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Unveiling of Avila Lifeguard Towers Goes Swimmingly

The Avila Beach Community Foundation (ABCF) displayed its first endeavor at a public works art project on Saturday, Feb. 18.

“It’s our hope through this celebration”said Rick Cohen, president of the ABCF, “that we can generate some excitement from the locals to generate some more public art.”

The ABCF in conjunction with Art Obispo, an organization devoted to advancing the visual, literary and performing arts in San Luis Obispo County, invited artists to participate in the Downtown Avila Beach Public Art Competition. Contestants were instructed to choose one of several locations in the beach community and to submit their ideas of what would they do and how it would reflect the vibrant history of the beach town.

“We wanted to really capture the Avila Beach history, culture and industries present and past,” said Cohen. “With each passing year, we’re losing more and more of that history and tradition. We wanted to capture that while we still could.”

Local artist, standup bass player, and cancer survivor Colleen Gnos was selected from a panel of independent judges. Her winning idea was to paint murals on the two lifeguard towers in Avila Beach.

“Port San Luis Harbor District is thrilled to have this artwork on our lifeguard towers,” said Andrea Lueker, harbor manager noting she had started her lifeguard career on the Central Coast. “It’s an honor not only to have the artwork there, but to honor the profession of lifeguarding.”

Gnos said the project represents Avila’s past and future. “One tower I dedicated to the history of Avila, and the other tower I dedicated to the future as I would like to see it,” said Gnos.

Tower 1 tells the story of Avila’s colorful past. Gnos said that the book Images of America: Avila Beach by Terry J. San Filippo, Jack San Filippo, and Pete Kelley was an invaluable tool in her research. Gnos also studied old photos loaned out from past residents, delved into people’s memories and reached into her own family’s history to express the many changes that the community has been through over the years.

“This one is my childhood. This one I designed from my heart,” said Gnos referring to tower 1.

The murals of Tower 1 are inundated with memory.

“These are people that were in actual photos of Avila Beach,” said Gnos. Behind Hardie Phillip, the reclining lifeguard who sports sunglasses and a mustache (who was an actual lifeguard for Avila Beach in the sixties) are old oil tanks that overlook the beach and tell of a time when Avila Beach was the largest oil port in the world. Tony and Junior Sylvester are shown in a boat from which they would harvest Abalone. Behind them is the “Montebello” the ill-fated oil tanker that was sunk by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Cambria shortly after leaving Avila. All 36 crewmembers survived.

Of course, Gnos also incorporated her family in the design. Her mom and dad are illustrated on the beach. Her dad is holding a banjo; an instrument that led to wooing her mom, Gnos mused. “He plays the banjo. He won her over. He was outside her house, on one knee, playing Scotch and Soda.”

Tower 2 is covered with depictions of marine life, recreationists, and junior lifeguards. The paintings represent the hopeful future of the small community. Her sons Luke and Bodhi who participate in the junior lifeguard program are in the mural.

“I think a lot of people come to Avila to see the natural beauty, and I would really like to see that continue to happen,” said Gnos.

Since the towers would have to be replaced in a few years, Gnos proposed that the artwork would be painted on panels and then attached to the towers. Gnos said that her husband, Che Miller, was instrumental in the measuring and logistics of fitting all the facets to make her vision a reality. The painted pieces of sign-grade aluminum were riveted to the towers and will be sealed with a resin to protect them from the elements.

“They’ll hold up just fine,” Gnos said. “I have a guy coming up from Palm Desert who is going to seal them. He’s spraying them with this resin that was invented for the [British] Museum to seal their Egyptian artifacts.”

Rick Cohen attributed much of the ventures success to Angela Tahti of Arts Obispo and Paula Dempsey, ABCF’s project specialist.

“Those were the two that really worked behind the scenes with Colleen,” Cohen said. “We had a process behind the scenes that was much more unwieldy than I thought it would be.”

The foundation donated $10,000 to the project. Additional monies were also received from PG&E, Chevron and the Sara Horne Art Fund.

During the unveiling, Third District Supervisor Adam Hill pledged to give $5,000 of his community funds in support of the next project. The Sara Horne Art Fund also committed to funding future works.

People interested in donating to future art projects can contact Rick Cohen at avilafoundation@gmail.com

Colleen Gnos artwork will be featured at Art After Dark at Foremost Wine Co. on March 3 from 6-9 p.m.

Story and Photos by Mark A. Diaz

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