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BENCH MARKS: Artist Jane Wheeler designs snazzy new Bird Rock street seats

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Artist Jane Wheeler designs a bench for Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in the front garden of her Bird Rock home.
COREY LEVITAN

Wisdom. Courage. Peace. Coffee.

Jane Wheeler reads off some of the words to be spelled out on her latest art bench in Bird Rock. It’s going in front of Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, 5627 La Jolla Blvd. So, she explains, “coffee has to be in there somewhere.”

Wheeler works the design out in the front garden of her Bird Rock home, scissoring squares of yellow stained glass into the proper shapes for her mosaic, then smoothing them out with a sanding stone. She’ll also use rock, ceramic and paint.

“I like to mix it all up and find the balance in the texture and the color,” Wheeler says.

Wheeler, who moved to San Diego in 1985, says she’s been making art since her childhood in Milwaukee, yet didn’t discover her specialty until 2005, while helping create a mosaic at Bird Rock Elementary School, where her two sons were enrolled at the time.

“I got hooked,” she says.

In a few days, Wheeler will transport her finished design over to her latest bench, which was poured from a concrete mold a few weeks ago, then secure it on top with clay.

“I work with the sponsor about what kind of message they would like to have for the community,” she says, “or if someone passed away, what their essence was.”

All the benches are funded by private donations. The bigger, 36” ones cost $4,000 to have Wheeler design. The 24” benches cost $3,250.

The Bird Rock Community Council’s (BRCC) Bench Beautification series began in 2008, when former BRCC president Joe LaCava told Wheeler of the plan to demolish and replace the community’s dumpy old concrete benches.

“Instead, I asked him to let me try doing a mosaic on one,” Wheeler recalls. That bench, in front of 5685 La Jolla Blvd., grew to five over three years.

Now, a second set of five benches has been approved. Instead of re-purposing old ones, however, these are all new. The BRCC has them poured in locations identified by current Beautification Committee chair Barbara Dunbar.

“We bring the mold over, put it down, mix the concrete and actually build the bench,” Wheeler says.

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Wheeler poses with the memorial bench she designed for late Bird Rock resident Mike Reynolds, the first in a new series of five benches approved by the Bird Rock Community Council.
COREY LEVITAN

The first bench in the new series — poured last October in front of 5637 La Jolla Blvd. — is a memorial for late builder, philanthropist and Bird Rock resident Mike Reynolds, who passed away last March. It’s blue and nautically themed, emblazoned with phrases such as “builder of dreams” and “big heart.”

“He was a fisherman, too,” Wheeler explains while running her fingers across the bench, which is around the corner from her home, “so we made fish and put them all around.”

It resembles a marker you might see at a cemetery — except many more people get to see it because it’s right on the street in the middle of everyday life.

“They subliminally talk to people,” Wheeler says. “Little kids come over and touch the benches, sit on them and read them. It’s kind of like infusing a spirit into a bench. Their spirit’s in there and doing all sorts of good things.”

A second new bench will be placed in front of Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in June, Wheeler says, followed by two benches after that. (One has already been sponsored.)

In addition to the legacy of her memorial subjects, Wheeler is cementing her own legacy, most likely as the bench lady of Bird Rock.

“Awesome, because one of my idols is Antoni Gaudi!” she says, referring to the Spanish mosaic artist who would sleep on pews in the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, toiling day and night on his art until his death.

“I would love to be remembered like that!” Wheeler says.To sponsor a bench, e-mail info@birdrockcc.org