Barbara McCarren and Jud Fine have a witty, thoughtful and accessible approach to their work that has made them among the hottest artists on the public arts scene.
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Arts in the Figueroa Corridor

Ask sculpture professor Jud Fine what public art projects he’s working on right now and he tends to lose count. There are, he says with assurance, four collaborations with his partner, sculptor and adjunct professor Barbara McCarren, who is also his wife. There are also two of his own and two of her own.
But when he starts to enumerate them, he comes up short.
Let’s see, there’s that new river trail in Ventura, marked off with Fine’s totemic pole designs, and the downtown Modesto collaboration, with Fine and McCarren’s striking stone-and-tile rendering of the San Joaquin Valley. There’s a park in Long Beach and there’s the Venice Boardwalk and there’s another hiking trail in San Antonio and so on.
For the moment, though, Fine’s count comes to . . . seven.
“What’s the other project?” he asks himself several times, ticking them off again on his fingers.
Losing track of a major project, temporarily misplacing it somewhere in a mind churning with creativity, is a side effect of being one of the hottest artists on the public arts scene. Fine and McCarren’s witty, thoughtful, accessible ideas, with fragments of written text and pithy historical and archeological references, are in such great demand that they stay busy. They spend much of their time nowadays flying to other cities, hunkering over drawings and plans, in deep consultations with architects and community committees.
“The fact that they’re winning all of these important commissions signifies how nationally prominent they’ve become in the very competitive public arts field,” says Ruth Weisberg, dean of the School of Fine Arts.

“Evolation” Nestle Co.,
Glendale, Ca.

A collaborative semi-public garden featuring, in part, a 31-foot off-center balance beam that periodically spills water into a connecting stream and is anchored at one end by an egg-laying, female California newt. “Evolation” is an obsolete word meaning “apt to fly away.”

“Spine,” Maguire Gardens,
Los Angeles Central Library

With water as an underlying foundation, "Spine" reflects the history and global diversity of written language and the evolution of the human life form. Shown here are the Archaic and Writing Steps, the Well of Scribes, the Female Well and its attendant glyph ring, and the Print Steps.

Jud Fine made his mark as a public arts original five years ago with his whimsical design for the Maguire Gardens of the Los Angeles Central Library. Like other Fine designs, it’s part of an organic whole, tied into the renovated building it adjoins, with thematic references to libraries and books. “Spine,” it’s called: a series of fountains and steps adorned with letters and numbers that, when looked at from a wide perspective, suggest “an open book laid on its spine,” as Fine himself puts it.
The site has become a favorite gathering place for library patrons, lunching office workers and passing children, who ponder the fragments of text (Japanese poetry, an equation from Isaac Newton, a line from the Gutenberg Bible, a phrase from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, among many others) and climb on the reflecting fountains connected by water flowing in runnels.
“The city is harsh; the garden a sanctuary where people with armloads of books and brains boiling with big ideas can decompress in peace,” noted the Los Angeles Times a year after the park had opened.
Barbara McCarren is a highly influential installation artist who creates site-specific works that are often temporary, including whimsical pieces that give a new slant to commonplace objects, such as a mountain of Christmas tree air fresheners or a blizzard of eggs dangling in the air like snowflakes. “I first started doing installation art in the early’80s,” she says. “Now, everyone is doing it.” One of her pieces is in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
A Washington, D.C.-area native who studied at UCLA and has a Master of Fine Arts degree from USC, she serves on the downtown Art/Design Advisory Panel for the Los Angeles Redevelopment Agency, advising on the public art components of high-profile civic projects such as the Staples Center and the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Her multifaceted design in Los Angeles’ refurbished Pershing Square incorporates an earthquake fault line, the constellations visible in Southern California night skies, an orange grove, porcelain postcards and a fountain whose flow imitates the tidal activity of the sea.
Fine, Los Angeles-born, started his academic career as a history major at UC Santa Barbara, with aspirations toward a graduate degree in American intellectual history.
But the idea of marshaling a thesis full of facts to prove a point — “whereas I could just as well have gathered all sorts of facts to support the opposite” — proved antithetical to him. “I realized I didn’t want to do this,” he says. So he switched to art and earned an MFA at Cornell. He has taught at USC since 1979.
One of their first collaborative projects, the Los Altos Market Center in Long Beach, illustrates a central theme in McCarren and Fine’s work, which always refers, in one way or another, to a site’s history. There’s a mound-like entryway, as well as odd forms that emit the recorded sound of moving water, and a series of columns, all suggesting an archetypal communal gathering spot.
Another important element in their work is the ability to grab the viewer’s attention and inspire thought. Says Mark Johnstone, public arts administrator for the city of Los Angeles: “Public art has to work on the most basic level, so that it will be visually appealing and make people curious. And then it also needs to provide something new, even if you’re seeing it day after day.”
Los Altos Market Center,
Long Beach, Ca.

A conceptual plaza design with incorporated artworks that reference mythic and contemporary gathering places.

Cesar Chavez Park,
Long Beach

McCarren/Fine sketch for a new 14-acre park in Long Beach that includes a text maze, paving images and color gardens that speak to the related themes of a coastal farm and labor. Quotations are from Booker T. Washington, Pablo Neruda, Ernest Galarza and others.

Current projects on the McCarren/ Fine burner include:

Cesar Chavez Park in Long Beach, emblazoned with Fine and McCarren’s deceptively simple agricultural and marine designs, commenting on the park’s geographic
location. There are also etched quotes from Booker T. Washington, Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Galarza and others about man’s relationship to the land.
Tenth Street Place Plaza in Modesto, for which McCarren and Fine have fashioned a 50-foot model of the valley surrounding the Stanislaus County seat, complete with a rendering of the coastal mountain range to the west and the Sierra foothills to the east. The massive model will even include water running in channels to suggest the rivers and irrigation streams that brought agricultural plenty to the region.
The Venice Boardwalk, whose refurbishment will include Fine and McCarren’s “camel column,” a kneeling dromedary with a column on its back, reminiscent of the Adriatic motifs that earlier Venice planners envisioned, and an oyster-shell fountain that emulates a natural blow hole.
The San Francisco Zoo project (the one that Fine was blanking out on), still in a formative stage. The zoo is being renovated for the first time in 60 years; Fine and McCarren will produce art for Zoo Street, the new main drag. “We want to underscore the human inter-relationship with the animal world,” Fine says.
Fine’s solo projects include the
Ventura River Trail, 6-1/2 miles through a former oil field east of Ventura. He has fashioned distance markers out of oil drilling bits, sunk in concrete pedestals, each inscribed with a different definition of the word “mark.” The regularity of the markers, mile after mile, suggests to Fine the American notion of “manifest destiny,” with settlers sweeping to the sea “without caring what’s in the way.”
Another solo project is the
San Antonio Mission Trail, the head of which will be marked by Fine’s “low-rider” columns in a park setting, posts with a decorative automotive theme, which he connects with the elaborate design of baroque Mexican churches. “The idea is to contrast the horizontal, low-and-slow nature of the trail experience with the dominant culture’s worship of tall and fast,” he says.

 

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San Francisco Zoo,
San Francisco

Sketch for one of a series of “mound” passageways that will speak to the historic human, animal, habitat interdependence.

McCarren and Fine Photo by Everhard Williams

Project Photography Courtesy McCarren/Fine


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