Carolyn Jones, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008
Berkeley is immortalizing its greatest protests - from People's Park
to disability rights to the tree-sitters' standoff at Memorial
Stadium - in a towering sculpture of fist-waving demonstrators on a
pedestrian and bicycle bridge over busy Interstate 80.
The artwork, titled "Berkeley Big People" and to be dedicated
Saturday, is already stopping traffic. Visible from about a mile in
either direction, the 30-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture is the
largest and most expensive piece of public art ever commissioned in the city.
"It's monumental in scale, in money, in visibility," said Mary Ann
Merker, the city's civic arts coordinator and the project manager.
"It's our way of welcoming people to Berkeley. It's exquisitely done
- but if some people don't like it, that's OK, too."
Caltrans officials are among those who have been less than thrilled
with the project. The agency initially was concerned that the
sculpture, standing over Aquatic Park, would distract drivers and
might topple in the wind.
"Anything that would be a distraction for motorists, including
protest signs, is not permitted," said Caltrans spokesman Ben
DeLanty. "But this is now outside Caltrans' jurisdiction."
After more than two years of dueling engineering reports and
dickering over the artwork's structural integrity, Berkeley moved the
piece about 5 feet north, off Caltrans property.
The sculpture is on the eastern edge of the bridge near the
University Avenue on-ramp, looming over one of the most-traveled
stretches of freeway in the nation.
Location, location, location
"Look at the audience, it's huge," said the artist, Scott Donahue of
Emeryville, as he installed the piece this week. "I want people
driving by to say, 'Hey, this is Berkeley.' But I also wanted
motorists to feel jealous of the pedestrians and bicyclists who get
to use this gorgeous bridge."
Next week Donahue will install another sculpture on the western side
of the bridge depicting Berkeley's nature-loving side: dogs catching
Frisbees, bird-watchers and kite-flyers.
The sculptures are designed to appear differently to those zooming by
on the freeway at 65 mph, those stuck in traffic and those trekking
by on foot or on their bikes. From a distance, the sculpture
resembles either a bouquet of flowers or a Paul Bunyon-sized tennis
player, passersby said this week.
"I think that's a tennis racket, isn't it?" said pedestrian Ralph
Butler of San Jose as he gazed upon the enormous protest sign
clutched by one of the figures in the sculpture. "It's nice, but in
this economic climate, do we really need it?"
"Berkeley Big People" cost $196,000 and ran $83,000 over budget,
largely because of the cost of the engineering reports and rising
materials expenses incurred during the delays. The original
commission, for $113,000, was part of the pedestrian bridge budget,
and the City Council agreed to fund the cost overruns.
Close up, people can view a dozen or so scenes from Berkeley's past,
such as: a People's Park protest complete with National Guard
helicopters; bicyclists surrounding a car; Mario Savio leading the
Free Speech Movement; a disabled person abandoning a wheelchair to
crawl up the steps of City Hall; and a lone figure perched in a grove of trees.
Themes of Berkeley
It also pays homage to Berkeley's cultural contributions, with images
of a vegetable garden, the Lower Sproul Plaza drumming circle, a
double helix and a woman playing a violin.
But the most prominent theme is protest. That's not surprising, given
Berkeley's tradition of social reform, said Lisa Rubens, historian at
the Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Project at UC Berkeley.
"Whether it's tree-sitters or the Marines, these are the kinds of
things that have put Berkeley on the map for the past 40 years," she
said. "A monumental piece of artwork like this is a way to give that
history some legitimacy, to show it's not just episodic or hare-brained."
Donahue had artistic license to depict Berkeley any way he chose,
Merker said. The only criteria was that the piece serve as a gateway
to the city. The images were not vetted by City Hall, although the
process underwent five years of public review by the civic arts
commission and a 10-member selection committee.
Folks watching the project installed this week were mostly awestruck
by the piece. Many of them stopped and stared as Donahue made some
"It shows the spirit of the university," said Greg Davids, who lives
on a boat at the nearby Berkeley marina. "It shows learning, music,
protesters looking very victorious. It works for me."
Zach Mermel, visiting from Hawaii, said he liked it, too.
"It's a concise history of Berkeley, shown pictorially," he said. "I
like the message."
Not everyone is so enamored of it. Larry Raines, a Berkeley
architectural designer, said the artwork detracts from the simplicity
of the bridge and the message - Berkeley's liberal tradition - is redundant.
"It's like putting a 'Live Green' sticker on a Prius," he said. "It's
just not needed."
The artist, meanwhile, is thrilled with the feedback. Even the criticism.
"I love this area, that's really why I'm doing this project," he
said. "To see this finally go up is deeply satisfying."
"Berkeley Big People" will be unveiled at a public ceremony at 11:30
a.m. Saturday at the eastern side of the pedestrian bridge. The
entrance is in Aquatic Park at the foot of Addison Street. For more
information, go to links.sfgate.com/ZFCW.
How "Berkeley Big People" makes its mark:
Size: 30 feet tall, visible for a mile in either direction of
Interstate 80, which runs beneath it.
Cost: At $196,000, it's the city's most expensive public artwork.
Images: People's Park protest with National Guard helicopters; Mario
Savio leading the Free Speech Movement; a lone tree-sitter.
E-mail Carolyn Jones at email@example.com.