Light-Rail Stations Ride the Line Between Public Art and Construction Detail

 Editor's note/correction: The original version of this review incorrectly attributed statements made in a letter to the editor ("Feedback," February 14, 2008) to Bob Adams, a Phoenix artist who designed one of the light rail installations. The Bob Adams who wrote the letter is not, in fact, Bob Adams the artist. The review has been edited to reflect that.


Along with several hundred other people, I was recently invited to ride the rails of the Valley's shiny new Valley Metro light rail before its grand opening to the public on December 27, an opportunity I jumped at like some giddy, latter-day hobo. And though I thought it would be smooth railing all the way from Phoenix to Mesa, with an abundance of great public art adorning each metro station, the art part was more than a bit bumpy in places.

After riding them rails, then driving the Metro route several days later and making quite a few stops for a closer look, I'm not entirely convinced that the resultant public art, chosen by community committees and groups of designers, artists and techno-wonks, is truly "[a] beautiful collaboration of art, design and engineering," as Metro's glorious, glossy, color brochure proclaims. The 59-page handout documents the public art commissioned for each stop on the line, which begins at 19th Avenue and Montebello in Phoenix and ends at Sycamore and Main Street in Mesa.

Landmark, a stone-and-iron sculpture by Ilan Averbuch sits at the Metro light-rail stop at Central and Camelback.
Kathleen Vanesian
Landmark, a stone-and-iron sculpture by Ilan Averbuch sits at the Metro light-rail stop at Central and Camelback.
This 30-foot, metal-covered sculpture by Josh Garber is at the corner of 19th Avenue and Camelback's Park 'n' Ride.
Kathleen Vanesian
This 30-foot, metal-covered sculpture by Josh Garber is at the corner of 19th Avenue and Camelback's Park 'n' Ride.

According to a British public-art think tank named ixia, public art can encompass art commissioned as a response to the concept of place (here, the entire Valley of the Sun), as well as art commissioned as part of a site-specific designed environment (for us, the Metro stations of the light-rail system as a whole), taking into consideration the placement and functions of a specific site. Ideally, ixia believes artists making public art need to engage creatively with communities "to explore and articulate issues of local significance," though such interaction is by no means mandatory.

Truth be told, public art is most often a flat-out compromise, a negotiated distillation of artist vision, committee approval, and public acceptance, an obvious balancing act between what the public can handle and what an artist deems artistically significant. It's the exceptional artist who can span the gaping chasm between the two.

Some of the work commissioned for Metro's light rail really does reflect specific artists' creative engagement with the particular community in which their art has been placed. A perfect example of this is the historically based installation of Tucson artist Mary Lucking at the Indian School/Central Avenue stop, which is located near the old Phoenix Indian School, now a public park (Steele Indian School Park). After working with residents in the area and Native American groups whose members actually attended the school in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Lucking memorialized their stories in red, black, and silver walkway panels, framed photo tiles mounted on station columns that relate specific, often poignant stories of children who, back in the day, attended the Indian School, and two giant terrazzo ground murals, placed at either end of the station, depicting how Central Avenue looked going north and south before the station was built.

Lucking's treatment not only gives riders something with which to pass the time while waiting on the platform, but surreptitiously teaches them about this country's notorious attempts at Anglo-fication of Native Americans, even into the mid-20th century, of which, unfortunately, Phoenix was a part.

Equally engaging for both passengers and passersby is the ceramic tile art by Victor Mario Zaballa of San Francisco, incorporated into stops at 12th Street/Washington and the 12th Street/Jefferson (right in front of the New Times building, which was the old Booker T. Washington School, the first all-black elementary school in Phoenix). Zaballo captures the complex historic flavor of the neighborhood, an eclectic mix of African-Americans and Hispanics, by creating quilt-like tile murals throughout the station. They're decorated with not just traditional story quilt designs, long an important part of African-American culture, but also with classic North African Moorish motifs, like Islamic chevron designs and Berber step-frets — designs carried by conquering Spaniards to the New World after 400 years of Moorish occupation.

Zaballo's murals also incorporate photographic images on tile of neighborhood landmarks and longtime residents. All these references are tied together with exuberant Mexican colors, as well as railings that suggest Mexican papel picada, cut-paper designs popular at Mexican fiestas.

Probably my favorite public-art oasis is at the stop smack in front of the Heard Museum on Central Avenue, created by Einar and Jamex de la Torre, citizens of both the U.S. and Mexico. Their bi-national background informs their highly irreverent work, which stirs together references to Native American, Mexican, Southwestern and American history, art and pop culture — a blend that is perfectly Phoenician and endemic to most U.S. states on the border.

The de la Torres have created an entire environment at the stop, including carved pink cantera stone sculptures that ooze along either side of the station walkways, into which they've embedded glass medallions with all sorts of crazy decorations, like amputated doll arms, mini-Frankenstein's monster faces, and the Aztec calendar, to mention just a few. For the terminally bored, they've created intricately decorated, movable bronze boxes mounted on rails, which remind me of those rotating toys affixed to a toddler's playpen, geared to entertaining even the crankiest kid.

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2 comments
Bob Adams
Bob Adams

Hey Kathleen,

While you have every right to dislike my art, you do need to do your fact checking. The Bob Adams who trashed Janet Echelman's work wasn't me. There's another Bob Adams who lives in Central Phoenix, and he has just as much right to write about art as you or I do. So next time you malign me, which you seem to enjoy doing, please make sure you get things right.

Thanks,

Bob Adams

Layal
Layal

Landmark by Ilan Averbuch, it should be called "Stargate"

 
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