Visual Arts

Westside Stories: Bridge Over Barriers & The Urban Gallery

It may take years to finish, but one thing is for sure, BOB will be big — 22,000 square feet, to be precise. When completed, the Bridge Over Barriers, a tile mosaic being created under the 300 North I-15 overpass, will be one of the largest public art projects in Utah.

BOB, which began to emerge last month in the form of two finished pillars, can trace its nascence to the early 70s, when the construction of I-15 sent a concrete behemoth barreling through several Salt Lake westside neighborhoods. For thirty years now, this giant snakelike barrier has bisected this part of the city, especially between the Jackson and Guadalupe areas. A long freeway overpass, located at 300 North between 600 and 700 West, has particularly been a physical and psychological obstacle. Kids going to school must walk through its expansive shadows on a narrow strip of sidewalk, and the overpass looks intimidating even when traveling by car.

NeighborWorks Salt Lake entered the picture about five years ago. NeighborWorks is a nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for people to live in affordable homes, improve their lives, and strengthen their communities. Located near the overpass, NeighborWorks discovered through talking to area residents that the viaduct was considered a real blight in the area and a literal and figurative barrier to open communication and interaction between neighborhoods.

Maria Garciaz, executive director of NeighborWorks, started to form the idea of a community art project on the overpass when she heard a presentation made by internationally known artist Lily Yeh, originally from China and now living in Philadelphia. Yeh has worked in Philadelphia for almost two decades to transform blighted neighborhoods through the power of community art projects.

After the presentation, Garciaz approached Yeh with the idea of getting a community-building project started with the overpass. Yeh agreed to provide consultation to the project and has since trained at least 12 local artists now overseeing work on the mosaic, including project coordinator Terry Hurst. Hurst, a writer/filmmaker and co-owner of Mestizo Coffeehouse and Gallery, says, “This is not just an art project. This is a neighborhood-building project — the community needs to build it.” Hurst estimates that by the time the project is completed, probably 6,000 — 8,000 people will have been involved.

To make sure ideas for the mosaic originated in the community, the artists spent three years going to churches, schools, and other organizations in the area of the overpass to collect ideas about what kinds of visual symbols would be most important to the residents. The concept was to have the different community groups bring in photographs, drawings, or objects that would distill the essence of who they were as an ethnic or collective group. These images were then coalesced by the artists and Yeh into a cohesive mural drawing.

The entire mosaic consists of three components: two rows of eight “bent columns” (pillars), two “bent-caps” (flat horizontal areas that run along the top of the columns on either side of the overpass), and two “concrete slope protection” areas (the angled slabs which stretch from the sidewalk to the underside of the freeway). To date, work is almost finished for seven of the columns and two have been installed. The entire project is expected to take at least three years to complete.

The actual work to construct the column mosaics has been painstaking. In fact, the prototype column was rejected by the project coordinators because it wouldn’t have survived Utah’s extreme climate changes. The prototype was constructed from pieces of broken glass and dishes as a symbol of melding broken parts into a whole, but the artists had to switch to ¾ “ premade glass tiles as a more durable alternative.

The column art is being prepared in a large warehouse space donated to the project by Centro Civico Mexicano. The first step is for one of the artists to draw and then paint a layout design on a 10″ x 10″ piece of canvas which is duct taped to the floor. Next, myriad groups of volunteers from around the city drift through the warehouse space at different times to lay the tiles on the canvas. (Artist Paul Jakubowski |3| says he never knows what he’ll find when he walks into the warehouse each week because of all the people who have worked on the mosaic in his absence, but adds, “I love this kind of community work!”)

Once the tile layout is complete, sheets of tacky clear film are placed on top of the tiles to keep them in place. The sheets are cut into one-foot squares, then numbered and placed in a large plastic tub. Finally, the tub is taken to the actual column and glued to the surface row by row with the clear film still in place. After 24 hours, the film is removed, errant tiles are redirected, and grout is applied.

Hurst and Garciaz agree that this is not just a neighborhood art project, but one that is bringing its participants together in a common goal of bridging space between communities. Garciaz says, “We’re really excited about this project because the images were designed by the stakeholders — the people who live in the neighborhood.”

Funding for the project has been tenuous. NeighborWorks, the Utah Arts Council, the Utah Department of Transportation, and other organizations have donated money, but there’s still a long way to go. Estimated hard costs for the project are expected to exceed $275,000. After the seven columns are installed (before frost hits the valley), Hurst says the project coordinators will take a step back to fundraise and plan the next phases of the project.

This Friday, October 3, you’ll be able to visit the warehouse (155 South 600 West) where the project is being assembled as part of A Night of Art on the Westside. The Night includes a special opening at Captain Captain Studios, receptions at Mestizo Coffee House and Art Access, and the unveiling of the 337 Project’s newest transformation of the urban landscape, the Urban Gallery at Neighborhood House (1050 W. 500 S.). The Gallery consists of eight site-specific paintings (the largest of which is approximately 12 feet high and 20 feet wide) that will be “hung” outside on the inside the frames of the garage doors at Neighborhood House, as well as two sculptural pieces and a wood panel for interior display (read more at the SL Weekly). Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon will unveil the 337 Project’s Urban Gallery at 7 p.m.

Categories: Visual Arts

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