If you regularly stroll along The Strand in Manhattan Beach, you know them well. The 44 inviting yet unobtrusive benches dot the walkway, tucked into alcoves. You've probably had a rest on one as you caught a breath and stared out at the horizon.
But, did you know that each bench has its own story?
Each bench is an understated memorial to someone lost and loved, each a contract between artist and a family member. Santa Ana artist Stacy Dukes created the benches to blend with their environment and to, hopefully, do some healing.
Dukes said he "wanted something that fit the site and emphasized the spiritual."
History of The Benches
Memorializing a loved one on a Strand bench isn't new. In the 1990's some residents complained too many memorial benches could make The Strand to look like a cemetery. In 1998, a moratorium was placed on donated benches until the city could determine standards. Then, after removing benches as part Strand improvements in 2004, City Council began reviewing concepts and artistic guidelines for future installations.
According to Dukes, the project was in limbo when he was tapped by Kathleen Rifkin, a local interior designer. The Manhattan Beach City Council had received numerous design submissions and had already rejected many of them, he said.
“Kathleen called me and said, ‘You know, this is a project that’s got your name on it.”
Instead of a written proposal, Dukes took himself to Manhattan Beach for a day, walked The Strand, chatted with folks, and got a feel for the spirit of the community so that he’d have a better idea of what he wanted to design.
“To capture this project, I couldn’t just give them a drawing.” So he made some concept paintings to flesh out his ideas, and then created two models to show City Council. And that, according to Dukes, gave councilmembers a whole new perspective on the project.
In addition, he used recyclable materials in the design of the benches—largely ground-up ceramic that’s used in steel production. It’s highly durable, is resistant to damp and cold, and doesn’t degrade over time. Dukes had never actually worked with the material before, but that didn’t deter him—or, ultimately, City Council. “They decided, let’s do this,” Dukes said with a smile. “So I got to work.”
Finally, in 2007 the city approved Dukes' design: a simple flat plane with no back or sides, with rounded edges and a sculpted quality.
Personalizing The Strand
According to Cultural Arts Manager Martin Betz, The Strand benches and Dukes' design have added a special flavor to a well used walkway. Betz said Dukes imbues each piece with, not only artistic expression, but with the commissioner's story.
"He's really into making the story," said Betz, "Before you can even get a bench from Stacy, you have to sit down and tell him your life story."
It's this personal touch, between artist and the purchaser that makes the benches such an integral part of Manhattan Beach. And, the city can always use more art, he said.
"Coming into the city you'd think it's just another millionaires' lair," said Betz. "But it's not really like that. When you get down on the ground you see that. (Manhattan Beach has) a great community feel. When my wife and I walk The Strand, it takes us twice as long because we have to stop and pet all the dogs and talk to all the people."
There are about a dozen bench spots left, according to Betz. They sell between $8,500 and $13,500.
Each bench is cast as a continuous single piece. And designed as an integral part of each bench is a small, hidden compartment containing a memento from a donor. Dukes came up with the idea of including the compartment in his design to highlight the spiritual nature of the project.
Only Dukes knows the location of the compartments.
“I told the families: Whatever we put in this, you’re the only ones who are going to know what it is and where.”
For more information or to commission one of the remaining benches, email Betz at email@example.com or call him at (310) 802-5406.