"We live in an arid climate, and when people move from the East Coast, the first thing they do is plant a huge green lawn and a lush tree setting because they want to make it look like something other than what it is. They don't seem to be aware that we don't have rainfall or abundant water, that most of our water is imported. The tank was an opportunity to make people think about our water concerns.
"With the Cor-10 surface, the tank will never have to be painted, and the engineers claim that it should last well over 200 years without being resurfaced. Also, it's the only tank in San Diego able to withstand a major earthquake. The districts are currently going through the water tanks and reinforcing because they found out from the earthquakes in Los Angeles that most tanks just crumble. This one is designed to take an 8.0 earthquake or a 200-mile-an-hour wind, as is my artwork.
"I could've done something on any portion of the tank, and I thought about the shape of a mountain and how the clouds form around the mountains and are drawn to them.
"The color offered the opportunity for contrast. It was dark and the clouds would be light. They're stainless steel, which never needs to be maintained, just washed once in a while. It will not rust. It will not corrode, and it will last as long or longer than the tank. And it allows the clouds to change with the color of the sky; when the sky is blue, they're white-blue; when the sky is gray and cloudy, they look stormlike; at sunset they go red and look bold; when it's clear above and there's a bank of clouds behind you, they look brilliant white. One reason I chose stainless steel -- it can be made refractive, to give the illusion of depth. When you get up close to the tank the clouds pop out, become very deep. And as the sun moves, different clouds become active and dimensional, and other clouds flatten out, because of the way they're brushed -- the light areas come forward, giving an illusion of depth, and the dark areas drop back.
From Cowles Mountain, as sunset approaches, the tank's clouds appear to move, as if to cruise around the cap of the tank like cars on a carnival ride.
"At the meetings, I presented these ideas and got community input, and afterward I changed my design a little. There was a concern about reflectivity, and I pointed out that half of the clouds would be perforated metal, which creates shadows. Because of this and the angle -- with the viewer on the ground and the clouds up high -- you'll never get much glare.
"So after presenting the ideas and working with the community, I put together a final proposal and suggested that we build it at Grossmont College using the students. The water districts asked me how much money I needed. I asked for $92,000, mainly to modify the facility and to build things like an A-frame crane to lift the parts off the assembly jig in the yard. I needed tools and special wiring for the welders, and materials. Nobody got paid to build the clouds. The water districts didn't have to rent a facility, or have insurance, all those complications.
"I set up a series of classes about fabrication and about the public-art approval process. Students came from all over. Some of them lived around the water tank. Some quit their jobs to work on this for two years. We pulled people from as far away as Los Angeles, who would drive down every day. About 30 people were involved at different stages. Immigrants from Vietnam. Students who had been in trouble and were trying to straighten themselves out. Construction workers who had been injured. Disabled people. A Kurd from Iraq. Most of them had to learn everything, they'd never welded before, never riveted, never used a crane. My dad worked on it. He had retired from General Dynamics. We needed help jigging fixtures, and this was like building aircraft, riveting and welding, and he was an expert.
"We had to preassemble parts, weld things, fabricate, weld more parts, then put them together, build a substructure then attach the steel with special aircraft rivets, then go back and cut the clouds out and polish the surfaces. A lot of our work was done in the summer; the temperatures sometimes got up to 110 or 115 degrees in the yard.
"We built the clouds one at a time. They're each 27 feet long and 12 to 30 feet high. Each one weighs about two thousand pounds. The company that built the water tank, Pitts Des Moines, transported them to the site. Pitts Des Moines also built the St. Louis arch. They thought that since our workers were a bunch of students we wouldn't meet their specs, but out of 10,000 welds they only found about 20 that needed to be repaired. There were 102 bolts in each cloud. The brackets to mount the clouds were built at a steel mill in Pittsburgh and they had to be shipped here and matched."
Once the tank was up and the artwork in place, the critics stepped forward. Murmurs grew into protests, and Jim Wilsterman considered himself fortunate to have already experienced the same kind of challenge, and worse, when he served as public-arts coordinator in Carlsbad during the battle over Split Pavilion.
The Pavilion was 7000 square feet of concrete slab, at the edge of a seacliff near downtown Carlsbad. It sat on split levels with concrete benches and square concrete pools, secluded from Pacific Coast Highway by a fence of prison-like bars. Hardly what most of us would call art.
Connie Beardsley of the Carlsbad Arts Council sketched its history.
"An artist was given a section of land by the ocean, for her to develop as a minipark and sculpture. There were models, designs, the information went out, but the public didn't pay much attention. Later, the opponents claimed that it was represented inaccurately, and that the landscape architect's drawing did not show the fence. There was no intention to portray the project inaccurately. The drawing that appeared in articles in newspapers and in a publication we sent out to residents didn't show the fence, but we had a model on display, and the people who were very involved with downtown and the redevelopment area did understand the project. But there was a whole group, surfers and others, who used the ocean, who hadn't paid attention and then didn't like what they saw when it happened. And they organized.