City and sculptor make plans to restore Palisades Park’s “Gestation III,” a wooden beacon for the winter solstice

By Christina Campodonico  

Sculptor Baile Oakes stands with “Gestation III” last week in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park Photo by Jorge M. Vargas jr.

Sculptor Baile Oakes stands with “Gestation III” last week in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas jr.

“Gestation III” is the type of sculpture you could easily miss — or it could stop you in your tracks.

Tall, round and wooden, it blends in with the palm trees that surround it on a stretch of Santa Monica’s seaside Palisades Park, just north of Montana and Ocean Avenues. But when the winter solstice arrives, the seed shaped structure rises in silhouette, like a whale’s head cresting against ocean waves. Its ribs ripple in the shadows, while the setting sun finds a perfect perch at the center of the sculpture’s oval shaped oculus; its light shines like a beacon from a lighthouse.

At such a dazzling moment, you might not notice the smatterings of greenish lichen sprinkled across the top like age spots, the gaps in its bottom wooden ribs, or its driftwood gray pallor. A facelift is in store for the 25-year-old Santa Monica sculpture, which has become a Mecca for solstice celebrators in the years since it was built. The City of Santa Monica’s Department of Cultural Affairs has earmarked $20,000 for restoration of “Gestation III.”

That’s welcome news for artist Baile Oakes, who created “Gestation III” for the City in 1990 and has been in talks with Cultural Affairs about a restoration project for about two years.

Oakes first noticed signs of decay at a solstice gathering. A pile of dirt had accumulated at the base of the sculpture, creating an environment where critters could thrive.

“It was a perfect storm for major, major rot and insect infestation,” said Oakes. He believed that runoff and sprinkler spray from the park’s irrigation system had caused water to seep into the sculpture’s base, exacerbating conditions.

Santa Monica Cultural Affairs Manager Jessica Cusick said that a combination of factors resulted in the wood’s decay.

“The overall cause of the decay is, generally speaking, exposure to the environment, such as water, (rain, sprinklers, etc.), accumulation of debris and other environmental factors such as insects,” Cusick wrote in an email. A conservator’s report of the sculpture was not immediately available.

Oakes brought his concerns to the attention of the Santa Monica Arts Commission, and Cultural Affairs began to work with the artist on figuring out ways to restore the sculpture and prevent further damage.

To assess the condition of “Gestation III,” the Public Art Committee allocated $10,000 from the Percent for Arts Budget (a resolution in the 1980s that directed funding to public art), bringing in an engineer to check out the sculpture’s structural integrity as well as a wood specialist to x-ray the sculpture’s wooden ribs, said Cultural Affairs Supervisor Malina Moore.

Having earmarked $20,000 for conservation needs and made plans to assist with water runoff in the area, Cultural Affairs is now awaiting a proposal from Oakes to move forward with the project, said Cusick. The public can also contribute funds specifically designated for “Gestation III’s” restoration through The Santa Monica Arts Foundation, which accepts donations from individuals for art programs developed by the Santa Monica Arts Commission.

Cultural Affairs has recently completed a citywide conservation assessment of its 30-year-old art collection and estimates over one million dollars in conservation needs, said Cusick. “Gestation” is just one part of preserving the past.

“With the restoration of ‘Gestation’ we hope that the many people who enjoy the work, who interact with it daily, will be able to continue to do so for years to come, and that an entire new generation will learn the story behind the work,” wrote Cusick.

Oakes for one is glad to have put the sculpture’s aging process on pause, at least until he can get its natural cycle back on track.

“I’m fine with it just naturally aging and breaking down with the natural components of sunlight and water and everything else. This was an aggravated condition,” said Oakes, who hopes to replace portions of the sculpture with new Port Orford Yellow Cedar, re-grade the surrounding area and raise additional funds for the project.

For Oakes, it’s a chance to bring order to a piece that attunes itself to nature’s rhythms. The conception of his first born son initially inspired him to create the work that aligns itself so precisely with the movements of the sun through a series of eight concentric circles.

“It was very important to me to get that symmetry because there’s a certain thing that happens within ourselves when we sense that kind of balance,” said Oakes. “So I wanted the piece to have that balance, even within the chaos of all our creation here, there’s a balance going on.”

Between the City of Monica and Baile Oakes a balance has been struck, at least for now.