Drive-By Art

Several public art project are in the works for drivers (and, gasp, pedestrians) to admire.

Everyone knows how annoying road construction can be, and in Pima County it seems we contend with more than our fair share of it. But the next time you're driving through the maze of blinking lights and cones, consider this: Just about every road improvement in the county also entails a public art project.

Road construction can do a lot of damage to living space. Take the sound wall barrier north of Roger Road on Stone Avenue. When Stone was widened to allow more traffic flow to the Tucson Mall, the Department of Transportation demolished 12 houses from the Limberlost neighborhood and put up an ugly wall attractive only to teens looking for a spot to express their odd ideas with cans of spray paint.

Neighbors and their councilmember got together, and, 10 years after the road, project began, created a multimedia piece that will be formally opened November 18 with a 1-5 p.m. "Walk the Wall" ceremony. Executed by the group Third Hand Art, the S-curved wall features a huge painted mural with ceramic tiles depicting life in and the history of the neighborhood. A bus shelter, consisting of a large metal tree-like sculpture constructed by metal artist Kim Young, also forms part of the work.

Pasqualina Azarello, who heads Third Hand Art, says she "was surprised at just how much input the neighborhood wanted." Although she believes "the space should dictate the work," artists working with the public need to remain sensitive to residents' concerns. Neighborhood residents actually worked with the artists both in painting the wall and making tiles in the studio of Third Hand ceramics artist Chris Devine.

Though not part of road improvement, Tucson Department of Transportation funding also financed the Tohono Todai Banner Project, opened October 9 both in the main public library and the Tohono Todai Transit Center just north of the Stone wall. This project consists of a 10-line poem, "And If the River Calls," placed on a series of banners. A unique work of photography, painting or print complements a line of the poem on the bottom of each banner. Ten banners in English, 10 in Spanish and 10 in Tohono O'Odam make up the work.

Patrick McArdle and To-Reé-Neé Keiser, in their first joint work, collaborated on the banner project. Although McArdle is new to the world of public art, Keiser has completed other projects nationally and internationally. She says she sees "a big separation between studio and public art work."

"I look at my abilities," Keiser explains, "and try to become a vessel for the community." The banner project represents a "dream journey personifying the [Rillito] river."

CITY PLANNER BOB Peterson states that not only is 1 percent of capital improvement money set aside for public art, but various city and county grants are also available. The art, according to Peterson, "forms an important function in establishing the unique character of our community." He feels the city is "open to art" and tries to identify projects that satisfy a "balance between contemporary and traditional aspects" of Tucson. The Tucson/Pima Arts Council assists in most but not all of the plans.

Peterson becomes noticeably enthusiastic when speaking about future projects, such as plans for the Stone underpass downtown just south of Sixth Street. Through this project, the underpass will be interestingly refurbished. A cartouche using designs developed in 1934 but never executed is planned for the underpass walls. Landscaping and repainting is also part of this project, which comes from the mayor's Back to Basics restoration program. The city transportation department is currently selecting an artist and plans a ribbon-cutting ceremony on project completion in April 2002.

The intersection of Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street is also slated for public art through the Fourth Avenue Gateway project. According to Beth Hancock, T/PAC's public art specialist, Fourth Avenue merchants continue to complain that patrons have difficulty finding their street. Hancock says "the project shouts 'Welcome to Fourth Avenue,'" leaving behind all doubt about where it is. The project consists of metal fixtures that attach to traffic signals and cut metal banners attaching to street lights; Hancock says it should be completed by spring.

A related program, the Fourth Avenue underpass project, begins construction next fall. Michael Graham of city transportation says this is part of a $15 million project that will include construction of a new underpass for vehicular and trolley use, reserving the old underpass for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Currently in the design phase, the project will provide easier access to Fourth Avenue.

Next spring we'll see work on the sound barrier walls that border Barrio Anita. Artists Joshua Sarantitis and William Wilson, though not local, will relocate here to begin the work on three of these large spaces. Using ceramic tile, cut metal, photography and painting, the planned murals exemplify the multimedia approach favored by T/PAC.

David Hoyt Johnson of T/PAC says many other public art works are still in the planning phase. Sections of Orange Grove, Tanque Verde, Kinney and Valencia roads will be recipients of new public art. Sculpture and more sound-wall art are in the making.

Think about that the next time you're wending your way through the detours.