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Consider people who rant on issues about which they believe themselves experts. Everybody holds an opinion on everything -- like a fellow on the radio contending that the National Endowment for the Arts should be abolished because competent artists are all rich; or like Joe Bauer on KFMB who denigrated the enormous water tank of Fletcher Hills.

The tank is 150 feet high and mushroom-shaped, with a 100-foot-wide cap and 70-foot-wide stem. It stands in a residential neighborhood overlooking Santee and the mountains beyond. It was created by two water districts and decorated with stainless steel clouds by Jim Wilsterman, with whom I sat one recent afternoon gazing at the rust-brown monolith from across La Mesa on Boulder Heights. If I hadn't known better, I might've thought it was the landing port for a spaceship.

Wilsterman, who looks like a carpenter, took his degrees from San Diego and San Jose State Universities. A fluent and practiced storyteller, he told me how the tank came to be.

"The freeway 125 right-of-way was decided on back in 1947. It was supposed to come up over Fletcher Hills and pass through the field by Grossmont College and run down into Santee along the hillside. So all the people who lived immediately adjacent to the right-of-way had in the deeds to their houses that the property might eventually be taken for the freeway.

"There used to be two water tanks on the hill. One was built by Helix Water District, to serve mainly agriculture. It was painted red and white checks, like a Ralston Purina bag. Later, Padre Dam Water District built their tank on the same hill. Helix Water District goes from the summit where the tank sits to the south and west across La Mesa. Padre Dam District runs from the summit north.

"When Caltrans was finally ready to work on 125, the old tanks were in the right-of-way. So they had to be replaced. Caltrans funded the project and also prescribed 'aesthetic medication.'

"The water districts [decided] to move the tanks 600 yards to the southeast of where the old tanks were.

"The Helix Water District wanted their tank on stilts and the Padre Dam District was going to build theirs low and squat, and so they decided to stack them, to save money and also allow an interconnection so that if one water district had to shut its tank down the other district could serve the customers.

"In 1992 and 1993 I was working on the Pacific Beach library site with an architect, Manuel Oncina. I was designing a park on the library property. Oncina was asked by the Helix Water District to join a design team, and he determined that they didn't really need an architect, they needed an artist.

"So I was asked to go to a meeting with landscape architects and engineers. I walked into this meeting having no idea what the project was. I told them my philosophy about public art. One of the things I emphasized was my desire and my ability to work with a team, to ensure that public interests and concerns were addressed. I would become an ambassador, someone to go out into the community and work directly with the neighbors and explore doing a project with community members actually building it. I suggested there could be an agreement between Grossmont College, where I taught, and the water districts. The more community involvement we talked about, the more excited they got.

"They hired me as a design team member, and I attended innumerable meetings and listened, and when I told them I'd like to do three proposals, we drew up a contract.

"I brought the proposals to several open meetings, until we got from the community members who attended a consensus on what they'd like to see, and then my design was looked at by the engineers in terms of structural integrity, feasibility, and cost and put forward to the boards of the two water districts, who then voted.

"The districts chose for the tank material Cor-10 steel, for its structural strength and to minimize air pollution and prevent the need to sandblast and repaint every ten years. At first it's a dark tan, and as time goes on it gets darker and darker and finally becomes a brown-black. The Macy's home-furnishing center in Mission Valley is made out of the same metal, and people walk in and out of there and think it's wood or painted -- which is not what people say about the tank. If you bring up the subject in La Mesa or El Cajon, expect to hear the words 'ugly' and 'rusted' and 'eyesore.' "

He claims the public had many chances to influence the design. "Early on, the water district hired a La Jolla public relations company. They sent mailers out to all the people adjacent to the tank. They were invited to attend meetings and give their input. About 50 people showed up at the meetings and asked about how the project would effect traffic and dust. Art was low on their priorities. Mostly they seemed concerned about disruptions.

"There were three large meetings, and the only reservations people expressed were 'It's going to block my view of the mountain,' and 'The artwork might glare and shine in my eyes.'

"Mailers with color pictures of the proposed finished tank including the artwork were sent out, and there was a phone number for people to call. In the projects I've worked on, I've never seen this much community outreach. The few people who didn't like the aesthetics of the tank, or the artwork, I listened to, and the design I made was based on input I got, the idea that the most important thing about the community is our view of the mountains. People say, 'We moved here because we have a great view, we can see Cuyamaca and watch the clouds climb over the mountains in the afternoon.'

"Fletcher Hills was settled when a flume was built from Cuyamaca Lake by Ed Fletcher and some other individuals. San Diego had a very unreliable water source, because the San Diego River would flood and then dry up. El Cajon farmers had all the water they could use; they could pump it out of the ground. Downtown La Mesa had water from the springs. But up on the mesa there was nothing. The flume was the first aqueduct in the state used for drinking water. The water brought the ability to live and farm in Fletcher Hills. The Helix Water District is the surviving entity of the San Diego Flume Company. So the history of this community is intimately tied to the thunderheads over the mountains and the flume that brought the water to us. I saw the project as an opportunity to tell a story, to remind people about what has been done to build our community.

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jimwilsterman Nov. 22, 2008 @ 6:34 p.m.

Ten years have passed, and the Cloud Project is now accepted as a very popular regional landmark. I hear from people all over the world nearly every week regarding this environmental artwork, but the greatest affection comes currently from those who live closest to the project.

I guess the handful of folks that tried to censor this publicly selected, funded and constructed community project must have finally resigned themselves to the conclusion that this work was supported by more than 90% of the surrounded community.

The project stands as a testament to the community volunteers who constructed it, and in spite of efforts to demean this environmental project and the volunteers that constructed it with derogatory and false assertions - good judgment and civil democratic processes prevailed in the end.

Given the fact that we now face global climate change resulting in massive shortages of water in the region, I suspect my intent to create an environmental work to inspire people in the area to think about where our water comes from (instead of attempting to somehow make water infrastructure invisible as we have done for the last 100 years or so) has now been validated to some degree.

I want to say thank you to members of the surrounding community that strongly stood up to political intimidation and manipulation, and did the right thing in this case. As a result, we can be proud that we now have a internationally known and highly regarded site-specific landmark (San Diego’s largest sculpture - on the same scale as the Statue of Liberty!) that contributes to the identity of our community, now and for generations into the future.

Jim Wilsterman


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