Jeff Smith 2:30 p.m., June 26
- Community Blog
Sand Serpent: Borrego Springs' Sculpture Park
Oddly fitting for the Chinese year of the water dragon, the newest addition to Dennis Avery’s steel sculpture studded ranch surrounding Borrego Springs is a 350-foot serpentine "sea" dragon erected last July in the sands adjacent to the Anza Borrego State Park. The detail in the giant leviathan implanted in the earth 86 miles north east of San Diego has got to be one of the most intricate of all the pieces erected to date at Galleta Meadows Estate. Within two hours of the metro region, Avery’s ever growing sculpture park is well worth the plunge over the mountains into San Diego County’s outback.
Avery’s “Sky Art” exhibit began to take form in 2008 when he first contracted a group of multi-sized sculptures comprising a family of gomphotheres, extinct four-tusked elephants that grazed in the area nearly 4 million years ago. Paying tribute to the area’s fame for fossil discoveries that demonstrate the longest continuous history of life, the larger of this first group measures 12-feet tall by 20-feet long. Avery has since contracted self-taught artist Ricardo Breceda, who he calls the Picasso of Steel, to bring the past as well as the present to life. To date, Breceda has created more than 130 freestanding welded sculptures which have been placed throughout Avery’s expansive estate surrounding the small oasis town.
Regarded as one of the best archaeological sites in North America, anatomically correct life-sized replicas of slinking muscle strapped saber tooth lions, grazing mammoths, nursing camels and battling raptors (including nonresident Spinosaurus, Velociraptor, Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex) now stand out against the desert sky along with the gomphotheres as the real McCoy did eons ago. Newer groupings set back off the highway consist of oxidized bucking prehistoric stallions, lumbering roadside tortoise and a nested eagle (Aiolornis Indredibilis)-- the largest ever found on the continent--with a 20 foot wing span and coiled snake in its claws. Elsewhere, images of the otherwise elusive and solitary current residents, the Peninsular Long Horned Sheep, the Borrego, can be found in herds as well as a massive scorpion with pinchers forward and tail hovering to strike an unsuspecting grasshopper.
Avery and Breceda pay homage to early settlers as well. Spanish conquistador, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza who in the autumn of 1775 embarked from Sonora, MX with 240 people to colonize California stands outside the Visitor’s Center. With the aid of the locals such as the Yuma Indian chieftain, Salvador Palma, and the well established network of “Indian trails”, Anza and his entourage reached the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel outside LA in less than three months. That trek was designated the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail in 1990. Palma is represented emerging from the very earth in full headdress.
Franciscan replacement to the expelled Jesuits, volunteer explorer for the Viceroyalty of New Spain, Francisco Garcés one of three padres to accompany Anza to the Pacific, (Monterey Bay to be specific), stands with his loyal canine immortalized beneath the Santa Rosa’s. Not surprisingly, the Yuma revolted against the Spanish shortly thereafter for treaty violation, killing brave stout Garcés and retarding the conquistadors’ colonization of an already occupied—and civilized-- domain. A prospector, (if not the infamous desert icon himself, Peg Leg Smith), and those that lay the miles and miles of electrical lines across the badlands are also among Avery's collection.
Like other deep pocketed philanthropists, the heir to the Avery-Dennison dynasty continues to expand his outdoor exhibit because he can. I, personally, am always inspired by the generosity of some people and Avery dishes up a double helping. Not only has he dropped a pretty penny contracting the sculptures placed visibly throughout the area, but he also grants public access to his private museum. The sign on his property indicates that visitors may hike, bike, horseback ride, and camp for up to three days on the estate amidst the statues—FOR FREE.
Although generally well received, Avery’s pet project has received criticism as well as praise. He's been accused of blasphemy by the creationists for having had the audacity to suggest that some of these creatures predated the formation of the universe (ascertained biblically rather than scientifically). In order to temper their wrath, Avery conceded that he would make no further conjectures pertaining to the age of the animals depicted in his collection. He further agreed to NOT install explanatory/educational placards. Mind you, this collection is on his own private land and funded exclusively with his millions. The man’s more than generous by my standards.
By far the more surprising criticism came from supporters of the Chicano Civil Rights/Labor Movement. Spurred by labor union leader César Chávez, Borrego Valley grape-pickers were incited to strike against the DiGiorgio Company. But apparently, Mexican-America Breceda included inaccurate details in his farm workers piece. The sombreros, for instance. Breceda originally had some of the men wearing the wide brimmed hats which the complainants suggested had not--in fact--been not worn. Nor, if you can believe it, did women ever pick grapes in that simmering East County community, let alone with babies strapped to their backs. Avery again conceded and directed Breceda to replace the offending pieces with those that would represent the “cause” more authentically. So much for artistic license.
Considering Avery was born in China, funds the Avery China Adventure Program and is affiliated with the Chinese School of San Diego, we might see future sculptures that represent the Chinese immigrants who worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad as well as on the San Diego and Arizona Railway owned by the self serving Sugar King, Spreckel. Chinese immigrants laid rails across the Colorado Desert until the sixty year discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act later found to be unconstitutional left a gap in the burgeoning industrial labor force, which the Mexicans then filled.
A Galleta Meadows Estate Sculpture Installation Map, (which needs updating but identifies many of the sculpture groups), can be found at www.galletameadows.com.