Public Forum: Art with a capital P

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The City of Malibu will be celebrating its 20th Birthday on March 28. For Malibu’s 16th Birthday, the city commissioned, at my request, a $10,000 community art mural at Bluff’s Park. Back in November 2010, at the first 20th Birthday Committee meeting for the City of Malibu, I volunteered to help create another community art project. There was only one problem. This time the City allocated no money for the art budget.

Unfortunately, another community mural was impossible to organize and implement with no funding, and I had nearly given up on a community art project until January, the day I was at the Malibu Library during a construction meeting. On that day, I had learned that Mary Lou Blackwood, a library and community hero and activist had died. I was thinking about whether there was a piece of the demolished library structure we could donate to her family as a token of appreciation for her dedication to the library and our community.

When I asked the contractor if he had any ideas, he pointed to a pile of porcelain toilets, urinals and sinks in the corner. He said, “You see those? Maybe you could turn them into something nice. Nearly every piece of this library has been recycled or reused. Those toilets and urinals are old and are not low flush and can’t be used under the new California regulations. If they are kept out of a landfill, then we can count them towards the Library’s LEED certification.”

At first I thought how could this be art?

In 1917, artist and Dada movement innovator, Marcel Duchamp, turned a urinal upside down and called it “The Fountain.” His Fountain was voted “most influential artwork of the 20th century” by a panel of prominent artists and art historians.

Why not take these porcelain pieces and recycle them by turning them into 20 works of art in celebration of our 20th birthday? Why not ask local community artists, activists and actors to volunteer to turn the objects into art? Why not auction the pieces on Earth Day and have the proceeds go to a good cause, namely the Malibu Library? Why not have art educate, entertain and enrich our community?

Some locals and a publisher of one local newspaper have lambasted the art project and are worried about the “image” of Malibu. Sewers, and anything connected to it are akin to the third rail in Malibu, something that should not be touched or talked about openly.

Other locals did not hesitate to volunteer their time to help make this art project a reality. Local environmental car wash owner Buzz Wax donated his time and services to help clean the toilets, along with the help of Jim and Audrey Conley, Catherine Oxenberg and Suzanne Zimmer. Local prominent artist David Ashwell didn’t hesitate to volunteer his expertise. Jane Sullivan Hemenez, a 94-year-old who has resided in Malibu more than 60 years and was active in the Library Task Force and the Malibu Historical Society was happy to participate. Jane was also the first person to bring her work of art to the February Malibu City Council meeting for everyone to see. In addition, local mother and actress Catherine Oxenberg and her children decorated a “Royal Throne” and sink. Many other local artists and community members including Liz Huft, Denise Peak, Allesandra DiClario and children from the Malibu Art Barn have agreed to participate and volunteer their paint and time.

How can these art pieces be used to educate our community?

Whether we like it or not, one of the biggest issues, past and future, facing Malibu is intricately connected to these porcelain objects.

The City of Malibu was born, in part, when a majority of people living in Malibu did not agree with the 1986 decision by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for a regional sewer that would have been large enough to serve 400,000 people in the western Santa Monica Mountains.

Many people living in Malibu feared that they would be assessed taxes to pay for the oversized sewer project, and they feared that the Pacific Coast Highway would need to be widened into a freeway to accommodate excessive growth. The Supervisors fought the incorporation drive and prevented the residents from voting, but that decision was overturned in courts. The City of Malibu became a City in 2001, stopped the massive sewer from being built, and instead opted for individual septic systems.

A Wastewater Treatment Facility will need to be built in the near future because of a mandate by the State. It is estimated that it will cost $50 million plus. This is one of the biggest issues facing our community and the city has been collaborating with neighbors and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to develop a small system that will address the environmental issues while still containing development and growth.

According to Teri Boughn of Conservision Consulting, old toilets waste water. If all U.S. households installed water-saving features, water use would decrease by 30 percent. This would save an estimated 5.4 billion gallons of water per day, resulting in daily dollar-volume savings of $11.3 million or more than $4 billion per year.

The pieces will be on display soon, but only for a limited time.

Hopefully, they will entertain you with their originality and provoke thoughtful discussion regarding conscientious water usage. On Earth Day, April 22, the pieces will be auctioned off. The proceeds can be donated to the Malibu Library.

Hopefully, these pieces may help us to look at art and each other differently. To the critics, may they bring a moment of levity to your day. To the believers, may they lift your spirits. To all, may we be more tolerant of each other and not be so quick to judge and put labels on art or each other.

Pamela Conley Ulich, Councilmember