Last issue, we brought you behind the scenes of “Waterscape,” the water feature in front of City Hall. Your “All-Access Pass” into the wonders of the San José Public Art Program continues this issue with a closer look at not just one installation, but 16 pieces of art created by international public artist Andrew Leicester.
Collectively called the “Parade of Floats,” 16 statues represent the various gifts that help shape San José into the thriving place we live, learn, and work in today. The sculptures, made of concrete, reflect different aspects of San José’s vibrant roots. The “Parade of Floats” line the sidewalk of South Fifth Street and border City Hall plaza.
“They are so familiar in that area of City Hall,” says Susan O’Malley, curator and print center director of the San José Institute of Contemporary Art. “It’s almost like I couldn’t imagine the space without them. They represent the diversity and each of the [statues] is really different and uses a particular language.”
The story behind the “Parade of Floats” shows a community engaged in a creative process. Here, one of the most prominent art collections in downtown San José is revealed and celebrated.
“There is a little bit of something for everybody,” says Mary Rubin, senior project manager from the Public Art Program. “If public art is engaging the community then the artist is doing its job.”
The initial idea for the project was a string of artistic objects leading to City Hall and marking the civic district. Andrew Leicester came to San José in February 1999 with more than just one project on his hands. Within the first three years of research, Leicester discovered a forgotten gem of San José: a traditional parade called “Fiesta de las Rosas,” or festival of roses.
During the 1920s and 1930s, “Fiesta de las Rosas” was an annual public parade in downtown San José to celebrate the popular and flourishing rose gardens within Santa Clara County. Half a million people gathered from all over the valley to participate in the parade. On a warm summer day in May 1929, San José State University students dressed as Spartan warriors led the parade down The Alameda with a Trojan horse float adorned with roses and university pride.
“That gave me the perfect kind of armature and theme,” says Leicester. “To recall that annual parade and update it with references to contemporary social issues and history.”
A questionnaire was developed to reach out to the community for ideas about the individual floats. A committee, along with the artist, reduced 250 responses into a compilation of 16 primary themes.
Armed with the list developed by and for the community, Leicester spent the next three years developing the designs, getting them approved and constructing each of the 16 floats. Six years and $818,000 and later, 16 individual pieces of art were created with unique themes.
Leicester says some of his original designs were declined and sent back to the drawing board, such as the idea to use a Trojan horse as seen in the San José State float from the original “Fiesta de las Rosas” parade.
“The Trojan horse was a double entendre not only to the University but in terms of information and computers,” says Leicester. He was told his horse idea was declined due to irrelevant tension from a previous horse statue in downtown San José that upset the Hispanic community because it reminded them of a white military figure conquering California.
Unbeknownst to the committee, Leicester managed to sneak in his horse into the “Children” float with a statue of a piñata.
“The piñata is like a Trojan horse,” he says. “It’s got something hidden inside of it. It’s like a double agent.”
Whether intentionally or not, Leicester disguised the Trojan horse as a piñata leaving more than one meaning for the community to discover.
“[A Trojan] obviously also has an innocent but threatening effect on modern technology. I think my computer has one right now,” says Leicester, chuckling as he tries to click through his computer and close the dozens of pop-ups that bombarded his screen. “Technology can be both frustrating and inspiring at the same time.”
The “Technology” float, as a very important piece to San José’s puzzle, can be seen from SJSU’s campus at the corner of Fifth and San Fernando streets. A tall shiny black column towers above a base of faces that represent the workers of Silicon Valley.
Leicester says he was inspired by a mural at San José International Airport that depicted workers in protective jumpsuits creating silicon wafers for the high-tech industry.
“These black shiny columns are being drawn out of this molten pot,” he says in awe of the magical transformations of silicon technology and its potential power. “That, in turn, are being turned into silicon wafers. It’s like alchemy.”
Leicester’s designs also touch upon simplicity and build upon geometric shapes. Each float has a deliberate meaning to the community but is not always recognizable at first glance.
The “Future” float seems complex and abstract. Leicester says he used the Chinese puzzle game called Tangram to tell a story. The object of Tangram is to use all seven pieces of the puzzle to form a predetermined shape. Every image seen in the “Future” float is derived from the same seven shapes.
“In our lives, we have a set of things that are given to us and it’s up to us to arrange them in such a way that we can kind of control our own destiny,” says Leicester, sharing his vision and concept of future. “It’s a game of chance that involves people making choices and their outcomes, because you can’t predict the future.”
As a public artist, Leicester develops deeper meanings in his pieces without distracting the community from enjoying them and their simplicity at the same time. You can walk by any one of these floats and enjoy its presence, bright colors and intricate tiles.
“If something is beautifully crafted, you don’t really think about it when you look at it,” says O’Malley, who has served on two review panels for the San José Public Art program. “It just sort of transports to you what it is. These pieces are all successfully crafted.”
O’Malley suggests to take a walk through these floats a little more thoughtfully. Not until you sit for a while and study one of these floats, do you begin to realize its true significance, personality and historical reference.
“It touches us,” says Leicester. “It tells us that our city wants to provide us with things that enrich our daily environment.”
And his timeless public art pieces in downtown San José will continue to participate in our perceptions of our city through rain or shine.