Tucson’s Sun Link streetcar isn’t scheduled to begin its rounds until the end of July.
But the public art that marks eight of its 23 stops is installed and proudly declaring Tucson’s commitment to the arts.
You may be in too big a hurry to take it in once the streetcar starts. So now, when all is quiet, take a tour.
The theme among the eight isn’t obvious, but it’s there.
“The theme is flow,” says artist Simon Donovan. He and his collaborator, Ben Olmstead, were charged with developing the overall concept, as well as creating the art for the easternmost stop on the line and for the maintenance facility.
The streetcar is designed to help traffic flow more easily. But there’s more to it than that.
“Flow is a pretty broad term,” says Donovan. “It was manifested in lots of different ways. It got such a wide variety of approaches. You give an artist a single prompt and they’ll come up with a slew of responses, which is kind of exciting.”
There’s the flow of words, the flow of history, the flow of ink, the flow of time and the flow of the heavens.
But most of all, it’s intriguing art that will surely give way to the flow of imagination.
And it begins with a head.
1. “Poet,” by Simon Donovan and Ben Olmstead, East Helen Street and North Warren Avenue.
A 6-foot-tall head with a skin made up of cut-out steel letters sits at the easternmost stop of the streetcar route. It’s tilted back and the man’s lips are blowing toward a cluster of letters in a jumbled pile on the side of the platform. It’s as though it had just blown out a poem that’s been deconstructed into letters. The stop’s proximity to the University of Arizona Poetry Center served as the inspiration, says Donovan, who hails from Tucson, as does Olmstead. The head is modeled after Tucson poet Richard Siken — Donovan is quick to point out that it is Siken’s bald pate and distinctive nose as well as his poetry that are behind the choice. The bust is meant to be representative of all poets — and the flow of words. Catch this piece at night and you’ll find it a glowing blue, thanks to the LED light inside the sculpture. To continue the idea of poetry, the stops without major art installations will have reader boards, which will stream up-to-date streetcar information and ever-changing poetry downloaded from the UA Poetry Center.
2. “Pen/Sword,” by Rafe Ropek, East Second Street and North Highland Avenue.
Look up. There you’ll find Ropek’s polished aluminum installation, which continues the word-centric idea launched by “Poet.”
“The flow is the flow of language, the flow of movement (and) transportation and the flow of air as it moves around the train,” explains the Colorado artist. There are abstract forms of letters and quill pens. Those quills gently sway when a wind blows. The swords are static and thrust up over the stop. “If you look closely, hidden within the static sculpture are the words, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword,’” says Ropek. Using modern materials and kinetic energy as its elements for this on-campus piece made sense, he says. “A campus is a spot for learning and modern thought.”
3. “Flight of Time,” Susan Wink, East University Boulevard and North Third Avenue.
New Mexico artist Wink pulled from the Old Pueblo’s past for her art, which reflects the flow of time. The steel structure — on a mid-street island across from Time Market — has mechanical gearshifts inspired by the streetcars that ran along Tucson’s streets in the 1800s. There are antique clocks and touches that evoke the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. While there, check out the handrail and grille work along the ramp, and look up and find laser-cut bird shapes. Overhead there’s a canopy of the solar system modeled from steel tubes. The steel balls you see represent the planets.
4. “Nancyplants Island,” by Mary Lucking and Pete Goldlust, North Fourth Avenue between Seventh and Eighth streets.
North Fourth Avenue has always had a funky vibe, and this streetcar stop salutes that. It features seats, shade panels, columns and trash cans that demand close examination thanks to the cut-out metal panels that also evoke our desert landscape. The piece spills onto the platform with colorful tiles that Tucsonan Lucking and Bisbee artist Goldlust call “psychedelic cactus forms.” The stop is in an island in the middle of the street and is designed to accommodate the flow of people that come to explore the avenue.
5. “Calabashes,” by Eric Powell, Sixth Avenue at East Broadway and at East Congress Street.
The gourds are companion pieces at these two stops, a block separating the two. Gourds were once used to transport water, tapping into the “flow” concept. The bright yellow (the color of the vegetables) pieces sit on top of the installations’ canopies. “The calabash, like the people of Tucson, is hardy and adaptable and thrives in the Sonoran Desert,” the California artist says in his artist statement. “They are,” he added, “symbols of the desert and water and the inextricable link between the two.”
6. “Untitled” by Joe Tyler, South Church Avenue at West Broadway and North Church Avenue at West Congress Street.
The Surprise artist turned to Arizona’s five C’s — cattle, citrus, climate, copper and cotton — for his inspiration on the Broadway side of the companion pieces. Think the flow of history. Check out the orange tree with individual welded-on leaves and a rebar trunk, a cattle skull head, an oversized copper penny, the sculpture of a cotton plant with white bulbs, and the sun symbol. On the Congress Street side, the stop celebrates Arizona’s centennial with a century plant with 100 leaves, each representing a year of Arizona’s statehood. The stalk jutting out of the center of the century plant contains 15 blooms — one for each of Arizona’s counties.
7. “Wandering Stars” by Joe O’Connell and Blessing Hancock, West Cushing Street and South Granada Avenue.
The Tucson artists looked to the skies for their installations, which sit on the east and west sides of South Granada, on the west side of the Tucson Convention Center. The flow of the universe becomes a chaotic swarm of stylized stars that you can control — a column at each stop has a button you push to change the colors of the stars. It is a pretty impressive sight when it’s dark out.
8. “Nuestras Raices/Our Roots” by Cristina Cardenas, Avenida del Convento at West Congress Street.
Tucson’s rich history and deep roots near the Santa Cruz River are honored with the Tucson artist’s work on this, the western-most stop on the streetcar line. A rose blossoms with four stainless steel petals; out of the center of the plant rises a maize stalk, taken from pre-Columbian iconography and powered by the wind. On the stop platform are 16 tiles that celebrate the crops grown in the area, as well as the people who have been important to the community. Among those tiles are images of the late photographer Louis Carlos Bernal, civil rights worker Cesar Chavez, and symbols of the Tohono O’odham and Yaqui nations.