenance.
Wedin said he has been talking informally with others about the creation of a sculpture park or outdoor gallery, where artists could sell work and the city could collect tax revenue from the art sales. Both he, Sommer and Sullivan noted that the quality of the pieces has improved over the years. In addition to Saint Phalle and Dill, other prominent artists with works in the collection include Guy Dill (Laddie’s brother), J. Seward Johnson, Jr., and Larry Bell.
Developers have become more invested in the program, Sommer said.
“You can see how there’s been a progression in thinking from the developers,” she said. “The developers at first probably felt encumbered, ‘I have to do this.’ …And now, it’s almost like a competition. ‘We can do something more extravagant or catchy than others have done,’ which is a nice transition. There’s more pride.”
Laura Bleiberg is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.