When Dennis Met Ricardo

An exquisitely crafted ancient eagle sits atop its nest in which two eaglets are fighting over a snake
An exquisitely crafted ancient eagle sits atop its nest in which two eaglets are fighting over a snake

Suppose your father was Ray Stanton Avery who, with $100 borrowed from his future wife and machinery he developed, created the world’s first self-adhesive label, made multimillions and you, his son Dennis, inherited a bundle: What would you do with your wealth?

Magellan and I were in Borrego Springs, California, for the Super Bloom—a profusion of wild flowers: desert sunflowers, purple sand verbena, white evening primrose, magenta cactus blooms. Stunning, their glory days brightening the desert—two weeks before we arrived. What else was there to see? Galleta Meadows, the fortuitous collaboration of Dennis Avery and Ricardo Breceda.

You’re young and wealthy. Law school, right? Dennis graduated with an LLB from Cambridge and a JD from Cal Western. He was the first consumer-fraud chief for San Diego and served as dean of students at Cal West law school. He married Sally Tsui Wong. Became close friends with Stephen Hawking. Drawn by the open desert and small community, in the early 90s he bought 3,000 acres of land in Borrego Springs to prevent it from ever being developed. He and Sally built a house and enrolled their children in local schools. He named his landholdings Galleta Meadows after the tough native grass that once thrived there.

Like his father, Dennis was a philanthropist. But instead of concert halls and city museums, Dennis funded a park for the town’s Little League, lights for the football field, a skate park for the Boys and Girls Club, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Quietly, often anonymously, he covered college fees for dozens of students and contributed to social services and language schools locally, and in China. He funded drinking water for villages in South America, AIDS clinics in China, a library in Honduras, equipment for the disabled in Tibet, a drug rehabilitation centre in Hong Kong—and the Stephen Hawking chair in cosmology at Cambridge.

Coaching little league baseball, Dennis met another parent. George Jefferson was a geologist and palaeontologist  who dreamed of writing a book about the exceptional creatures that once lived in Borrego Springs. Before the area became a desert, it was home to the Imperial Sea, Colorado River woodlands, Lake Borrego, Borrego Valley Riparian forest and a brushy savannah. Dennis underwrote George’s book, Fossil Treasures of the Anza-Borrego Desert. So it wasn’t surprising that on Interstate 215 driving his kids to university, Dennis would notice the dinosaurs at a welding shop and think to himself, ‘I should stop by there one day.’

Dennis Avery (Photo: The Baltimore Sun)

Now suppose you were born Ricardo Breceda in Villa Unión, a small city in the Mexican state of Durango. You go to college, teach elementary school, don’t like the salary, move to California and bunk with your brother. You graduate from dishwasher to restaurant owner. That’s not too profitable either so you turn to construction, to welding and framing. Bad luck: you fall, damage a couple of disks in your back. Remembering the well-crafted cowboy boots  in Durango, you begin importing and selling them at a shop off Interstate 215. You’re open to bartering and find yourself on the receiving end of welding machinery. You start tinkering. You’re a single parent and in 2001 after watching the movie Jurassic Park III, one of your daughters asks for a dinosaur for Christmas. You surprise Lianna by building her a 20-foot tall Tyrannosaurus Rex from rusty-red scrap metal. You follow your passion, building more dinosaurs. You meet someone who knows how to make large metal sculptures and agree to help him sell his art in exchange for teaching you the skill.

Ricardo Bresceda (Photo: San Diego Union Tribune)

One day in 2007 Dennis followed his intuition and too the turn off to Perris Jurassic Park. He looked at Ricardo’s sculptures and talked a bit about the pre-historic animals that once roamed this part of the desert. Columbian mammoths, Merriam’s tapirs, pachyderms, saber-tooth tigers, camelids, ground sloths and Eocene horses. “What can you make?” he asked Ricardo. “All you have to do is send me a photograph,” Ricardo replied. Dennis always kept a copy of George Jefferson’s book in his car. He showed Ricardo a photo of gomphotheres.

A newspaper account says:

By the spring of 2008, the unlikely collaboration had produced three giant tusked gomphotheres—ancient members of the elephant family. Avery says that on the day he and Breceda installed them near the southeast corner of the intersection of Borrego Springs and Big Horn roads, they didn’t know if the townsfolk would shoot at them. Instead the sculptures were greeted with uniform delight.

A friendship bloomed in the desert, a friendship that resulted in Dennis funding Ricardo to create 130 meticulously crafted and intricately detailed metal sculptures–from eyelashes curling on ten-foot-tall elephants to fur shaved on four-million-year-old sloths. Dubbed Sky Art by Dennis, Ricardo’s sculptures include Plio-Pleistocene animals, Spanish explorers, mythological creatures, even a stagecoach pulled by horses, organized under three themes: Fossil Treasures of the Anza-Borrego Desert, History and Nature of the Anza-Borrego Desert, and Whim and Fantasy. Dennis says,

It got to the point where I wouldn’t even go out and see what Ricardo had done before I authorized him to bring it in. It was just so much fun to get up at 4:00 in the morning, go out there, and see this caravan of trucks arriving. Around the trucks, like bees, there’d be all these people who had followed him in from Palm Desert, wondering what was going on. He would pull up, and they’d be hanging out of their car windows, taking pictures with their cell phones. It was more fun than almost anything else I’ve done, other than raising a family.

In 2012 at the age of 71 following the death of Dennis, Ricardo said:

He meant the world to me. He was a great man. He was a good friend of mine. What can I say? I owe him my life. He took care of me and my friends. He takes care of everybody. Everybody is going to miss him.

Cheers to their meeting. To where Sky Art meets Super Bloom.

Navigation

Here’s a YouTube interview with Ricardo and Dennis on the Sky Art project.

Here’s the history of the Avery Dennison Corporation.  The Union Tribune has a tribute to Dennis Avery. His obituary is in the LA Times. Under the Sun, a foundation established by Dennis Avery’s children, now manages Galleta Meadows.

Here’s Ricard Breceda’s website. And an article “The Sky Art Sculptures of Borrego Springs” from Desert USA. And a story from The San Diego Reader called “Ricardo Loves Dinosaurs.”

7 Responses

  1. Love Borrego Springs. We spent a couple of days seeing what we could spy on the horizon. The dragon that crosses the road was one of my favs…and how lucky are we to experience the bloom. Apparently some people have been going for years and don’t ever get to witness the beauty. Miss being there this year..oh well the desert will still be there. Thanks for the trip down memory lane..❤️🎶🍷Heather

    1. Lucky you, we missed the dragon. We liked the people in Borrego Springs. So helpful, so real, like Dale at the tourism office who sent us to an amazing campsite (Glorietta Canyon) and a waitress who regaled us with stories of the 5,000 tourists who descended on the town for the first two weeks of March 2017, how they waited for their food for two hours because every restaurant was so busy, how they’d run out of food (like burgers) by 5 pm…

  2. Art takes many forms, style is not necessarily to everyone’s liking and need not define the work or output when completed. These critters will evolve overtime as Mother Nature will bake and sand the finish to a lustre only she can provide. How they are situated, or not grouped adds a certain mystique and allure to these works that will draw you in from afar.

    The cacti flowers are outstanding, the beauty of the desert backdrop is not only ridiculous but sublime.

    Awesome story and photography

    1. Yes, mother nature will wield her artistry. Dennis Avery was wise. He left funds to preserve the sculptures and as we mentioned in the story, his children manage the Under the Sun foundation under whose umbrella they sit.

  3. In 2019 John and Karen joined us in Palm Springs. We went on a road trip one day and came across these metal sculptures plunked here and there in the dessert. Fascinating and quite beautiful. Thank you for filling us in on the history.

      1. Don’t remember seeing the rams. I think to do it justice we will have to go again just to see the sculptures. We were trying to jam too many things into one day.

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