Beloved Del Mar Heights serpent upgrade almost complete

By Karen Billing

The Del Mar Heights School serpent is almost ready to return to action on the playground.

The unique 22-foot-long mosaic bench by Del Mar artist Betsy Kopshina Schulz was first made eight years ago as a gift from the sixth grade class of 2004, but vandalism had put a few hurtful dents in the snake. All of the broken pieces have been replaced and a new stain and finish will be added.

“We’ve spruced it up so it can last another 100 years of kids, this will keep it looking nicer longer,” Schulz said. “You just don’t see things like this on school campuses. The more art in the community the better because it adds beauty and interest. It’s whimsical and creative and it gives kids a place to have a lot of imaginary play. They can take it from here.”

Sarah Smiley, a Torrey Pines alumni and recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, worked with Schulz on the snake’s rehab over the past few weeks. Inquisitive “fans” surrounded them during recesses and lunch while they worked; the children asking questions and coming up with really funny comments.

“It was great interaction,” Schulz said. “Just by seeing art being done, they learn so much.”

Schulz, whose two children are Del Mar Heights graduates and are now in the seventh and ninth grades, does lots of public art work for cities. Some of her work can be seen in archways in Solana Beach, 10 columns downtown, on a mural in Fallbook and on benches and tiles at Fletcher Cove. But she gets a lot of joy from working with young students.

“I like to do programs at schools with kids because I like them to see how things are built, so they can appreciate what it takes to get things done,” Schulz said.

Schulz also helped develop the school garden, the serpent’s neighbor.

“As many outdoor learning environments that can be created the better,” she said.

Back in 2004, Schulz worked with sixth graders on the bench project with seven groups submitting designs. Each group designed their bench to scale and made models of their work which were voted on by the class to be made into a reality.

The serpent, which is at its widest 5 feet wide, was structured with rebar and chicken wire, then filled with cement, shaped and sculpted.

Nearly every child in school that year had the opportunity to help.

“Every student got to put at least one mosaic on so every child in school had a hand in it,” Schulz said. “It was good because it felt like they had ownership…(The sculpture) was a good way to get children involved. That’s how we end up with future architects and artists, because it just takes one experience to inspire them for a future career or love.”

Upon closer review, the smiling green serpent’s scales are made up of tiles, rocks and shells. The kids came up with all the inspiring words that were used on the snake’s tiles, such as “relish, enjoy, rejoice, discover, dance, dare and conserve.”

Over the years vandals had broken several pieces off of the snake, which Schulz said is very disappointing because it would take a lot of work to damage the strong structure they built. Someone had to have taken a hammer to it.

Those who helped create the serpent feel a sense of ownership, but a special ceremony will be held to rededicate the bench to remind current students that they are stewards of the sculpture, that it is something to be respected and protected.

A poem by first graders, imbedded onto the bench, sends the important message: “This serpent was made for you and me, to enjoy a book by the sea. Treat it as a friend, protect it with care. It is here for us to share.”

Learn more about Schulz’s work at