Whether it is two Olympians uniting in ethnic pride, an embellished stone wall representing the Japanese-American internment, or a facade of photographed hands welcoming visitors to the airport, San José’s distinct city culture is always waiting to be enjoyed and celebrated through free public art.
“The purpose is to enhance city buildings and living in San José,” says Barbara Goldstein, San José public art program director. Through the Office of Cultural Affairs, the Public Art Program completes 10 to 15 projects a year, adding to the existing 200 pieces of art sprinkled all over the San José area — including installations at Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, City Hall and the San José International Airport. The city reserves one to two percent of every new civic project’s budget for artwork. Just for the San José community. For free entertainment. For the love of art.
“The wonderful thing about public art is [artists] get to help build a civic identity with mother nature,” says Mary Rubin, public art senior project manager in San José for the past 18 years.
Behind the color palettes, significant materials, distinct textures and complex designs of the public art pieces, stories are waiting to unfold. Though artists breathe life into the masterpieces, it all starts with a vision.
Rubin calls this an artist’s individual “visual vocabulary” — what he or she brings forth to a public art project.
Each issue, we will give you an “All-Access Pass” to the voices from behind-the-scenes: To the artists who make our community their canvas and allow our interaction with San José more than just a walk in the park.
“Waterscape,” dedicated in August 2005, stands sensationally at the heart of San José in front of the City Hall plaza. Fog vanes tower over the plaza, emitting refreshing mist during hot summers. Water flows down a wedge of golden granite, offering tranquil combinations of light and sound during cold winter nights.
Douglas Hollis and Anna Valentina Murch, public artists based in San Francisco, started their five-year journey with “Waterscape” in 2001. With a $2.4 million budget, this piece is the most expensive project in the San José Public Art Program to date.
“[Hollis and Murch] listened to the community’s values and how they see City Hall. They translated these goals into the ‘Waterscape’ project,” says Rubin, who is the project manager for “Waterscape” and many other City Hall art installations.
The program commissioned the two artists to collaborate and create a water feature surrounding San José’s culture and history. Individually, both artists incorporate natural phenomena in their artwork — Hollis brings his background of working with wind and climate, while Murch contributes her experience with light and sound.
“I start the sentence and Anna finishes it,” says Hollis. The combination of the artists and their unique talents results in a complete experience for all of the senses.
Having contributed to public art individually for more than 20 years, Hollis and Murch have created retreats for communities all across the country, blending wonders of nature with history and culture.
“Their work was sophisticated and aesthetically capable to respect the natural habitat of the city,” says Rubin. The water piece focuses on the “see saw pattern” of San José’s history with water. In the early 1900s, communities in Santa Clara Valey thrived off water and agricultural development, but were also afflicted by floods and droughts.
“Sometimes there was an abundance of water and then there was none,” says Murch. “So it’s the sense that it’s not constant — everything is always changing.”
Murch and Hollis programmed the flux of water flow in the fountain to a timed 24-hour program so there are gradual changes throughout the day and night. In the morning, bubblers and sprinklers turn on, bringing the piece to life. At night, water softly trickles across the rocks.
“It’s metaphorical rather than literal,” says Murch. “We didn’t want something that was so architectural. That is why there are so many curves and flows in the wave field.”
The boulders seen in the piece were hand-picked from a quarry near Fresno and strategically placed so the water could flow undirected and randomly down the plane.
“Think of it as the architecture being governed and the waterscape as ungovernable,” says Mel Chin, a public artist who created a collection of artwork in the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. Chin offered these words during the feedback and design process, which Hollis said contributed another layer of information used to advance the project.
“It’s an expensive endeavor, so you don’t want to invest a lot of time if people have no understanding of what you’re doing to begin with,” says Murch. “You have feedback all the way through.” But sometimes feedback created complications along the way, such as the idea to use recycled water.
“You have no idea how difficult it was for us to be able to do that,” says Murch, explaining their long, complicated proposal to use a filtered rainwater system collected from the roof of the City Hall building.
In the end, they placed the recycled water system directly underneath the structure. Water is collected as it seeps down the sides or disappears into the metal grate at the end of the water field. Though sustainable, the water system is where most of the budget was invested. Murch says the pump system is complicated, much like “going into a submarine.”
“Waterscape” also involves more work than the eye can see, such as a weather station mounted on top of the City Hall rotunda that measures temperature and humidity.
“It tells the fog controller if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction so it won’t go into the street,” says Hollis. “The other thing that was actually really difficult to pull off, was we were determined that all surfaces of the piece would be wet all the time. For practical reasons, it makes it more graffiti proof, but we wanted it to have a life at all times. It’s never off.”
Murch and Hollis provide thoughtful details like these to tap into our senses and bring us into the piece itself.
“It’s interactive in a very gentle way,” says Murch.
Rather than playing in the water, children can go right up to the edge of the fountain and touch the water. Adults can refresh themselves and even the police horses can drink from it. Here, the plaza begins to separate itself from the city.
“We liked the idea that it was kind of a surprise,” says Hollis.
It was equally important for the sounds of running water to muffle the sounds of busy Santa Clara street to create a “fourth wall” to the City Hall plaza.
“It’s kind of like making an oasis in the heart of cities,” says Hollis, “places where you can stop and contemplate for a minute and catch your breath.”
Almost six years later, Murch and Hollis are still working together on seven other projects in Virginia, Iowa, Oregon and Northern and Southern California. Their public art contributions are permanent installations that will continue to engage communities across the country.
“If we can change our public places, people can change the spaces they inhabit and there can be a dialogue between all those things,” says Murch. “I think public art, especially when artists can integrate and work on a bigger picture, can really help make each place unique and very special.”