Manuelita Brown Sculpts the Soul of Encinitas

Though rejected for a controversial Cardiff Surf Statue, Manuelita Brown is chosen for forthcoming sculpture to enhance downtown Encinitas. 

It’s hard not to laugh at the wigs, capes, robes, Mexican wrestling masks, brooms, umbrellas and provocative lingerie and other prankishly placed detritus that have welcomed to the neighborhood the bronze and granite surf statue on Highway 101 and Chesterfield Avenue.

Since its unveiling in the summer of 2007, the statue condescendingly called the “Cardiff Kook” has consistently stirred debate in Encinitas as to whether or not the statue effectively captures the essence of surfing the local reefs and beach breaks.

From heated discussions at beachside parking lots to blogs to bumper stickers, including one that says, Remove the Cardiff Kook! it seems many surfers are disappointed in the Cardiff Botanical Society’s selection of this area’s only public sculpture to depict surfing.

There’s even a MySpace and Facebook profile of the Cardiff Kook that demonstrates at least some of the consternation among local surfers.
The statue’s sculptor, Matthew Antichevich, who lives 65 miles away from Encinitas in Hemet, but supposedly learned to surf at Cardiff Reef, previously stated in local media outlets that his original submission was rejected by the Cardiff Botanical Society.

If the Cardiff Botanical Society, which raised $120,000 to install the sculpture, had instead selected Encinitas resident Manuelita Brown’s submission—or even Antichevich’s original design—perhaps there would be more local surfers who would be more approving of the surfer.

Despite being rejected for the surf sculpture, Brown has become an in-demand sculpture artist, both nationally and locally. In April 2007, as part of its 25th anniversary, the Downtown Encinitas MainStreet Association (DEMA), in partnership with the Coastal Community Foundation, unanimously selected Brown’s sculpture, Encinitas Child, for a downtown art project installation.
Brown’s sculpture will be installed sometime late this winter or early spring. The waving, bronze young girl will blend inconspicuously with the brick wall above Cottonwood Creek, on South Highway 101, across from Moonlight Plaza.

If the Cardiff surf statue triggered a plethora of criticism in the community, perhaps Brown fears the critiques her Encinitas Child may elicit. “I’m sure my sculpture will have its detractors, but I’m very hopeful that many Encinitas residents will think it adds something special to the community,” says Brown from her home-based sculpting studio on Santa Fe Drive.

Brown lives a literal stone’s throw away from the cul-de-sac on the western end of Santa Fe Drive and thinks that a sculpture should be installed there as well as lots of other places in Encinitas, even on the strip-mall filled El Camino Real.

“There are some people who live in new Encinitas that don’t make it down to old, coastal Encinitas that often—they should be treated to public art also,” says Brown, who thinks a good idea for a sculpture on the El Camino corridor would depict the pioneers who traveled the historic El Camino during the Mission era.

“Public art adds to our lives and I think a city that takes pride in its heritage should honor the pioneers of the community,” she says. “Who were some of the people that founded Encinitas?” Brown asks, adding, “I’d love to see a sculpture of a depiction of the indigenous inhabitants of Encinitas somewhere in town as well, not to mention a project to commemorate the flower industry and the ubiquitous ranches that once existed here.”

Until the Cardiff surfer was installed, Brown says she doesn’t recall any public artwork that effectively portrayed a unique aspect of the community.

Asked to explain the significance of the Encinitas Child sculpture, Brown says her work represents innocence and the welcoming spirit of the area, and the imagination and creativity of youth. The Encinitas Child, dressed in what Brown describes as “nonperiod era,” sporting flip-flops, shorts and a T-shirt, “Reminds us that our greatest obligation as parents is to provide a better world for our children,” Brown says.

Three of Brown’s other sculptures are featured prominently in San Diego. Her lifelike menagerie of dolphins, called Almas del Mar (Soul of the Sea) graces the landscape at University Towne Centre (UTC) in La Jolla.
The University of California, San Diego (UCSD)’s Thurgood Marshall College is named after the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Brown’s bust of Marshall, along with a sculpture of the school’s mascot, the Triton, adorns the campus at UCSD.

Brown says she prides herself in the hours of research she conducts to ensure her sculptures realistically replicate life.

“I watched dozens of hours of dolphin videos and I had a Navy contact in Coronado who worked with dolphins and let me touch them and closely study them. I also had another friend at SeaWorld who helped me with the UTC project,” she says.

In preparation for constructing her version of the Cardiff surf statue, Brown, who isn’t a surfer, though is the mother of one, consulted with numerous local surfers and watched surf video footage.
Brown eventually gave up on watching surf videos. She felt the ones she watched would have been inappropriate for the area. “The videos I watched were mostly all big-wave footage from Hawai’i and Australia,” she says. “With the exception of a couple days a year, heavy surf doesn’t represent the waves here.”

Brown decided to revisit her roots to study surfers. Since she first moved to Encinitas in 1967, she has logged countless hours watching surfers from atop San Elijo Avenue. Brown has either lived or worked in Encinitas for 25 years, including a stretch as a math teacher at San Dieguito High School.

Brown admits she is disappointed that she wasn’t chosen for the Cardiff surfer. “I felt that I truly and accurately captured the essence of a surfer riding a local wave,” she says. “I know of at least a handful of surfers who told me my version looks like a Cardiff surfer carving a wave.” Brown’s version is still in stock in her studio. She says that if commercial interest demands it, she will create a limited edition run of 15 sculptures, selling for at least $3,500. “If I sell eight or nine of them, I may have to raise the price because metal prices have risen recently,” says Brown, who claims that sculpture artists at first make little profit off the initial sculptures in an edition because of foundry fees.

Although Brown has never owned a public gallery, a number of galleries around the country represent her. Some of her awards include Second Place, 3-D Other Sculpture Division—2006 International Fine Art Show, San Diego County Fair; First Prize, Sculpture & Purchase Award—The Best & The Brightest 2003, Scottsdale, Arizona; First Place Fine Art—ArtScape ’02, Baltimore, Maryland; and Woman of Distinction 2002—Soroptomist International, San Diego.

Originally from Virginia, Brown, who is of African-American heritage, attended racially segregated schools through her first two years of college. “My mother is a Fitzpatrick and my father was part Blackfoot Indian and part black. I’m of African heritage but American across the board,” says Brown, who obtained her degree in mathematics and underwent her first sculpture training at Oregon State University in the early 1960s. But her first informal training as an artist came from her father, Armstead Morris. Together they did pastel illustrations for the stories he told and read.

When Brown relocated to California she says, “It was really unusual to see a person of color in town. In those days, if I was at the grocery store and encountered another person of color, I’d make every opportunity to introduce myself to that person.”

It’s Brown’s hope that her Encinitas Child will be considered by the community to be just as friendly and welcoming.


Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.