At the Hollywood/Vine Station on the Metro Red Line, art pops out of the tile walls. Late artist Gilbert "Magu" Lujan's "Hooray for Hollywood" (1999) presents colorful, whimsical images of the neighborhood that immediately catch the eye when riding escalators up to the street level. At the Reseda Boulevard Orange Line stop, Jody Zellen's "Now and Then" (2005) includes a text-centric piece that's installed on the ground. If you're running to catch your bus, you'll miss it. If you're sitting around waiting for the next ride, you might try to figure out the message in the art.
For decades, Los Angeles' Metro has essentially been building a museum that runs along the rails and busways connecting the county. It's a collection spread out from Azusa to East L.A., Norwalk to Hawthorne, downtown to Long Beach, North Hollywood to Chatsworth. As Metro expands, so will the works of public art it houses. One-half of a percent of station construction costs go towards the art that's built into them. They are community-centric pieces. Artists are selected by a panel of locals and, sometimes, the artists incorporate elements of the neighborhood's history into their project.
"One of the things that I think is most exciting about our program is that there is such a diversity of artists," says Maya Emsden, who heads the Creative Services group at Metro, "and part of that is because each panel is a different panel, so they bring a different perspective and then artists are working in so many wild ways."
May Sun has worked on public art pieces across the country, but the award-winning, L.A.-based artist got her first commission from Metro. In 1990, she was invited to work on the Hollywood/Western Red Line Station. It was a long and involved project; in fact, her second Metro commission, for Union Station, opened a few years before the first one did. "I was doing large-scale installations," Sun says of the work in fine art she had been doing before earning the projects. Her practice then, "addressed untold histories and narratives." She was able to include those elements into her work for the stations. At Hollywood/Western, Sun included symbols that represented local ethnic communities, like a pomegranate for Armenians.
For Union Station, Sun joined forces with her former UCLA classmate, the muralist Richard Wyatt, to create a large, multi-faceted installation that sprawls across the lobby on the Vignes Street side of the station. Together, they explored Los Angeles' history in a spot close to the city's origins. "In my own work, I had done a lot of research into the founding members of Los Angeles," Sun says. She had also been researching the history of L.A.'s Chinese community and, knowing that the Union Station area was the city's original Chinatown, she had wanted to include that in the piece. Then there's the nearby L.A. River which Sun had referenced previously in her work and wanted to include as well.
Together, Sun and Wyatt created "City of Dreams/River of History." It's a complex piece with elements that may not seem connected, but, in fact are. These include a mural depicting faces of Angelenos and a sculpted mound of discarded objects. Other intricacies may escape you on first glance. Look closely at the adjacent aquarium and you'll notice the image of Pio Pico, the last governor of the region when it was under Mexican rule, in the glass. Did you know that even the aquarium is part of this massive work? Wyatt brought in a marine biologist friend to assist with the project so that they could make sure the fish and plants were indigenous to the area.
Wyatt himself got his start in art when he was 12 years old, in 1968, when he won a chalk art event in Watts. He painted his first mural in 1976 across the street from Manual Arts High School and has gone on to an esteemed career that includes famed works like the "Hollywood Jazz" mural for the Capitol Records building. Like Sun, he has two Metro projects to his credit; in addition to Union Station, he also created "People Coming/People Going" (1996), a large, ceramic mural for the Wilshire/Western Station. "At that time, I really enjoyed the openness to creativity," Wyatt says of his work for Metro. Now, he's on a panel to select an artist for a new project at the Rosa Parks/Willowbrook Station, where the Blue and Green Lines connect.
But, the connection between art and public transportation runs deeper than what is commissioned for stations. Some of it happens organically. Consider the long expanse of street art that you'll see while riding the Blue Line, or the painted walls that pop up here and there across the Expo and Gold Line treks. Ann Field, chair of the illustration department at Art Center College of Design thinks of New York and the subway art world that gave rise to the career of Keith Haring. It was Haring, who painted a mural for the school near the end of his life, who served as the inspiration for Art Center's "OutsideIn" project. The temporary murals commissioned under the initiative, have dotted locations near the Gold Line and, more recently, the Expo Line and have featured artists like James Jean, RISK and Kenny Scharf. "I think with Art Center and 'OutsideIn' particularly... it was about trying to connect with the messaging, the original drive behind imagery."
Brian Rea, an artist and illustrator who also teaches at Art Center, created a piece at 1301 Colorado Ave. in Santa Monica as part of an "OutsideIn" event celebrating the opening of the Expo extension. It's an uncomplicated and effective mural featuring a blue wave and a bird, with an arrow pointing towards the beach and another pointing to "other stuff."
"You have an audience that's forced to sit in front of your piece," Rea says of the benefits of having a piece showcased along a Metro route. "There's a beautiful thing about that." Ideally, he adds, art might prompt people to check out neighborhoods they didn't previously consider visiting. "I think it lends itself to exploration, curiosity."
The official Metro art projects don't stop with the station installations either. There is "Poetry in Motion," a collaboration with the Poetry Society of America that brings words into busses. There is also the "Through the Eyes of Artists" series, that has artists create travel-style posters for specific neighborhoods. Some stations, like Union Station, 7th Street/Metro Center and Universal City/Studio City are part of the "Photographic Lightbox Series." Here, photographs are on view at stations for a temporary period of time and the exhibitions can rotate between stations.
There are benefits to filling these transportation hubs with art. "It enhances the transportation experience," Emsden says, adding that the pieces give something for riders to view while they're waiting for a train or bus. Moreover, though, it's a way of bringing pieces of the city into the stations. "It is L.A. and it is a creative capital," Emsden says, "and that's something to be celebrated."