But one of SoCal’s most intriguing artistic expressions is one that overlaps all of those categories, and that’s the mosaic.
What medium of art is more appropriate for southern California, itself a mosaic of varied landscapes, cultural histories, architectural styles, and aesthetic influences?
So, whether you’re a tile hound, a sculpture fanatic, a mural enthusiast, or a fan of outsider assemblage, here are five of the best contemporary examples of an ancient art form that continues to enchant art lovers and cultural wanderers of all ages.
1. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, Escondido
Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) relocated to the San Diego area from France in 1994 – and subsequently, though considered a “self-trained” artist, she made her mark throughout the area with pieces currently installed in La Jolla, Escondido, Balboa Park, and downtown San Diego. Her last large-scale work can be found tucked away inside the Iris Sankey Arboretum of Kit Carson Park in Escondido – unbelievably preserved and, as the name implies, magical. Connoisseurs of the artist’s work will recognize her characteristic serpents and other fantastical and even mythical creatures clad in ceramic tile, mirrored glass, and stones embedded into fiberglass and resin on a steel frame. But besides the snakes that encircle this magic garden, you’ll also find totems of lizards and birds and other mosaic creations that evoke Native American, Pre-Columbian, and Mexican artistic influences. The garden takes its name from the Amazonian warrior queen who represents a major (though fictional) figure in the Golden State’s origin story.
The sculpture garden was completed in 2003, a year after the artist’s death, making it her last international project and exemplary of her later-career style. You could spend hours in there, examining the natural-colored Mexican pebble stones and tens of thousands of pieces of individually hand-cut glass and ceramic (installed by Art Mosaic, Inc. of El Cajon at the time, now located in Santee). And because visitors are invited to touch and even climb the sculptures and benches – making it more of a playground than a sculpture park, per se – just try dragging a kid away from there. Get there when it opens at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you’ll get a full three hours before it closes at noon. Or, visit on the second Saturday of the month, when its open hours are extended to 2:00 p.m. (weather permitting).
Bonus: You can find more of Niki de Saint Phalle’s mosaic snakes at Waterfront Park by the San Diego County Administration Center, where "The Serpent Tree" (L'Arbre aux Serpents) is on loan from the Niki Charitable Art Foundation for a dozen years. So, too, are #19 Baseball Player" (part of the artist’s "Black Heroes" series, this one inspired by San Diego Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn) and "Large Seal" (which is just one element of her "Seals" series)
2. Ilan-Lael Foundation, Santa Ysabel
There are some places in this world that are just unbelievable. They must be a figment of someone's imagination, or a dream, or a manifestation. Even to see photographs of them, and read first-hand accounts of visiting them, it's hard to imagine that they're real and not an art project, or an experiment. I suppose artist James T. Hubbell's complex in Santa Ysabel, California is a bit of both. Although as an artist, Hubbell isn’t bound by medium and expresses himself through wood carving, stained glass, mixed media, and sculpture, the compound in East San Diego County where he lives and works is worth a visit if only to see his mosaic work. You’ll find it on top of the main house’s kitchen counter as well as lining the showers of the surrounding cabins and guesthouses, in the swimming pool, and scattered across various rooftops, ceilings, and even inside the “chapel.”
You have to see this place to believe it. You can compare it to folk art environments, or a permaculture commune, or even Middle Earth, and in some ways, it is all of those things. But still, it is ultimately Hubbellesque: there's nothing like it anywhere else. Unfortunately, the Hubbell home isn’t generally open for public visitors because it is a private residence and very much an active art studio not only for Hubbell himself, but also for the various artisans in his collective who help realize the vision of his designs by cutting glass, laying tiles, and erecting new buildings. So, for now, the only way to see this magical wonderland is to attend its annual Father’s Day Open House event. On that one day, visitors have free rein to wander and photograph the property (with the exception of a couple private spaces like bedrooms), and may even meet the Hubbells in person.
3. Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles
After years in disuse and finally being sold in 2013, the former Wilshire Boulevard home of the Freemasons of the Scottish Rite Order has now transformed into the Marciano Art Foundation, a contemporary art museum that's free and open to the public. And whether or not you’re interested in its permanent collection or any of its rotating exhibits or special events, go to pay homage to one of SoCal’s most heralded mosaicists, Millard Sheets. At the time, he called the 90,000-square-foot temple (which the masons of the Scottish Rite called a "cathedral") "one of the most exciting projects I ever had anything to do with." And that may have been because he was able to integrate art into his building plans from the very beginning, rather than slapping it on top of a finished building later on.
Although this monumental structure – for which he served as both artist and architect -- lost some of his characteristic touches in its recent restoration, you can find plenty more of them if you know where to look. For example, you can find gold-glazed details embedded into the travertine walls inside the sealed-off former front entrance (facing Wilshire) and original drinking fountains (some of which still even function) in tiled niches on both levels. But the pièce de résistance can be found on the top floor, at the back of the former dining room on the top floor that once sat as many as 1500 masons. There, a tremendous mosaic mural of ancient trees by Sheets has been preserved – though, unfortunately, somewhat hidden away behind a white wall that was literally built in front of it. You have to walk around the wall to see it -- and you have to know to walk around that wall. A more obvious example of Sheets’ fingerprint is on the east side of the building’s exterior: a large mosaic (his largest at the time, up to 70 feet high and 20 feet wide) that depicts the historical timeline of the great builders of temples, from Jerusalem circa 900 B.C. to California circa the 19th century A.D.
Bonus: Sheets is also known for the mosaic murals he created for a number of branches of Home Savings and Loan – now, by and large, operating as Chase Banks. One of his favorites, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy, was the one at Sunset and Vine that depicts some of Old Hollywood’s greatest stars. Its large plaza takes up the entire northeast corner, with a fountain and plenty of public seating that make it particularly inviting whether or not you’ve got any banking to do.
4. Mosaic Tile House, Venice
From the moment you arrive at the front gate of the Mosaic Tile House, the tile-covered labyrinth of the front yard – littered with bathtub benches, bathtub planters, and various arches crossing over above and animals arising from the patio below – is completely overwhelming. That's why getting an interpretive tour from Tile House resident and artist Cheri Pann is enjoyable but also necessary – just to know what you're looking at! (Though, to be honest, part of the fun is in the treasure hunt of objects embedded into the walls alongside the tiles – be it shattered dishware or flattened-out bottles.)
Pann creates much of the glasswork and glass tiles featured in the house's mosaic patterns, which are designed primarily by her husband Gonzalo Duran. Some of the tiles make a statement, while others are a bit more whimsical. In fact, the entire place is fanciful – including the inside, which features a gift shop inside the front door. But what differentiates their tile house from folk art environments like Bottle Village or Watts Towers? As Pann explains it, folk artists are driven by obsession. In contrast, she says, “We strategize everything." But that doesn’t mean that the artwork is finished yet… or ever will be. Find out for yourself on Saturdays from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. No reservation needed.
5. Hall of Records, Downtown Los Angeles
Joseph Young wasn’t just the man behind the most controversial piece of public art in L.A., the Triforium – although that may be how he ends up going down in history. But in reality, though his disco spaceship was not well-received, Young was a critically lauded mosaic artist of national repute whose many masterworks in the field of decorative arts included the mural that embellishes the exterior of the Richard Neutra-designed Hall of Records building in the Civic Center of downtown L.A. Known as his “Topographic Map,” the 20-by-80-foot relief depicts the water sources and geological features of L.A. County in glass mosaic, granite, and copper tubing. You can view it from the sidewalk at the north side of the hall on Temple Street.
Unfortunately, Young’s first mosaic commission is currently locked away from the public eye, inside the former LAPD headquarters known as the Parker Center, which is currently slated for demolition. His last commission, however, can be seen at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Beverly Grove’s Pan Pacific Park.