State Street, Santa Barbara

sunflowers on state variety pack

Making Sunflowers on State – The Process

Sunflowers On State

The 6 giant sunflowers blossoming on State Street were created as a community art project to coincide with the Santa Barbara Art Museum’s Van Gogh exhibit.

The actual creation of the sunflowers was led by Kym Cochran of The Environment Makers. It was quite a process…

After making the sunflower heads, they were taken to 3 local middle schools and 3 high schools and painted by the students.

During the following weeks, this page will be updated to include a variety pack of imagery that highlights the path of fabrication and installation. In the meantime, please view the existing imagery on Facebook or Instagram.

Making 6 Oversized Sunflowers for State Street: The Process

The SBCOAC conceptual image of the project

It’s an easy thing to say, “Hey, let’s make 6 tall sunflowers and put them on State Street!”

After the initial glow of the idea dissipates, the reality of accomplishing such an endeavor begins to sink in. Public art can be challenging: it needs to not only survive the elements but also people. In the case of the sunflowers, it additionally had to be designed for collaboration to be a true community arts project. Sarah York-Rubin, Head of the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture, wanted to include local schools in the project, and Kym Cochran, now project lead, proposed designing them so anyone could immediately participate.

Exploded view of the sunflowers

As with all projects, we started with ideation. How tall should it be? What’s the width of the flower? Should it break down into pieces for storage? How do we attach it securely to the street?

Sunflower cutout.

We began with simple flower cutouts, stem attachment methods, and materials testing. For the petals and leaves, Kym opted for an internal structure of wire mesh and metal stem, coated with fast or normal drying sculpting epoxy dough. She was adamant that they should not look smooth and perfect and cautioned all participants that they were riffing on the work of impressionists not realists. When finished, the delicate-looking leaves and petals were, in fact, extremely tough: throw one across the room and nothing would happen to it. Once enough were made for a prototype, she assembled them into a sunflower head and brought it to State Street to see how it looked on sight.

Kym testing stem materials
Testing stem materials.
Making petals.
State Street prototype test.
Producing petals and leaves at The Arts Fund
Producing petals and leaves.

The Arts Fund at 821 State Street gave us a place to work in their gallery. We moved in and went into serious production making leaf after leaf and petal after petal.

Our first deadline was to finish up all six sunflower heads so they could be packaged up and sent off to the six local schools that would be painting them. This meant we would also have to finish the pollen and seed centers for the kids to paint at the same time.

Kym knew that extruding sculpting epoxy through cheesecloth would create a pollen-like effect. Using that knowledge, Jon invented the “Acme Pollen Printer” in which an entire ring of pollen could be made and fitted to an assembled sunflower head. He also became obsessed with the Fibonacci Sequence seed area that dominates the center of the flower and eventually figured out a method for making that too. He created the initial model using Sculpey, a type of modeling clay. The trick was to bake the model and make a negative impression of it using fresh Sculpey. The baked version of the latter could then be used as an embossing pad for sculpting epoxy. Bonding the seed center to the pollen ring with fast-drying epoxy dough completed the process.

Assembling the sunflower heads.

After priming the flower heads and centerpieces, we packaged them up along with a palette of paints (donated by Vista Paints) and a collection of brushes. Sarah York-Rubin came by and took them away. It would be two weeks before we saw them again and see what the kids had done. We turned our attention to the bases and stems.

SB Junior High Sunflower head arrives.

The bases had to be intensely strong and custom-made for each art pad we’d selected along State Street. An “art pad” consists of five bolts that unscrew straight out of the ground. Being set in brick, none of the measurements can be described as consistent. Being that the bases would be made of welded iron, they had to fit perfectly. To be on the safe side, we consulted with the brilliant carpenter/artist Van Granaroli to help come up with the design. Ian Plant, a certified welder in The Funk Zone, fabricated them. They fitted exactly and were so strong that you felt a house could fall on them and they’d survive.

Making the pollen rings
Making the Sunflowers

The stems presented their own set of challenges. The idea was to make them in three pieces to ameliorate transportation and storage issues. This required yet more engineering that resulted in our selecting lengths of steel square stock to act as the sunflowers’ spines. From that point on, it was simply a matter of forming the base shape of the stems using tied-on lath or wire mesh coated with layers of sculpting epoxy.

Fence construction.

While working on the stems, the sunflower heads came back. It’s a little concerning to have other entities take complete control of an entire aspect of an art project. Happily, opening the boxes was a joy; the kids did fantastic work. All six flower heads were fun, happy, and radically different from each other. It was obvious a lot of thought and imagination had gone into the process.

Now we had the task of joining stems to the heads, adding a final coat of sculpting epoxy down their lengths along with additional leaves, followed by primer and multiple coats of paint.

Finally, we made fences to protect the sunflowers from the general public. Home Depot in Goleta generously donated all the materials and once again Van Granaroli came to the rescue by showing Jon how best to make them.

With all the components now ready, we drove up State Street with a crew and planted the sunflowers.

Big thanks to all involved.

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