East County Water Tower: Monstrosity or Provocative Public Art?

If you drive east to the end of SR 125, you’ll probably see the mushroom-shaped water tower with its silvery clouds. This site-specific sculpture was commissioned in the mid-1990s and reflects the challenges of making public art.

Review of the dispute

Public art can be controversial. Especially when it’s 150 feet tall and overlooks a suburban neighborhood.

In a television news report in late 1990, residents declared, “It is inherently ugly. It truly is an unforgivable monster. It’s a rusty bucket in no uncertain terms. A monstrous blight on our community.”

This came after the Helix and Padre Dam Municipal Water Districts built the water tower in question and did significant community outreach to win the majority of residents over to the public art cloud project.

But in the 1990s, public art wasn’t as prevalent in San Diego as it is now. Also, organizations and artists were not as well prepared to deal with controversy, even if it came from a minority of people.

News stations at the time were quick to highlight the negative comments, but failed to provide any context for the story. In fact, one station insisted on calling it “an art project by Grosmont College art students,” which was not true, and disparaged it as if it were some kind of decorative trim carelessly added to the water tower.

After nearly three decades, Jim Wilsterman is revisiting his cloud design for the water tower of the Helix and Padre Dam Municipal Water Districts in East County. December 13, 2023

Almost three decades later, it still frustrates Jim Wilsterman, the artist hired to design the sculpture for the water tower.

“I think that should have been dismissive,” Wilsterman said. “I really brought my students to the fore because they are the ones who did the hard work and toil. But even without talking about what the project was and what it meant and why it was built, it just seems like it was a fluff piece to put in the news. They didn’t see many monuments and public art there. And when they did, they tended to think of them as decorative, without meaning or context. I think that was the problem and it was sad.”

The process of designing the project, meeting with the residents and then building the sculpture took years of hard work, so there was nothing haphazard or thoughtless about the process or the end result.

Photo by artist Jim Wilsterman showing one of the clouds and where it will be placed on the water tower.  Undated photo.

Photo by artist Jim Wilsterman showing one of the clouds and where it will be placed on the water tower. Undated photo.

Context and meaning

During that controversy in the late 1990s, Wilsterman said none of the local TV news stations bothered to talk to him or even consider why anyone would put clouds on a water tower. Wilsterman gratefully noted that at the time, only The Reader provided context for the dispute.

The context Wilstermann wanted to discuss was water. Water has always been an important issue to him, and he wanted to remind people where our water comes from, whether it’s clouds bringing rain or a water tower serving a community.

“People here, they see green, they see lawns, they see trees, they think that’s the way things are,” Wilsterman said. “A decade or two later, here we are with water shortages. That’s what it’s all about, trying to get people to think about where our water comes from. Because you’re hiding a water tank, they don’t think about it.”

Helix Water District agreed then and now.

“We knew this reservoir would be seen from miles around, so we wanted to make it a feature, not a distraction from the environment,” said Timothy Ross, current director of engineering for the Helix Water District. “One of the reasons we decided to engage an artist in this project and make a public artwork is that this is a really unique reservoir for our system. As an engineer, I personally really think it’s very creative and I think this tank is unique. It had to be unique.”

Unique in that it is two tanks in one, using hydraulics to serve the different needs of two water areas, and is designed to never need external maintenance.

The exterior of the water tower continues to oxidize and darken, but will never need maintenance.  December 13, 2023

The exterior of the water tower continues to oxidize and darken, but will never need maintenance. December 13, 2023

“What that does is it oxidizes the exterior, and this tank will never need recoating or maintenance for the next two centuries of actually being in service,” Ross added. “So it’s a very practical application. But we also thought there was an opportunity to make it a feature and break up all that big, brown metal with something that stood out.”

Adding a cloud to the East County water tower in the mid-1990s.  Undated photo.

Adding a cloud to the East County water tower in the mid-1990s. Undated photo.

Designing and creating a sculpture

Wilsterman recalled his early reaction to the water tower: “Aesthetically, it looks like a big mushroom. There wasn’t much to do with the outside, but around the edge I decided to put clouds. The people who live here can actually see these clouds coming up over the mountains here, and that provides the water that goes into the lake and into the old canal. So they’re literally probably the only people in San Diego who can actually see where their water is coming from at this point in time, and now partially where it’s coming from.”

Wilsterman proposed three designs, not all with clouds, that were presented to the community. Residents overwhelmingly chose the clouds, which will eventually be made of stainless steel.

This photo from the mid-1990s reveals the scale of the clouds as well as the texture created on the stainless steel.  Undated photo.

This photo from the mid-1990s reveals the scale of the clouds as well as the texture created on the stainless steel. Undated photo.

“To make the finish, we took the stainless steel and brushed it to give the optical illusion that there are three dimensions in the waves,” Wilstermann explained. “Then I covered it with perforated stainless steel, which creates a sort of shadow effect. It was a challenge to understand all these technologies that I’m not necessarily familiar with.”

The point is, the closer you get, the more three-dimensional and beautifully detailed they become.

Close up detail of cloud texture.  Undated photo.

Close up detail of cloud texture. Undated photo.

Wilsterman enlists the help of his students, many of whom are from the community, to build the clouds.

“It took about two years because these things are huge,” Wilsterman said. “They don’t look like it, but some of them are 14 feet tall and 35 feet wide. It’s the size of a small house. But the most important part for me was working with my students, because my students really like the idea of ​​public art.”

The project was challenging on many levels.

“I had to build my own faucet. I had to build spreader bars to lift things up. I had to build fixtures,” Wilsterman said. “I brought my dad out of retirement, who worked at General Dynamics, and he came and showed me how to do planning, because he built huge planes and rockets. I had to take out a million dollar insurance policy just to set foot on this Property.”

Artist Jim Wilsterman shows a photo of a student working on one of the clouds for the water tower.  December 13, 2023

Artist Jim Wilsterman shows a photo of a student working on one of the clouds for the water tower. December 13, 2023

Public art

Wilsterman has long been a proponent of public art. He has helped other artists come up with their projects, worked for decades creating numerous public art projects of his own, and taught his students at Grossmont College how to create public art as part of his career.

Artist Jim Wilsterman shows a photo of himself (wearing a helmet) with his father and his students at the Cloud Project site in the mid-1990s.  December 13, 2023

Artist Jim Wilsterman shows a photo of himself (wearing a helmet) with his father and his students at the Cloud Project site in the mid-1990s. December 13, 2023

That’s one of the reasons he had his students in the 1990s help create the clouds for the water tower. He wanted them to experience being part of a public art project and see it through.

But Wilsterman learned from both the water tower and a previous public art controversy in Carlsbad about the need to engage the community in the process.

“Doing public art has to be done very carefully,” Wilsterman said. “What I’ve learned is that you can do things that are controversial if you go about it right. So you have to be honest, you have to be there and face whatever is there. The water area was absolutely stellar in their way of handling it. Basically it’s engagement, telling people about yourself. So don’t talk down to them. What you are doing is simply explaining something about the context and history of what you are doing. So you have to be able to speak to them in a visual language and then be able to back it up with the way you explain it. Getting them involved is the best way to overcome opposition.”

Jim Wilsterman's Public Art for The Treasure of False Bay.  Undated photo.

Jim Wilsterman’s Public Art for The Treasure of False Bay. Undated photo.

You can find other examples of his smaller-scale public art at the Earl and Birdie Taylor Branch Library Playground; in collaboration with artist Machi Uchida for the City of Carlsbad’s 10,000-Year Trail; and the Grossmont College Child Development Center Garden.

Cloud Statement by Jim Wilsterman

Artist Jim Wilsterman wrote this statement in 1996 about public art and his Clouds project.

One of the clouds shining in the setting sun on the East County Water Tower.  Undated photo.

One of the clouds shining in the setting sun on the East County Water Tower. Undated photo.

Rehabilitation

Wilsterman took a lot of flak for the project, but he feels vindicated by the kids who grew up in the neighborhood and ended up at Grossmont College, where he taught.

“When they found out I was the artist who did this, they were like, this is the coolest thing that ever happened in my neighborhood growing up because it stimulated my imagination. I wanted to know why it was there. It reminded me of the clouds over the mountains, that was the story we were trying to tell, and sometimes we go up there just to look at them,” Wilsterman recalls.

The next time you’re in the area and see this brown mushroom-shaped water tower, think about both what a marvel of engineering it is, and what the art is trying to convey about who we are and where we live.

Monstrosity or provocative public art?

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