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Explore San Diego’s Colorful Public Art

Vibrant artworks by internationally renowned artists

With nearly perfect weather year-round, most visitors to San Diego want to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Fortunately for art lovers, San Diego’s great outdoors also happen to be home to vibrant artworks by internationally renowned artists. Make a day (or two) of hunting for these famous sculptures around San Diego.

Birds' Word's

Birds' Word's

Pae White

When Pae White was chosen to create artwork for the revamped B Street Pier, she recalled trips to San Diego as a child. She remembered lying in the sun and reading books. Words from those memories now form a sheltering canopy over visitors as they buy tickets for a harbor cruise, browse the gift shop at the Information Center, dine at Carnitas Snack Shack, or people-watch from mini parks studded with jacarandas, the city's official tree. "Birds' Word's" integrates art and architecture through the steel and aluminum canopy, glass panels in the hues of the bay at dawn and dusk, kiosks, and a pleasingly puzzling restroom covered in cryptic letters. While some of White's words can be read from below, others are visible only to passing seagulls and airplanes.

Where: B Street Pier - 1140 N Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101

Arbre de Serpents (Serpent Tree)

Arbre de Serpents (Serpent Tree)

Niki de Saint Phalle

On any given afternoon, Waterfront Park is filled with moms pushing strollers, friends playing soccer, and kids and dogs splashing in the arcing fountains. Watching over the happiness is a rainbow-colored, multi-headed snake, Niki de Saint Phalle's "Serpent Tree." Stained glass and mirrors glitter in the sunshine, the mosaics echoing the tiles on the adjacent County Administration Building and around the base of Donal Hord's massive 1939 sculpture, "Guardian of the Water." Saint Phalle, who lived in La Jolla in the last years of her life, overcame childhood trauma through art. She described herself and her work as "color, joy, abundance." More of her sculptures can be found by the south fountains and playground, as well as in Balboa Park, Downtown, La Jolla and Escondido.

Where: Waterfront Park - 1600 Pacific Highway, San Diego, CA 92101

Fault Whisper

Fault Whisper

Living Lenses (Po Shu Wang and Louise Bertelsen)

With a strong science and technology community based here, it's no surprise that those disciplines find their way into San Diego's art. "Fault Whisper" beautifies a small city park while providing a glimpse into what's underneath. Two mirror-polished spheres sit on either side of a shallow section of the Rose Canyon Fault. Stand at the west sphere and peer through the viewfinder. The east sphere was exactly in the center when the sculpture was installed in 2015. If the fault has shifted, you'll see a change on the sightline. Meanwhile, an accelerometer deep in the ground monitors the Earth's movements and the data is translated into musical notes. For its ingenuity and aesthetics, "Fault Whisper" received local and national recognition. If the idea of constant seismic change leaves you rattled, stop by Halcyon Coffee Bar or Stella Public House for a calming tea or craft beer. They're in the northwest corner of the park and the outdoor decks are a favorite meeting place for local authors. Then pay a visit to the San Diego Central Library, which features art throughout (more than 150 paintings, drawings and photographs), a large art gallery with rotating exhibitions, and the exquisite Hervey Family Rare Book Room.

Where: 1433 Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101

Fallen Star

Fallen Star

Do Ho Suh

When locals share their favorite places to see public art, UCSD's Stuart Collection is almost always on the list. Nineteen pieces grace the campus, ranging from mischievous to contemplative to downright daring. "Fallen Star" checks all those boxes. In an artistic and engineering feat, Korean artist Do Ho Suh cantilevered a house off the seventh floor of Jacobs Hall. It's his first major permanent installation and continues his themes of displacement, perception and the meaning of "home." Plan to visit when the house is open to the public (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM), and then take time to explore the rest of the collection before heading to La Jolla to catch the sunset.

Where: Jacobs School of Engineering - University of California San Diego, La Jolla, 92037

Unconditional Surrender / Embracing Peace

JOHN SEWARD JOHNSON II

Visitors love it. Locals are mixed. Some appreciate that it recognizes San Diego's military history and veterans. Others point to ongoing controversy, such as whether Johnson's use of the famous 1945 Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph constitutes copyright violation and whether the pose glorifies sexual harassment. (Perhaps that's one reason why Johnson changed the title from "Unconditional Surrender" to "Embracing Peace.") One thing is certain — it's in the right spot. Sheltered by the enormous U.S.S. Midway Museum, a decommissioned aircraft carrier open for tours, Tuna Harbor Park features the "Greatest Generation Collection," a selection of memorials and artworks honoring the men and women who served our country.

Where: Tuna Harbor Park - 3 Tuna Lane, San Diego, CA 92101

32 Foot Acrylic Column

ROBERT IRWIN

Robert Irwin, the venerable master of Light and Space phenomena, is known for probing the basic tenets of art and our interactions with it. He's also known for his wicked sense of humor. That's evident in two pieces at the Federal Courthouse, where an Irwin-designed hedge zigzags from street level to the elevated entryway. Inside the lobby, a 32-foot clear acrylic prism fractures light, disappearing almost completely when viewed from certain angles. Both pieces introduce elements of uncertainty, causing the viewer to question perception and truth — a message that is simultaneously impish and deeply resonant to those entering the legal system.

Where: United States District Courthouse - 333 West Broadway, San Diego, CA 92101

Broadway Fountain

IRVING J. GILL

When a city values innovation as much as San Diego does, it's sometimes difficult to find relics from the days of dusty streets and horse-drawn carriages. One prize, however, has withstood more than a century of development, even as downtown grew up around it. The 1910 Revivalist fountain in Horton Plaza Park is variously called the Broadway Fountain, Wilde Fountain or Irving Gill's fountain. Gill (1870 - 1936) was a trailblazing architect who would develop a style that defined Southern California. In the early 1900s he was hired to tame the park, which was developing a reputation for rambunctious public speech. He drew on classical elements of Greek and Roman architecture, which he then modernized. The fountain was one of the first public monuments in the country to incorporate colored electric lights with water, and it is the first recorded item in the city's civic art collection. Over the years it suffered from neglect and vandalism until a recent $450,000 restoration brought it back to life. Engraved in the frieze above the elegant columns is the phrase, "Broadway Fountain for the People."

Where: Horton Plaza Park - 900 Fourth Ave, San Diego, CA 92101

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