A Sculptor’s Natural Habitat: The Elfin Forest

A Sculptor’s Natural Habitat: The Elfin Forest

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Sculptor Anne Mudge makes publicly commissioned art from a very private spot in Elfin Forest, a hamlet outside Escondido's city limits.

To find sculptor Anne Mudge, you need to travel far from the arty enclaves of San Diego’s Little Italy or East Village and drive all the way to Elfin Forest, a rural community outside Escondido’s city limits.

Mudge shares a trailer next to a seed farm with her husband, nurseryman Gilbert Foerster, and their dog, a border collie mix named Bandit. Her small trailer home and art studio — 600 square feet and 400 square feet, respectively — are nestled toward the end of a rutted dirt road, surrounded by fields and hills. There’s no street sign. No traffic, either.

“I sometimes go for days without talking to outsiders,” Mudge says.

Mudge, 59, describes herself as a hermit. Yet she makes public art, as well as works seen in museums and galleries. There’s a contrast, even a contradiction, between the isolated way she lives and the collaborative process required for public art. And an enormous difference between where she lives and the gritty urban places where her art is installed.

The contrast energizes her.

“I really need to mix with the world more and humanize these brutal spaces,” she says.

Mudge is part of the assortment of local artists who create murals and sculptures to be integrated into public buildings and thoroughfares. To see Mudge at work here in her forest home is to realize that much more goes into these pieces than a bureaucratic process and squabbling over funding. To see such a private person’s commitment to her inherently public profession is fascinating: a look at a local artist who’s not as well known as she should be.

She continues to believe in her mission despite the public art cuts in the cash-strapped city of San Diego. At Mayor Jerry Sanders’s suggestion, the City Council recently voted to suspend the policy that sets aside money for art for city building projects.

Mudge says public art is an important piece of a community’s vitality.

“I don’t see how an economy that depends on the creativity of its inhabitants can thrive without an environment that nurtures creativity,” she says.

Mudge’s art is heavily inspired by the nature around her small North
County home. | Photo by Sam Hodgson

She has attempted to infuse a few communities with that vitality, one work in the late 1990s commissioned by the city, and the others in the last few years by the region’s transit and airport authorities. You might see — or even sit on — her artworks without knowing who designed them. At the airport, her outdoor seating areas sport whimsical images of birds and planes. At an otherwise drab intersection in North Park, her concrete pillars resemble tree trunks that support the live growth of flowering vines.

And at San Diego State University’s Transit Center, five of her hanging sculptures — each approximately 18 feet long — provide delicate counterpoint to the underground station’s trolley tracks and vending machines.

For public art projects, Mudge has worked with architects, contractors, community groups, and the people who help build her massive art pieces. She also has to know about legal and technical issues that pertain to the projects, such as contracts, insurance, and liability.

For an intensely private person, creating public art is challenging. Every project is a new and steep learning curve, Mudge says. Though she’s a member of Public Address, a group of artists who create public art primarily in San Diego, it’s still not an entirely comfortable process for her.

“Being in public situations has never been easy for me,” she says.

You might not guess that by talking to her one-on-one. Her manner is confident; her laugh, robust. For someone who has created such large public artworks, she’s surprisingly small, just under five feet tall.

Mudge’s sculpture has been exhibited at SDSU and other galleries along with museums around the county and beyond. She has several pieces up through the end of the month at a Santa Monica gallery.

She is a respected member of the local art community, says Tina Yapelli, a SDSU professor who directs the University Art Gallery.

“Integrity is so important when talking about Anne and her work,” Yapelli says. “She has been faithful to who she is as a person and as an artist.”

Flashier and more colorful pieces could attract more buyers who want to dress up a home or office. Mudge, however, is true to her aesthetic.

Nature permeates her life, her art — even her bathroom.

Peek inside that room and you’ll see a ledge full of rocks, seeds, shells and other items that she has gathered. She says they inspire her every day.

Mudge was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Idaho. The daughter of a nuclear engineer, she discovered the joy of making sculpture while an art student in college. Her husband, a veteran of the nursery business, helped expand her appreciation of plants.

Her sculpture reflects her affinity with the natural world and her ability to work imaginatively with such everyday materials as wire, string, and masking tape.

One hanging sculpture looks like an elaborate cluster of roots, dangling in mid-air. Another resembles an intricately woven nest, made by a bird obsessed with metal. Still other works call to mind seeds, spider webs, mysterious sea creatures or tiny organisms.

“What I’m drawing from are the processes of incremental change — how everything influences everything else, and the smallest act is of essential importance,” she says, sounding philosophical, even spiritual.

What she does is often called “process art.” She defines it as a call and response between the maker and the material, with spontaneous aspects akin to the improvisations of a jazz musician.

A casual glance at her art doesn’t tell you how much skill and effort are involved. You find that out by watching her work in her studio, which contains everything from sketch books and art supplies to hanging sculptures wrapped in plastic so they won’t get dusty while in storage.

In that studio, one recent afternoon, she’s holding a piece of wire cable from a bicycle brake that she found in a trash barrel in Encinitas. She expertly unwraps the individual strands in the cable until she has seven threads. Each of the threads is thin enough to be easily bent. So Mudge begins rewinding them, almost as if she’s doing some kind of free-form knitting. She experiments with different configurations, looking for a pattern that pleases her.

“It’s almost like a dance,” she says of making sculpture. “You initiate a beginning that might be as simple as tying two wires together. You are a partner with the material. As you move along, each small act influences everything that comes after it. A pattern develops and the piece almost begins to build itself.”

When dealing with wire and sharp tools, she occasionally gets hurt. She still remembers the moment in 1989 that she received a nasty wire cut that left a permanent red mark on her left hand. The other day, a stray wire nearly damaged her eye.

She toils as long as 10 hours a day on works that may take months or years to complete. In the past few decades, she has created hundreds of them.

Though Mudge is one of San Diego’s hidden treasures, being a full-time sculptor is not a lucrative career. She says that for public art projects, artists usually end up with between 10 percent and 20 percent of the total cost of the project. The artist’s payment can thus vary widely, because the projects’ total costs can range from between thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As for the work she creates on a private basis, it’s not easy getting it seen, let alone sold. A couple of galleries that showcased her art closed for various reasons. While many other galleries are part of San Diego’s excitingly varied scene, few are geared to the kind of sculpture she makes. Besides, New York and Los Angeles are the cities that attract most major buyers

What keeps her going?

The pursuit of beauty, though not beauty in the classic sense of the word. Mudge says she’s after beauty that’s a dynamic balance between opposites like order and chaos, life and death. The kind of beauty that gives people more of an appreciation for the natural world.

Sometimes it takes a hermit from Elfin Forest to do that.

Please contact Valerie Scher directly at valerie.scher@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @vscher.

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