Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.
How the battle over an illegal mosaic united a California beach town
She appeared on Good Friday beneath a railway bridge in the California beach town of Encinitas: the Virgin of Guadalupe calmly surfing a cobalt blue wave, her cloak pointing toward the words "SAVE THE OCEAN." "The train bridge created the perfect frame for a work of art," says Mark Patterson, who left his software career to create the 10-foot-square "Surfing Madonna" mosaic, planning each detail down to the black booties on the Virgin’s feet. "I couldn’t put her on the board barefoot—it just seemed inappropriate," he says. "The public seemed to love that."
The city council, however, didn’t. Neither booties nor an environmentalist message ("Save the Ocean" is the artwork’s official title) could stop the Madonna from violating the city’s graffiti ordinance: Patterson had installed her anonymously, without the permission of Encinitas. As The San Diego Union-Tribune put it less than a week after the mosaic’s debut, "Surfing Madonna may be wiped out."
But the newspaper also said that according to its online polling, 95 percent of the public opposed the mosaic’s removal. Thus began a showdown between the Madonna’s detractors and her devotees.
Encinitas Councilman Jerome Stocks claimed Catholics were offended by a surfing Virgin Mary. Patterson disagrees: "The local padre at the Catholic church in town loved it." The city also suggested the artwork might violate the First Amendment clause that prohibits state-established religion. But in the words of Patterson’s lawyer Anton Gerschler, "Nobody can look at that piece and seriously say for a minute that the government is asking people to become Catholics or surfing Catholics or worshippers of Madonnas on surfboards."
In reality, the reasons for the city’s ire were more complicated. Patterson didn’t anticipate two key issues, Gerschler says. First, the railway bridge is owned by the local county’s North County Transit District but maintained by the city, meaning the city is contractually obligated to maintain the supports to which Patterson attached the Madonna. Second, hundreds of people began endangering themselves by walking into the nearby road to take photos.
As Encinitas arranged for an art conservation company to determine how to remove the mosaic without damaging it, its citizens rallied. By mid-May, a pro-Madonna petition had nearly 300 signatures; an anti-Madonna version had eight. "Save the Surfing Madonna" and "Save the World Famous Surfing Madonna" Facebook pages and a Surfing Madonna Twitter account soon followed, an art gallery made Surfing Madonna t-shirts, the Downtown Encinitas Mainstreet Association printed Surfing Madonna postcards, and a "flash mob" of about 50 people swarmed the mosaic, chanting "Let’s all save the Surfing Madonna" to the tune of the Beach Boys song "Surfin’ Safari."
The local press followed these developments tenaciously—"Source: ‘Surfing Madonna’ Will Likely Be Moved," ran one headline—and eventually, in June, Patterson emerged from the shadows to accept responsibility, but only after the press had learned that part of the mosaic’s backing bore the words "ark patterson." By then, a group of concerned citizens calling themselves the Our Lady of Encinitas Committee had recognized that the mosaic’s days were most likely numbered. The committee’s "express purpose," they wrote to Gerschler, "is to help Mr. Patterson with the expense of removal, installation to a new site and the protection of his beautiful glass mosaic."
The removal came several days later. "Some people have put down votive candles, and then there’s random bits of poetry, and then there’s even been a little bit of aftermath graffiti," Gerschler says. "Somebody stenciled the wall the next day: 'no art.' I really got a kick out of that, and then the city came out and with a single swipe of the paint roller, they took that out."
Patterson had to pay Encinitas $2,125 to cover the cost of the art conservancy firm, roughly $3,800 to hire a contractor to remove the mosaic, and a $500 "administrative fee." Even so, he says he and the city are now on good terms. He got to keep his mosaic, and the city council has not ruled out the possibility that the Madonna will surf in Encinitas once again: "The City," according to a statement, "… acknowledges the artist’s preference to re-locate the 'Save the Ocean' mosaic to a new location within Encinitas."
After weeks of inactivity, things are moving forward. The Encinitas Arts Commission has begun weighing Patterson’s proposal to reinstall the mosaic on a prominent parcel of land near the entrance to Moonlight State Beach. "It’s going to be a stretch, but I certainly hope we’re successful," says Jim Gilliam, arts administrator of the city of Encinitas. Patterson, too, is hopeful, if more than a little surprised.
"My intention was that the art would just blend into the environment," he says. "One of the people in the city government said to me, 'You’ve managed to wake up the people who never act or never speak or possibly never even vote.' And I thought, 'What an interesting concept'—that a piece of art under a train bridge could create that kind of awakening."