To the casual observer it might appear only to be art attached to a lifeguard tower. But when Sally Sarlot views it, she sees years of effort that she spent lobbying municipal and county lawmakers to bring the artwork to Marina del Rey.
“Building this tower was a very personal experience for me,” said Sarlot, the president of Beach Art, Inc., a private art company that constructed the structure.
Designed to resemble a child’s alphabet blocks, the mural, Alphabet Block Construction, and the tower will cease to exist on or after Nov. 29, barring a last minute plan to save it, county officials said.
Alphabet Block Construction is a colorful, three-dimensional mural painted on a lifeguard stand that sits on the sand near the intersection of Via Marina and Admiralty Way. It was painted by Venice artist Rip Cronk and a team of special needs students from Venice High School in 1997 at Marina Beach, known to locals as Mothers Beach.
The mural, with its once lustrous patchwork of colors faded by years in the sun, is still a unique attraction on Mothers Beach for children and beachgoers. But according to officials at the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, it has served its purpose and is running out of time.
If it does not find a home by the end of November, it will be destroyed, said Dusty Crane, a Beaches and Harbors spokeswoman. Crane said the tower has suffered some termite damage and is also dotted with graffiti, and county lifeguards report that children often climb on top of the structure.
“The lifeguards think that it’s a safety hazard,” she said.
There was a proposal to move the mural to a Playa Vista park, but recently the planned commercial and residential development’s representatives told Sarlot that they were no longer interested. “They said it didn’t ‘fit in with their plans,’” Sarlot claims.
She said she then sought help from county Department of Parks and Recreation representatives, but they did not want the tower either.
“I don’t know what to do at this point,” Sarlot said with a sigh.”
Sarlot, who says she is also a photographer who once owned an art gallery, noted it was former county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke who helped her begin the process of bringing Alphabet Block Construction to the Marina. She had to obtain the permission of several committees in both the city and county governments before finally getting the green light from the Board of Supervisors.
“It was a long, long process,” Sarlot recalled.
Cronk is a celebrated muralist best known for his Venice Beach murals of The Doors frontman Jim Morrison in 1991 called Morning Shot, a 1990 self-portrait on Ocean Front Walk where he is depicted rappelling from a three-story building, and perhaps his best known work, Venice Reconstituted, near Danny’s Deli at Windward Avenue and Speedway. The artist said while the mural was a good fit for Marina del Rey, he had hoped that it would capture a certain splendor once it was in place.
“The idea of that piece was so that you could see it on the beach,” Cronk explained in an interview in Venice, where he is completing an extension of one of his murals. “While it sort of fit in at Mothers Beach, it really didn’t have the sense of majesty that I was looking for.”
The muralist said he always envisioned the mural as a lifeguard tower, but to his knowledge, it has never been used that way.
“I’m not sure if they actually used it as a lifeguard stand,” Cronk said. “I also thought it was there as sort of an art object, and I’d like to see it used as a lifeguard stand.”
Sarlot has the rights to Alphabet Block and says it will be a tremendous loss if the mural is destroyed.
“I can’t put any more efforts or heart into this,” she lamented. “This was a real labor of love; in many respects, it was like a child for me, really. And the people that were involved with it became like family.”
After the completion of the tower, a Santa Monica educational psychologist, Doria Krohn, wrote Sarlot a letter commending her for involving special needs students in the project.
“These students have so few opportunities to demonstrate their worth, and this project challenged them and allowed them to feel a sense of accomplishment,” the psychologist wrote.
Sharon Gebhart, then in charge of Venice High’s special projects, was delighted to work with an artist of Cronk’s stature.
“Little did I realize that my connection with muralist Rip Cronk would also realize such an opportunity for our students through your beach project,” Gebhart wrote to Sarlot.
The mural was conceived as one of 30 works of art to be displayed on lifeguard towers throughout Los Angeles County by artist Sergio Premoli and Beach Art Inc.
“It was the prototype for all of the towers,” said Crane.
Cronk and the students worked on the mural on Venice Beach in an area where the skate park was built last year, Sarlot said. The work began approximately four years before the mural was finally moved to Mothers Beach.
Several students submitted designs for the mural before the final selection was made.
Sarlot said she had hoped that the Venice High students who helped Cronk paint the tower could have parlayed the experience into something from which they could profit in the future.
“I thought that we could create a project that the young people in the schools could use as a possible business venture,” she said. “My idea was that they could develop products based on the design ideas of the blocks, they could do marketing or any number of things.”
Cronk acknowledges the Marina mural is not as well known to the general public as his other artworks, and he thinks it is because of its location. “I think that it would get a lot more recognition if it were on Venice Beach,” he said.
Cronk believes that art often drifts out of the public conscience after a certain period of time, with some exceptions.
“They have a (lifespan) and they’re really not meant to be permanent objects,” the artist said. “You’re lucky if they’re around 20 years because often the paint deteriorates and they have to be taken care of.
“While the murals often become more important to the community the longer they’re there because they become part of the history of the community and they have this iconic value, on the other hand they’re at best temporary objects,” Cronk continued. “If I get 10 years out of a mural, I consider myself very lucky.”
In her letter, Krohn expressed hope that the project could be replicated along the coastline.
“As a resident of the beach community, I appreciate the aesthetic value of your product and hope that it can be expanded to other parts of the beach,” she wrote. “It is a true asset to Mothers Beach.”
Both Cronk and Sarlot say they thought the mural would be right at home on Venice Beach in the company of so many other eclectic works of art, but Crane said that was not an option.
“At this point, it’s seen as a safety hazard by the county,” she reiterated.
Fourth District County Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents Marina del Rey, could not be reached for comment.
Sarlot says that if the mural is eventually taken away to be destroyed, she would most likely go to Mothers Beach to film it one last time.
“It will be a very sad day,” she said. “It’ll be a heartache for me.”