The gigantic art project unfolding on the unlikely canvas that is Borrego Springs appears to have reached completion. Sculptor Ricardo Breceda says, “That’s it.” There will be no more additions. But Dennis Avery, the man who funded the work, sounds less sure. He points out that he never had a master plan for adorning the desert with life-size metal depictions of prehistoric creatures. One thing just led to another.
An unexpected turn of events first prompted him to take an interest in Borrego Springs almost 20 years ago. Around the time of the savings-and-loan industry collapse, Avery, an heir to the founder of one of the world’s biggest label-making companies, learned from open-space advocates that land in Borrego Springs was selling for rock-bottom prices. He wound up buying a number of noncontiguous parcels that added up to about three square miles of the town. He named his holdings Galleta Meadows after the tough native grass (Hilaria jamesii) that once thrived in the alluvial plain extending from present-day Borrego Springs Road to the canyon in the west.
Avery and his wife built a house on a parcel of that land, moved into it, and enrolled their children in the local schools. “It’s a very small community,” Avery says. “You get to know people, particularly if youre a Little League coach, as I was.” So it was that he met George Jefferson, a geologist and paleontologist who’d been a curator for the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. By the late 1990s, Jefferson was overseeing the paleontologic resources for all the parks in southeastern California, including Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and he dreamed of one day writing a book about the profusion of fossils captured within its rocks. Avery, in turn, just couldn’t believe there was no publication about the exceptionally unusual paleontology of Borrego Springs. Eventually, he agreed to underwrite the costs of making such a book a reality.
The result was Fossil Treasures of the Anza-Borrego Desert, published by El Cajon–based Sunbelt Publications in 2006. Almost 400 pages long, the book is filled with detailed illustrations of the region’s landscapes over the past five million years and the creatures that once lived there. So it wasn’t surprising that those creatures came to Avery’s mind the day he found himself in Ricardo Breceda’s welding shop.
The shop sits by the side of Interstate 215 in Perris. Avery used to drive by it on his way to the University of Redlands, where two of his children were students. “I’d look over and see animals...giraffes and things.” He wondered about them. But years went by before his curiosity impelled him to take the exit.
The welding shop, he discovered, bore an unlikely name: Perris Jurassic Park. Its creator and sovereign turned out to be a rugged-looking man with a Spanish accent so thick Avery struggled to understand him. But Avery grasped that Breceda had worked in construction as a carpenter and welder until he’d damaged a couple of disks in his back in a fall. It was then that Breceda gave in to his yearning to use his welding skills to conjure up dinosaurs. His mother warned that this was a bad idea. But Breceda had a vision.
With no artistic training, Breceda’s early efforts (still in evidence on the property) “all looked like refrigerators,” Avery says. “They were squared-off.” When Breceda learned to build internal frames for the sculptures, and to cover the frames with welded sheet-metal skins, this freed him to devise more sophisticated forms. Studying them, Avery blurted out some of what he’d learned about the animals that once lived in the part of the desert where he owned property. He told Breceda that while no dinosaurs had yet been found there, “everything else had...I said, ‘Could you make some—’ and before I could finish my sentence, he said, ‘Oh sure. All you have to do is send me a photograph.’” Avery did that, and he says the artist’s work took off like a salmon hitting a fish line.”
By the spring of 2008, the unlikely collaboration had produced three giant tusked gomphotheres — ancient members of the elephant family. Avery says that on the day he and Breceda installed them near the southeast corner of the intersection of Borrego Springs and Big Horn roads, they didnt know if the townsfolk would shoot at them. Instead the sculptures were greeted with uniform delight. So Avery sent Breceda more photographs and drawings. Although he talked initially about investing up to $100,000 in the creation of a dozen or more pieces, today Avery says he’s spent “way more than double that amount,” and the sculpture collection includes more than 70 pieces.
The menagerie includes wild pigs and sabertooth tigers, ancient camels and llamas and wild horses. Monstrous meat-eating birds — the largest avians ever found in North America — once made their home in the area, and Breceda has created representations of these, detailed down to the individual feathers. Despite the absence of dinosaurian remains, “Ricardo loves dinosaurs,” Avery says. “And kids think anything that’s no longer here is a dinosaur.” So several giant tyrannosaurean creatures were eventually installed. Seen from a distance, they look eerily realistic against the stark contours of the valley.
“We were having so much fun, we weren’t always thinking ahead,” Avery says. “It got to the point where I wouldn’t even go out and see what Ricardo had done before I authorized him to bring it in. It was just so much fun to get up at 4:00 in the morning, go out there, and see this caravan of trucks arriving. Around the trucks, like bees, there’d be all these people who had followed him in from Palm Desert, wondering what was going on. He would pull up, and they’d be hanging out of their car windows, taking pictures with their cell phones. It was more fun than almost anything else I’ve done, other than raising a family.”
Avery says the accuracy of the depictions is “probably anyones guess. It’s all extrapolated from the bones [that have been found in the desert]. But there were no fossilized ears or noses.” Even paleontologists don’t know for sure what the animals looked like. As an example of one way Breceda exercised artistic license, Avery mentions that the sculptor added testicles to his representation of the mammoths. “An expert got a hold of this and said, ‘Pachyderms do not have testicles!’ We went online and found that it was absolutely true. They have a hard time staying cool in their environs, and so they have internal organs.” When Avery directed the artist to neuter the mammoths, “he was a little disappointed.”
He says only twice have the sculptures drawn public criticism. “Once was from creationists,” Avery says. “They were jamming my email and sending faxes because I said some of these creatures were more than seven million years old. Well, to them that’s blasphemy because there was no universe then, much less saber-toothed tigers.” Avery says his response was to make no further statements about the animals’ age and to avoid installing any explanatory placards.
The only other fracas involved statues depicting human beings. Avery explains that, as the population of prehistoric fauna statues multiplied, some people began urging him to pay attention to the humans who played important roles in the desert. Breceda thus created pieces that honored a native American (Salvador Palma) and a missionary (Father Francisco Garcés). When Avery was urged to commission pieces commemorating the grape-pickers who once worked in the Borrego Valley and were moved by Cesar Chavez’s urgings to strike, he was amenable. “You know, Chavez is like a godhead to these people.” But Breceda’s homage to the migrant workers included details that were criticized as being inaccurate. Some of the men were wearing sombreros, for example. “That was a no-no,” Avery says. (Migrant workers in the U.S. wore other types of headgear.) Avery says Breceda also included some female grape-pickers, as well as their babies. But he and his patron were told that women had never picked grapes. “There was even some criticism about our plants not being accurate!” Avery knew Breceda had never intended offense. Still, he removed the pieces and had Breceda come up with more politically correct ones that were installed in January.
Avery doesn’t voice irritation over these events, and he says they didn’t discourage him from commissioning additional works. It surprises him that he and Breceda took the project as far as they did. Avery also has other demands for his time. He and his wife, who is Chinese, run the Chinese School of San Diego. With a staff of 19 teachers and more than 200 students studying Mandarin and Cantonese, the Averys are in the process of adding a preschool to their operation. And Breceda appears to be busy with commissions from other fans of his work. Still, Avery adds that he and Breceda “have been done a couple of times. And then things have come up that undid the being done!”
— Jeannette DeWyze