With creations from two Central Coast artists, a transformed children’s playground soon will emerge in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a whimsical area inhabited by mystical creatures designed to trigger young imaginations and tickle adult funny bones.
One of those sculptures was created by the always imaginative Phoebe Palmer, who built her reputation on other kinds of art, all of them equally quirky and fanciful to the extreme.
Palmer’s usual media are oils, pastels and paintings that are equal parts barbed humor and fine figurative art.
Her latest venture, however, has an overriding sweetness and wistfulness designed to appeal to the artistic child in anyone. There are other differences, too.
This is Palmer’s first piece of public art.
The ferro-cement-and-tile creature weighs nearly a ton and cost about $10,000, according to statistics from the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.
The creature will be displayed in detached parts, sort of a three-dimensional triptych, as if popping up out of a sea of sand in a long, one-of-a-kind play cave near the park’s historic carousel.
Although Palmer spent more than four years working on the project, it took her nearly a year full time at the end to finish it while commuting to San Luis Obispo to care for her 92-year-old father.
Other local ties
The total budget for the renovation project was about $4 million, according to Rick Thall, the Recreation and Park Department’s project manager.
Thall said Scott Peterson of Santa Barbara, a former San Luis Obispo resident, designed and built most of the unique sculpture elements at the Golden Gate Park’s new playground, including a pair of wave climbing walls and a sea cove that was to include a sea serpent.
Peterson in turn hired Palmer to create the creature.
“Hiring Phoebe was largely intuitive, but I also visited their place, built out of shipwrecks on the edge of a cliff near Ragged Point,’’ Peterson said. “After meeting Palmer and her amazing blacksmith-artist husband Peter Fels, I knew right away there was a team there.
“Public art will be tested, especially in a playground, so it needs to be real, and what’s needed is authenticity,” Peterson said. “It seemed to me that Phoebe and Peter were bohemian in an older sense of the word that is steeped in integrity and a certain sensibility that was just right for the giant sea-eel serpent dragon beast The result is a beast that is sublime, but that any age child will love and incorporate into their childhood experience.”
Added Thall: “The work that Scott and Phoebe do is wonderful. They create unique, beautiful and durable public art that integrates well with a child’s imagination.”
For the park’s sandbox, Peterson “wanted a “sea creature sticking its head out of the cave at one end,” Palmer said, with “the creature going in and out of another section of the cave farther down; and on the last portion of cave, the tail of the creature in bas relief.”
From the start, the sea creature was a ‘her,’ Palmer said, “After a while, I just started calling her ‘the beast.’ ”
Palmer did 15 to 20 “little clay models” of the head, each with a different expression. She and Peterson agreed on one that “was somewhat sweeter than what he initially had in mind, I think.”
As always, making art is learning by doing, and “Phoebe always dives right in,” said her husband, Peter Fels.
Palmer made a rebar metal frame for the head and covered it with aviary wire — like chicken wire, only smaller — and metal lath similar to what would be used for plastering.
“Of course, it was harder to get the nice expression in wire than in clay,” she said.
Palmer fashioned the tail and midsection, and cemented the entire sculpture.
She made about 10,000 “little tile scales” out of medium-fire porcelain, roughly 1-inch triangles with a curved bottom. They were fired once, glazed and then fired again.
Other tiles as small as a quarter-inch were needed for the head, “so I would be able to keep her nice expression It was a pain painting stripes on a quarter-inch tile,” Palmer said with a laugh. “As I kept having to make yet another batch I muttered about the beast’s voracious appetite for tile.”
She recalled that “trial-and-error was the name of the game.”
It took many glaze experiments and test arrangements of more than 15 types of tiles. Some have a little yellow tip, she said, “and then two or three other glazes applied in stripes or speckles.”
The beast’s “eyes and lips were made out of bigger pieces of ceramic,” clay that shrinks 12 percent in the firing, “so getting the eyes to fit in the eye socket was a challenge.” In fact, she made “about 15 pairs before I got it right, plus tons of 3D glaze samples — the glazes act differently on the curved sample than on a flat one.
“Next time,” she said, “I’d make the eyes first and make the cement to fit them.”
She also made four sets of lips before getting the right color and texture.
In retrospect, Palmer said, everything concerned with such a complex creature took longer than expected. In fact, “even the installation is going slowly, and won’t be completed until the end of March. They are plumbing it to emit mist out of the nostrils.”
Then, no doubt, Palmer’s enchanting sea beast will delight young and old alike in a play area designed to put pure Central Coast magic into everyday fun and games.