Robots, folklorico dancers, rainbows and pizza adorn roads in South Tucson and several historic neighborhoods, hidden in plain sight.
Pima County is turning to young artists for its first such public-art project, which cover 55 manhole covers in parts of South Tucson and neighborhoods such as Barrio Viejo, Barrio Santa Rosa and Barrio Libre.
The project is the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department’s first public-art contribution as part of the department’s $15 million Southeast Interceptor project. The project upgraded existing sewer pipeline between Simpson and 36th streets and is installing a new interceptor pipeline from 17th street to Euclid Avenue.
The city has mandated that 1 percent of the amount spent on each capital-improvement project be dedicated to public art.
The county’s manhole project met that mandate.
Tucson sculptor Jason Butler created the manhole covers in collaboration with the Barrio Viejo, Barrio Santa Rosa and Barrio Libre neighborhood associations. He invited more than 50 8- to 14-year-olds at Ochoa and Mission View elementary schools and the Santa Rosa Community Center to illustrate for the project.
Using the children’s pictures and ideas, he created 55 manhole covers — 11 each of five designs — which represent hope, unity, family, culture and diversity. The design is depicted in both English and Spanish.
Jaime Rivera, deputy director of conveyance of the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department, says the manhole-cover idea was inspired by similar projects in Texas and Maryland where municipal officials held a competition and selected several designs.
“We used that as our reasoning or as our justification to do that particular type of project, which is kind of not very common, and we were not sure if it was going to be accepted as an alternative for art. But because some other jurisdictions have them, it was easier to get that accepted by the committee,” Rivera says.
KE&G Construction is the contractor on the project. The Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona organized the public-art funds and the community panel that selected the local artist.
Butler, 43, moved to Tucson in 2003 from Northern California when he was accepted into the University of Arizona’s fine-arts graduate program. Since then, he has created several public-art sculptures around Tucson and taught for 12 years. He creates custom metal architectural sculptures for his clients at Special Interest Metalwerks.
Butler enjoys working on public-art projects because more people engage with that art than they would if it were in a museum.
“We involved a lot of kids, so they were literally the children and grandkids and neighbors of all the people that were on the public-art committee advising and making the decisions. They were really into that (their) kids get to have this little mini-legacy left in the neighborhood,” Butler says.
After talking to the community, Butler realized five common themes that he focused on for the project. They chose to represent diversity through food and culture through dress, music and performances. Butler says he chose children’s art that was artistic and cute but jived with the themes. Each design features art from several children’s work.
Herman Lopez, vice mayor for South Tucson, served on the art committee and says they chose Butler because he was the most prepared and his past work reflected the community’s values and traditions.
“It’s part of our heritage,” Lopez says. “Those five words describe a wide variety of people whether they’re Native American, Mexican, Yaqui, Chinese, black. It applies to everybody.”
Butler is working on a gazebo called El Kiosko de los Niños. It will feature the children’s art that wasn’t included in the manhole covers. Construction will begin this month at the El Paso and Southwestern Greenway at 22nd Street and Osborne Avenue.