ENCINITAS — The wavy-haired brunette mermaid is wearing a sky blue polo, sitting under a wreath of roses. She flashes a broad, warm grin.
The woman is Susan Fesler. In 1979, she was driving home during the early morning hours and fell asleep at the wheel, crashing in an underpass of Interstate 5 at Santa Fe Drive.
Some 40 years later, Fesler’s face is the inspiration for one of the 53 mosaics that will hang under that same underpass as part of a city-administered, state-funded overhaul to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
City Councilman Tony Kranz, whose sister was best friends with Fesler and the families were close friends, came up with the idea for the mosaic, one of four that will be installed along the walls of the underpass that members of the council are involved in creating.
The Arts Commission approved the four mosaics at the March 5 meeting, filling in the four of the five remaining spaces left after the council approved the first 48 pieces of artwork in February.
“I feel really fortunate to be able to have this opportunity because artistically I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own,” Kranz said. “Jeremy Wright and his team are really picking me up here.”
Wright, an arts teacher at San Dieguito Academy, is assisting Kranz and Mayor Catherine Blakespear on transforming their ideas into artwork with the help of student artists.
Wright said that after the council approved the first round of mosaics, Blakespear and Kranz approached him and said they wanted to participate in some way. They had ideas, but didn’t have the artistic background.
Enter his students, some of whom have been involved with other mosaics in the underpass project.
“The whole process has been a bit organic,” Wright said. “At one point in the process both Tony and Catherine said we want to do a panel, and so I said, ‘Let’s do it.’“
Blakespear said she has enjoyed the process of working with the students.
“I am thrilled to be a part of creating art that will be on the underpass that will allow for better biking and walking,” she said. “The fact is that the council has the commitment of the artistic heart of the community and wants to beautify it, and personally being able to contribute to it is really satisfying.”
After Kranz and Blakespear got involved, council members Joe Mosca and Kellie Shay Hinze also approached local artists with their mosaic concepts. Mosca’s features the Olivenhain Meeting Hall, while Hinze’s features a man on a bicycle hauling a surfboard to the beach.
But Kranz said he had the idea of honoring Fesler for a long time. Local resident Kathleen Lees came up with the suggestion of portraying her as a mermaid, Kranz said.
“When this opportunity for the art under the bridge came up, I was working towards a way to remember her, so this worked out pretty well,” he said. “I got a talented young lady student at SDA who has made a nice piece, and Kathleen thought the image we were using would look good as a mermaid, and it really is looking good so far.”
The City Council in June 2018 approved the $192,567 budget addition to pay for the project, which included $37,100 — or $700 per each mosaic — at Santa Fe and $155,46 for professionally made mosaics along four so-called “ground anchor walls,” placed at the on- and off-ramps of Encinitas Boulevard.
Caltrans’ overhaul of the two underpasses is expected to be completed by late 2019, and will include the creation of space for bike lanes and sidewalks at both freeway intersections.