An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the art's removal to a decision by the city attorney. — Ed.
At about 2:15 p.m. on Friday, September 22, Hani asked his customers if they ever noticed the art pieces hanging outside of his store since last year. Both customers looked outside toward the corner of Orange Avenue and Fairmount Avenue and asked, “What art pieces?”
“They are pretty cool,” Hani said. “But my customers never see them.”
Hani is the manager of Spotts Liquors store at 4195 Fairmount Avenue. One of the bent-wire art sculptures is on the west side of Fairmount Avenue and the other is kitty-corner on the east side, hanging a few feet away from his store’s sign. “They have to look very carefully,” he said.
But Hani was recently informed that the city is demanding that the wire sculptures be taken down. He’s not happy about that. “I like them. They give us something [positive] to talk about.”
"We installed the wire art under the banner program,” said Enrique Gandarilla, the executive director of the City Heights Business Association. “The city informed us that we were not allowed to install banners or anything else on street lights that had traffic signals.”
The artist, Spenser Little, said, “It took me about two months to complete the eight sculptures [in City Heights]. And then I installed them in one day [on June 12, 2016].”
Little said he received his first notification to remove the pieces on September 16 of last year (about three months after they went up). “There was a long back-and-forth between the business association and the city’s office trying to find a compromise,” he said.
Gandarilla said, "The wire art was allowed as a temporary art exhibit for one year. The city requirements for installing and removing art in the public right-of-way are extensive. We could not find a vendor that met the city’s requirements. The agreement with the city was through the Commission for Arts and Culture [and] the commission informed us that the agreement would be expiring soon.... As soon as we can identify an appropriate location, we will install the wire art in City Heights."
Little is a 41-year-old El Cajon artist who left the biotech field almost 17 years ago. Last year he was commissioned by the City Heights Business Association with the help from Jim Bliesner, an artist and a lecturer at the University of California San Diego.
“Jim was familiar with the wire [sculptures] that I’ve been leaving in public in San Diego for the last 15 years,” Little said. The City Heights gig was his first “city-type” commissioned endeavor and he was paid $7500. Prior to the mid-city gig, he would sell his pieces at galleries and post them in places around the world.
“So, the sculptures [here] were all made from reference photos that I took of random people that I met on the street in City Heights, or people that I knew that lived or worked [here],” Little said. “I don’t use a jig or projector, I just bend it freehand with a pair of needle-nose pliers [and] working with that large [eight] gauge copper is like wrestling baby alligators. It doesn’t want to listen [and] you have to kinda fight with the wire to manipulate it to do what you want.”
Little likes to incorporate snippets of text into some of his pieces. The sculpture that is hung by Hani’s liquor store is a 3/4 profile of a woman with a blurb that reads “every time someone smiles I wake up.” The bearded-man sculpture across the corner by the USA Gasoline station says, “I have an alarm clock that runs on happiness.”
Last year in July, Little's sculpture posted by the University Avenue and Interstate 805 north exit was taken down. “It was a [6´x6´] portrait of an out-of-dress drag queen [that] I met in a shady bar right by where it was hung,” he said. “I told Jim and he found out that traffic control removed it and no one knew where it was.”
There are two more near Wabash Park.
“They are wonderful surprises, actually,” said Gwen, who lives about a block northwest of the Wabash Park sculptures. She also said, “You have to look really hard to see them.”
Many other City Heights residents agreed that they are difficult to see. “That’s what makes these so fun,” said one passerby, “spotting ‘real’ art [and] not that augmented reality hogwash.”
This reporter, though, could not find the third piece by the park.
“I’m too busy driving and looking at the lights,” said a lady who drove up as I snapped photos. “I still can’t see them — where are they again?”
Little said after his show at La Bodega on September 23 that he will start to pull down his sculptures from the “poles [selected] based on the vantage point that they would…have [the] sky as the backdrop.”
Gwen asked this reporter to give Little her email address and said that if they won’t allow him to hang his sculptures she will be happy to pay him to install one at her house. “I can hang them on my private property, right?” she said.
Little said, “The City Heights Business Association bought the sculptures from me, so they own them and they will decide their future. I feel [City Heights] is very neglected as far as public art works and usually only the more affluent neighborhoods like La Jolla or Hillcrest try more abnormal public art work projects. So I was very happy to do an unorthodox art install such as this in a community I felt that really needed it.”