Imagine an artist at work: painting on a canvas, sculpting with clay-caked fingers, sitting in a mess, experimenting — all until the piece is deemed “done.”

Then the art is taken out of the mess; it’s presented in a clean space with white walls. And please keep your grubby hands off.

That’s the kind of separation that the museum at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, has tried to expunge in its current exhibit, Leveled: An Interactive Experiment in Art.

For the last couple of months, visitors were supposed to mess around with four works by local artists. The artists made an invented musical instrument, giant fabric vegetables, a tricycle that could be ridden that drips green paint and a fort you could crawl around in. This week, the artists were in the museum, checking out the changes visitors had made to their works since August and building them into the final pieces.

When I visited on Wednesday, the artists were trying to figure out how they would change their pieces to be “finished,” or not subject to any more major manipulation from visitors. Our news partners at NBC 7/39 joined me to check out the exhibit; we’ll bring you that story at 4:30 p.m. today.

There’s a lot to see (and touch, smell, hear and taste — well, sort of). More than fits in our TV story. So I thought I’d share some notes I made during my visit and some photos the museum shared to whet your appetite:

The artists were all asked to create art to fill a room of a gallery, an installation related to the word “green.”

The Green Century Copyright 2010 Ingram Ober

One artist, Ingram Ober, made a tricycle that paints green on linen when it’s ridden. His piece is called The Green Century and is related to a piece of painting and performance art that Ober has done called The Red Century.

The tricycle is hooked up to a pump that puts green paint on the wheels of the tricycle. Between that and a shopping cart also hooked up with paint, the viewers of the exhibit have been spreading the green paint in circles and splats all over the canvases. Ober said he was surprised to find some people rode in different patterns than just the circle. One canvas looks like it has a horizon of green trees. Another shows Xs that look like dancing people.

“You’d think with hundreds of people through you’d see some patterns start to emerge over and over,” he said. “But each one is very unique.”

When I saw him Wednesday, Ober was still figuring out how he would adapt his piece so that it was in a final static state. He was talking about hanging more canvases, sewing large throw pillows for observers to sit on and adding sound.

“Because that interaction is ending now, there’s an element of the piece that’s missing,” he said. “It’s that beating heart of the piece; if that stops, there’s something needed again.”

Esperanto Copyright 2010 Marisol Rendon

We moved next door to see Marisol Rendon’s piece, Esperanto. On Wednesday, Rendon was using her sewing machine to repair a huge stuffed avocado slice and sew some more pillow peas. In her piece, she sewed giant vegetables, built and upholstered a big plate and encouraged her visitors to imagine their own meals from these whimsical fabric foods.

Rendon remembers her mom in Colombia sending her out every day to buy 20 pesos of onions and 20 pesos of tomatoes. She tried to weave that daily necessity together with warmth and hope she felt when thinking about food and her childhood to make this piece.

Rendon told me she didn’t expect people to throw the peas at each other or heave the broccoli over their shoulders.

“But I cannot really determine what people will do,” she said. “Fabric is not something that you can tell people not to touch.”

Tec Tang Tarab Copyright 2010 Doris Bittar with Diane Gage and Jonathan Glasier

Next I found Jonathan Glasier, a musician who collaborated with Doris Bittar and Diane Gage to explore patterns from three cultures: Aztec, Chinese and Arab. The team of artist, poet and musician made a musical instrument and a word game related to greenhorn — three cultures put next to each other. Glasier helped build the dulcimoon, an instrument kind of like the body of a guitar, shaped into three conjoined hexagons. If you pluck the strings of the hexagons, you hear musical notes from each of the traditions.

The Secrets Surrounding the Mysterious Life & Psychology of Ms. Augustine Greane Copyright 2010 Wes Bruce

The final artist we saw: Wes Bruce made a giant fort, imagining the home related to a fictional character, Ms. Augustine Greane. The fort is a maze of fabrics and photographs and lights and knick-knacks. Bruce has made forts like these for a few different local art exhibits, but this is his biggest yet.

(Disclosure: Bruce is a good friend of mine, and I played violin on the soundtrack that plays while you weave and crawl through the fort.)

He talked about how he sees colors in ideas: Think about the effect when you put something red next to something yellow and it creates orange. He wants to juxtapose ideas, stories, bits of poetry and knick-knacks to spark a visitor to collect a couple of sentences here, a couple there and create a mental picture of who lived in the home. And then he asked them to write notes to Ms. Greane on the typewriters hidden inside the fort. (Curator Tara Smith has shared some of those notes on her blog. “I’ve never seen more personal words come out of our patrons ever,” she told me yesterday.)

Bruce told me this kind of work makes sense for him.

“I felt like a lot of the art that I was making a number of years ago, it was uninterpretable. If I wasn’t there to explain to people the ideas that I was thinking when I painted that or when I sculpted it or whatever I was doing, wouldn’t translate,” he said. “And so it’s like this growth process of finding how I don’t have to say anything. How I can be sort of one step behind the art, trying to understand it, trying to catch up to it. And other people are in that same boat.”

If you want to see these finished pieces you can visit the museum in Escondido through the end of December. And I’ll post the clip from today’s newscast as soon as it’s up.

I’m the arts editor for VOSD. Have an idea for something I should see? Drop me a line at, call me at 619.325.0531 or follow me on Twitter:

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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