How a $1.5 million investment in public art along the light rail represents Aurora

person adminfolder_openUncategorizedaccess_time April 18, 2018

An art installation resembling a celestial ferris wheel whirled in the wind at the Aurora Metro Center on Thursday, with a sign for nearby Dillard’s department store visible through the sunrise-colored sculpture’s metal mesh.

The pop of color and movement, courtesy of local Lyons’ artist John King, was placed at the Aurora light rail stop as part of the Regional Transportation District’s Art-n-Transit project.

The City of Aurora and RTD shelled out big sums of money in the name of art, to make the stops along the R-line a little more charming but, more so, to give the diverse, sprawling community a greater sense of place.

“It creates a connection to the people using our facilities,” said Christina Zazueta, who oversees the public art program at RTD. “You may not always notice it if you’re just peeking out the light rail window, but after a while you do realize. It helps you recognize that you’re almost home. It ties in the culture, the history of where you are.”

The Art-n-Transit program has been sprucing up the areas Coloradans use to come and go for more than 20 years, but the investment along Aurora’s R-line, which opened in 2017, is considered “astounding” by RTD’s standards. In addition to the $610,000 RTD put toward the transit public art, the city kicked in $894,000, Zazueta said.

The joint effort got the agencies recognized by the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, who gave the city and transportation district an award for working together to brighten up their community.

The more than $1.5 million budget was used to lure national and local artists, who immersed themselves in the communities they were crafting for to find a muse.

RTD puts out a call for artists nationally. Finalists get a chance to talk to RTD and the community to better understand the neighborhood’s culture, translating into many of the pieces’ final product.

“It was a good chance to learn a little something about Aurora,” King said, adding he hadn’t spent much time in Aurora since moving to Colorado decades ago. After getting his Aurora Metro Center assignment, King went to the Town Center of Aurora mall across the street to do get a feel for the area.

“I went to the mall there and sat down to watch the number of different kinds of folks walking around,” he said. “It’s such a neat experience to actually start to see the different faces of the very large community.”

One such community member, Vasili Tasoulis, paced in front of his briefcase at Fitzsimons Station on Thursday. The first-year pharmacy student was waiting to catch the light rail home after a day studying at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

When Tasoulis forgets to bring a book to read, like he had on Thursday, he often finds himself staring at the artwork. At Fitzsimons Station, which he visits most every day, vivid green and blue poles mimicking grass jut from the ground.

Tasoulis particularly enjoys the hand-painted glass wind screens, by artist George Bates, intended to depict Aurora’s many cultures and ethnicities. Among the paintings, children play soccer, families eat and birds perch in tree branches.

“They’re interesting,” Tasoulis said, pointing to the screen behind him. “This one looks like a person made up of a bunch of smaller people. It gives you a sense of community and togetherness.”

Light sculptures suspended in a walkway under Colfax Bridge Station tell the story of immigrants and refugees and a longtime Aurora resident.

“The city really took this as an opportunity to be really expressive of its identity but to also be expressive of the different natures of each community,” said Roberta Bloom, public art coordinator for the City of Aurora. “At some stations, the city actually funded the artwork in full.”

Commissions for the works installed along R-line ranged from $85,000 to $310,000.

“There’s been an evolution of how we fund them,” Zazueta said.

The art displays have previously been funded in part by by government grants and community groups stepping forward. Now, RTD uses contingency funds for its rail lines to pay for the lines’ artsy beautification.

“We’ve been fortunate in the last few projects — the University of Colorado A-line, B-line and R-line — to have leftover funds after construction,” Zazueta said.

RTD also has to consider maintaining the artwork that must endure the snow, rain, wind and sunshine Colorado is known for.

“We are fortunate enough to be able to contribute to the communities in the form of art, but when it comes to maintaining, we may not have as big of a budget,” Zazueta said.

RTD allocates about $30,000 a year toward maintenance, but with more than 70 pieces across the metro region and some inching close to 20-years-old, the transportation district had to rethink how it cares for its art.

An RTD in-house facilities management group inspects art pieces about once a year, more often if the piece moves.

On Thursday, an Aurora police officer spun King’s sun wheel at the Aurora Metro Center as she patrolled the light rail stop. Sometimes, the officer said, she’ll give it a big spin when kids are around and delights as they stand back in awe.

King takes pleasure in visiting his exhibit often, too. In fact, he spotted some paint he wanted touched up when he took his grandson to the stop a few days ago.

“It’s like my baby,” the 70-year-old artist said. “I love putting art out in my world for everyone to enjoy.”

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