Few of the thousands of shoppers at Sacramento’s Sunday farmers market at 8th and W streets ever look up at the gray concrete ceiling looming above them. But by next spring, it may be tough to look at anything else.
Muralists Sofia Lacin and Hennessy Christophel of L/C Mural and Design are transforming the 70,000-square-foot expanse of Highway 50’s underside into the region’s largest mural.
If successful, this test project for Caltrans, called “Bright Underbelly,” will open the door for artists across the state by changing the way the state’s transportation officials evaluate and approve art on load-bearing structures like freeways. CalTrans district landscape architect Chris Johnson says Bright Underbelly and a similar, though much smaller, overpass mural in San Jose are pilots for future work.
CalTrans does not recognize individuals for installations on its structures. A government entity must assume responsibility for future maintenance and upkeep of all CalTrans structures, meaning these artists need an agent. So first the City of Sacramento needs to adopt a resolution agreeing to become the responsible party. Once the city obtains a permit from CalTrans, the artists can begin work—hopefully by the start of 2015, Johnson says.
“We’ve been working very closely with [the artists]… so that they know all of our standards and policies up front and they can design accordingly,” Johnson says. “Once it gets to our office, it should be a pretty facile review and approval process. I don’t anticipate any major hiccups.”
In addition to the physical challenges involved in painting the underside of a busy freeway, the artists must address CalTrans’ biggest safety concern: avoiding paint that would flex with the concrete and hide cracks from inspectors.
Tre Borden is the project manager of Bright Underbelly. He says, technically, given the guidelines on the books, the project is an outlier.
“They’re going to work with us to see how it impacts the structure [and] how it’s received by the community,” Borden says. The results, he says, will inform recommendations to Caltrans guidelines and serve to encourage such projects statewide.
Lacin, Christophel and Borden are raising the entire $150,000 price tag privately. As of mid-September, they were two-thirds of the way to their goal.
And if it seems like more public art is cropping up around town, that’s because there is.
Sacramento has over 650 city and county-commissioned art pieces plus many more state, federal and private projects, according to Shelly Willis, executive director for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. In the last year and a half, SMAC has commissioned 52 projects, she says.
“The models for how artists make money or fund their businesses have started to change,” she says, pointing to partnerships with developers and Property Business Improvement Districts that have helped put more artists to work.
Borden says that Sacramento is ripe for large-scale enterprises such as Bright Underbelly, and that the project has the potential to be a major catalyst for public art.
The project will be the region’s biggest and boldest statement by far, and its location above the state’s largest certified farmers market will make it one of the most visible.
Lacin says they tried to imagine “the most magical experience we can create for people who go under this freeway, who have a spiritual connection to the food they eat, and are really connected to this market.”
The mural’s brightly colored pillars represent Sacramento’s seasons, and connect to a light blue canopy of sky and trees flecked with birds and leaves. The artwork will span the freeway’s undersides both westbound and eastbound.
Christophel says the farmers market was a big inspiration, “but we didn’t want to make it about fruits and vegetables. So we zoomed out a little bit … [to] look at the seasons, natural cycles, this balance of things that create our local ecosystem.”
“Bright Underbelly,” will be five times larger than anything the duo has done. (Their 2011 mural “Same Sun” covered the 14,000-square-foot east area water tank in Davis. At the end of September, they are set to begin their 10,000-square-foot “Contagious Color,” which will transform the 12th Street underpass downtown.)
To create the work, the artists to will lie on their backs in scissor lifts 16 feet off the ground, painting up to 10 hours a day. Completion will take two months, given decent weather.
For Lacin, the true impact will be measured by the looks on the faces of farmers market patrons craning their necks upward.
“I hope that it gives people inspiration and hope and surprise and magic,” Lacin says, “all of those things that art is meant to do.”
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