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The 'hidden Mickeys' of Hillcrest, Doron Rosenthal's 'Fossils Exposed'

Artist Doron Rosenthal's art installation around Hillcrest consists of 150 different conceptualized fossils.
Photo credit:
Chad Thompson

If you have ever been to Disneyland, you may have played the game "Find the Hidden Mickey," but did you know that there is an art installation in Hillcrest over a mile long in which you can do almost same thing?

Although you won't find the signature silhouette of iconic mouse ears, what you will find is a collection of tiny conceptualized fossils embedded in the ground. 

The installation was a labor of love by local artist Doron Rosenthal, and in his new book 35 Years in Stone and San Diego, he talks about his journey from being a teenager making trips to the desert with his family to what ultimately inspired him to create the Hillcrest public art exhibit plus everything in between.

Rosenthal loves natural history, San Diego’s natural history especially. This being a desert-turned-urban metropolis, the landscape that once was only earth and desert flora disappeared; man paved over paradise.

But that’s okay with Rosenthal, he is also fascinated with urban history. High atop his home located in the historic Cortez Hotel downtown, he talked to me about his life and love for stone carving, taking natural materials millions of years old and bringing them back to life, much like San Diego.

Inspired by his downstairs neighbor famous author Mary Duncan, Doron decided that he would write a book; some of it about his life, some about his art, but mostly a map of how anyone can do what he did if they have the right passion for it.

“Mary, she inspired me to write.” he said. “And I feel so cool as a San Diegan, writing about San Diego and being here in the El Cortez. It’s being a part of the fabric of the city.”

He is quick to point out though that his book isn’t an autobiography, “It’s art, it’s not quite a book, it’s art itself.”

Every page is a small snapshot of his life, a moment captured that not only tells the story of his journey, but all the pieces of inspiration that contribute to it, and still do, from his early days as an intrepid explorer to the craftsman he is today.

“You see pictures of me at 19 on the railroad tracks, that’s when I figured it out,” he said. “I was going to Santa Barbara City College and had a great teacher who actually took us to the mine, drove us out there, four hours. I was taken, you know, and I never looked back.”

Thus began his love affair with the Anza-Borrego desert, an expansive seemingly barren landscape just 86-miles northeast of San Diego.

He recalls being immediately struck by the beauty of the land, it was “Inspiration, it’s total inspiration. It just makes me feel good. The light the air, the ground; everything.”

The artist sees life where others don’t. He says there are more kinds of species and things in the desert than anywhere else; where others see nothing he sees a bounty of possibilities.

“I like to say San Diego is where the desert meets the sea. Before anybody was here, if you look in Florida Canyon in Balboa Park, that’s what it looked like, it was nothing but sage brush. I would have loved to have seen it then. I guess you can go down to Baja to get an idea. They haven’t built quite the same as we have.”

The Hillcrest installation is called “Fossils Exposed.” It was a project that grew out of a trash heap, from of all places, a cemetery.

He explains that one day he noticed a gravestone sculptor putting large pieces of stone on the curb for trash collection.

The pieces were the granite hearts taken from gravestones after sculptors bored out holes to make room for flower vases.

“So it’s basically a big recycling project where I took the trash, I sand blasted images of creative fossils so to speak. Not real fossils, just something that makes you go, ‘what the heck is that?'" he laughs. " And in that way, you have to find them and every time you find it, it doesn’t relate to the last one, other than it’s a circle, and it’s granite, and so it sort of shows up, it makes the environment a little more interesting on University. People notice it, they talk to each other – that’s when art is working.”

Each of the 4.5-inch markers, 150 in all, can be seen on either side of University Avenue from Park Boulevard to Fourth Avenue. They are l what I like to call the "hidden Mickeys" of Hillcrest, if you're not looking for them, they catch you by surprise, each more interesting than the last. 

Unlike the Disney game, each piece is capped with a different three-dimensional carving that represents what things might have flourished before developers created what we know today as Hillcrest. 

What's more, the artist made a conscious effort to set them in the ground in such a way that, depending on the time of day, their shadows catch the light differently, giving the viewer a unique experience each time. 

Doron says the whole project, completed in 1998, was surprisingly quick to place.

“It took a week to install, I got a core drill – they take out cores which is what I was putting in -- so I got a core drill company here in San Diego. I put the whole process in the book."

From his beginnings as a curious kid heading out into the desert, and into the dangerous mines of the Anza-Borrego desert to his Northern California installations in Walnut Creek and Dublin, Doron continues to keep moving in the direction he says is guided by the gods. 

The idea for 35 Years in Stone and San Diego was to put his years of work into one place, "I created something out of all of my stuff, that I really just wanted to box away," he said. "And I created an information book, and hopefully can move on really nicely to the next project with my eyes open.”

Hillcrest explorers with their eyes open can take to the streets and marvel at Doron's work and appreciate his artistry. 

He wants people to know that imperfections in his work, much like those in humans can create some of the most exquisite stories. 

“Not every piece is beautiful, it’s the process that beautiful," he says, "It’s when you’re lost for three hours, looking for something that no one else can figure out, and in your own head, you are in bliss, and that to me is what art is about. So not every piece is perfect, but not every piece is bad either.”