By Laura Fox
Arlington’s award-winning outdoor public art scene makes walking an adventure. Look up and around at the many forms art takes exploring four Arlington communities.
Angela Adams, Arlington County’s public art administrator, attributes Arlington’s award-winning public art program to the fact that 30 years ago, in 1984, leaders inside and outside the county allowed artist Nancy Holt not only to create a work of art for a park but to design the entire Dark Star Park including the landscape architecture and sculpture.
“We’re living with the legacy of thinking about public art as integrated into what the county delivers in its building, parks, open space and infrastructure,” says Adams, 50, who has been head of the public art program since 1998. “Dark Star Park is a classic example of public-private partnerships coming together to create something special.”
Adams, a curator and arts administrator for more than 25 years, joined Arlington County in 1994 as a gallery director and in 1998 took over development of the public art program. In 2004, Public Art • Public Places, Arlington’s master plan for integrating public art with the architectural, landscape and infrastructure capital projects, was approved by the County Board. Today, Arlington is home to more than 60 pieces of permanent artwork ranging from modern outdoor sculptures in open spaces to murals to bridge overpasses.
In a time of tightening budgets, public art may seem like an extravagance. In Arlington, public art finds itself at the intersection of economics and aesthetics. Adams enthusiastically explains that public art “is about creating a vibrant city infrastructure in order to make Arlington a desirable place to live, work and play. By making Arlington a desirable place, we attract the businesses, residents and tourists we need to create a solid tax base.”
The public art master plan, following in the footsteps of county development, identified four primary areas for the inclusion of public art: the Metro corridors of Rosslyn-Ballston and Jefferson Davis Highway/Route 1; the transit corridor on Columbia Pike; and Four Mile Run, which Adams refers to as “our natural corridor.” Four Mile Run is a stream that that connects North and South Arlington and runs alongside bike paths and through parks. “The three transit corridors have a more urban feel and in the case of Four Mile Run, a more natural feel,” Adams says. “Our goal is to put artists in the projects where the county is putting its main resources.”
If art is in the eye of the beholder, how many eyes in Arlington are focused on creating public art? “You are looking at the vision of an artist, working with the vision of the county staff and community stakeholders and usually a private entity. You are certainly going to have compromise,” Adams says.
A 3-D View of Arlington’s Public Art
According to Adams, Arlington’s public art plan is like a 3D map. “You have to think about the physical space: the where; the why; and the what, what piece of art would have impact for the local community.” The master plan identifies three themes as key aspects to Arlington’s civic identity: Federal Arlington, Historic Arlington and Global Arlington.
“If we are inviting an artist to come into our community we need to tell them what is important to us because they don’t know us. We want the artist to understand who we are, our character and what we value,” Adams explains. “When we think about federal Arlington we think about our relationship to the federal city. We are the former southwest portion of the original diamond that was surveyed as the nation’s capital. So we have a very strong relationship to D.C.”
“Quill”, a sculptural mural by Los Angeles artist Christian Moeller, exemplifies the federal theme. “At a distance, the reflector discs look like feathers from a bald eagle, representing our national bird but also from the environmental perspective, the resurgence of the bald eagle population nesting along the Potomac River. Every dot is a pixel, a reflector disc that sits off the wall a couple of inches so an image is formed through the pixilated array of all of these reflected discs. This piece has a lot of mystery to it and it invites people to think about it and see it differently every time they see it,” Adams says. / “Quill” is located at 1812 N. Moore St., at the intersections of N. Moore, N. Nash and Fort Meyer Drive.
Though perhaps lesser known for its history than its neighbors Alexandria or Washington, Adams says through art we can learn about Arlington’s history. “Standing at the Crossroads: Freedman’s Village Gate” tells the story of Arlington’s African-American heritage. Created by Sam Christian Holmes, 54, the sculptor and community artist based in Baltimore, Md. met with community groups in Arlington’s Nauck neighborhood and listened to their oral history. “There is a synergy when I see the world through the eyes of the community and then I offer a vision through my eyes,” he says. “In my mind we needed an area of contemplation where you can take in all the things that happened. The gateway provides that entrance. It chronicles Freedman’s Village; the Civil Rights movement; Charles Drew and his influence in the community; the churches and the infusion of the power of their history, of their ethnicity that flowed out of the ground the way worms come out of the ground and infuse our own land each year.” The sculpture is influenced by West African ironwork. / “Standing at the Crossroads: Freedman’s Village Gate” is located at the Gunstun Theater II Courtyard in South Arlington.
Adams says Arlington is home to many national and international organizations and its schools have attracted people from all over the world, giving it a global perspective. “We pride ourselves for being a welcoming community internationally.” Adams points to the play structure “Spielschiff” (German for “Play Ship”) demonstrating how Arlington is connected to the rest of the world. “One of these play structures is in Aachen, Germany, Arlington’s sister city. We asked the artist, Bonifatius Stirnberg, to create a second one for us.” / “Spielschiff” is located at Maury Oark on Wilson Boulevard.
Exploring Arlington’s Public Art
Perhaps the best way to view public art in Arlington is on foot. Lauren Hassel, 48, outreach and promotions manager for WalkArlington, a county program to encourage walking, says Arlington’s Walkabout started in Rosslyn where there was more public art per square mile than in any other part of the county. “Appreciation for getting from point A to point B doesn’t have to be efficient, only, it can be pleasurable and educational. Public art is one of the things that makes a place walkable,” says Hassel. Adams adds, “You have to design for people. And that’s what makes a great place. I think there is a connection between what I do as part of the effort to make great places and the work Lauren does focused on getting people around on foot. If my work doesn’t work from the perspective of the pedestrian then I have failed miserably.”
Since 2002, Arlington has received six Public Art Year in Review Awards presented by Americans for Arts, a nonprofit organization that supports public arts in the U.S. In 2013, Arlington received the award for “Echo” by Richard Deutsch, located at Penrose Square on Columbia Pike. “Echo” is based on a forgotten piece of Arlington’s history as a communications hub and transforms it into an interactive granite sculpture. Adams says she was surprised by the award since Arlington hadn’t received one since 2008. “I think there is more public art and more competition nationally, so we were delighted.”
The winning pieces represent a diverse group of art including “Liquid Pixels” (2006) by Ned Kahn, a shimmering collection of stainless steel discs that enhances the side of a parking garage in Rosslyn. “Cultivus Loci: Suckahanna” (2006) by Jann Rosen-Queralt takes the Powhatan Indian word for water, suckahanna, and blends form and function to create artwork that addresses bio-filtration and the cycle of water at Arlington’s Powhatan Springs Park. “Flame” (2007) by Ray King is a 30-foot tall beacon made of glass and steel rods that sparkles as a gateway to Arlington in Ballston.
Adams’ passion about Arlington’s public art comes through when discussing the future. She would like to see an urban design studio approach to designing civic facilities. “You can take all the tools that reside in the urban toolbox in Arlington among our 3,000 colleagues and really bring together all of the design thinking. I would love to see a robust conversation between historic preservation and transportation planning; urban designers, architects and open space planners; park planners and engineers who design infrastructure; and the arts so we can look at making Arlington as good as it can be, as competitive as it can be and a desired place to be.”
“Echo”: A Sculpture Communicating a History Lesson
What does an artist do to find inspiration for a new project? If you are Richard Deutsch and you’re creating a sculpture for Penrose Square, part of the revitalization of Columbia Pike, you visit the Arlington Historical Society and start asking questions. “Every place has a unique story to tell and I’m looking for a way to inspire myself to come up with an art project that is authentic and relevant to the community, to its history or its future,” he says.
The award-winning artist from Davenport, Calif. wanted to find out what makes the Penrose Square community unique, what happened in the area, what were some of the things the residents were proud of. “I found this article about the Penrose area and the Three Sisters radio towers that put Arlington on the international map in 1915. The Three Sisters radio towers were able to communicate with the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was a significant event, almost equal to Arlington being looked at as the communication capital of the United States. It would be the equivalent of Silicon Valley today,” says Deutsch.
The towers were removed in 1942 and forgotten. “So I thought, there is some real food for inspiration, it was something worth celebrating, unique to Arlington. I wanted to work with something related to sound so I started researching radio waves. I work with large stone pieces and I knew they had sound properties of echoing. So that’s where I went,” Deutsch explains. “I learned how sound is projected, how radio waves can be harnessed and how shape is a factor in harnessing sound. The sculpture started forming itself.”
At its simplest form, “Echo” is a listening device. Concave elliptical parabolas are carved into two pieces of granite allowing sound to be reflected and projected. Talking into one of the stones sends sounds waves to the other stone 20 feet away.
“Echo” had a long journey to Arlington. “The granite is from quarries in China that have very white and very black granite. I knew I could get the materials and utilize the workshop there to produce the pieces,” Deutsch explains. “I put a team together in China. I went periodically and would spend three weeks at a time, usher the project forward and then the workshop would continue the work. It took seven months to complete the project.”
The completed pieces weigh 50,000 pounds each and were shipped from China to Norfolk and then trucked
to Arlington. Installation took six weeks and was completed in November 2012.
Deutsch was surprised “Echo” was honored by the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network with a 2013 Year in Review “Top 50” award. The competition included more than 350 public art projects nationwide. “It’s a great project. There is an interactive quality about it; there’s a monument quality about it, it’s community oriented. It is really what public art should be,” he says.
Rick Gilman is sitting in Penrose Square enjoying a cup of coffee. A resident of Arlington for more than 30 years, he says he is unfamiliar with the history behind the sculpture Echo. “I am amazed that the artist was able to uncover this interesting facet of Arlington’s past and transform it into a piece of art,” he says.
Rosslyn to Ballston: the Public Art Boulevard
Walking west on Wilson Boulevard from the Rosslyn Metro station and continuing three miles to the corner of North Fairfax Drive and Glebe Road, you’ll find the greatest concentration and variety of public art in Arlington. Murals, sculptures, Tiffany glass windows and carved benches punctuate the landscape. Joining the art scene this year is “Arlington Bridge,” which marks the entrance into Arlington along Route 50.
Vicki Scuri, an interdisciplinary artist from Lake Forest Park, Wash., uses the heart-shaped leaf of the native Virginia Red Bud tree to create a pattern on the retaining walls and bridge. “My work is integrated with function,” Scuri says. In her 60s, Scuri creates her design in 3D on a computer.
A mold is then fabricated to transfer the design to the concrete. “During the day, the walls give you a preview into the area and at night the illuminated grill on the bridge stands out. A bike path goes under the bridge. If you are a pedestrian or bicyclist you don’t feel dwarfed by the space made by these huge structures. We wanted the carvings to be very tactile, to have a human scale. The pattern serves as a theatrical curtain,” Scuri says.
The Wonder of Looking Up Along Jefferson Davis Highway
Walking amid the high-rise buildings of Crystal City and Pentagon City along Jefferson Davis Highway, your eyes are drawn upward to the planes taking off and landing at Reagan National Airport.
In this urban environment is Center Park at Potomac Yard where a sculpture also draws your eyes upward. “Wonder, Wander,” by Washington, D.C. artist Larry Kirkland, features a striking pair of eyes looking upward. “The buildings surrounding the park frame the area and direct your vision upward,” says Kirkwood, 64. “You have planes going by, the activity of the clouds and sun and stars, so I thought looking up through the frame of buildings would be part of the concept.”
A 17-year-old girl from El Salvador visiting Kirkwood was the model for the sculpture. “I noticed she had these beautiful eyes, dark with long lashes,” he says. The sculpture is made from granite originating in India. It also features a water element that starts as a thin veil covering the sculpture and becomes more active. A shallow pool around the sculpture encourages visitors to get their feet wet. The shape of the eye, which Kirkwood says is reminiscent of the shape of a leaf, is incorporated into the benches he designed and the pathways, sidewalks and planting areas.
“Very dramatic,” is how Maureen Quinn of South Arlington describes the sculpture. “Are the eyes looking at the airplanes flying over head?” Seeing the sculpture for the first time, Quinn is interested in exploring more of Arlington’s outdoor public art. “I like to walk so having something interesting to look at along the way would make it more enjoyable,” she says.
Downstream Along Four Mile Run
Four Mile Run, a stream that runs from East Falls Church to the Potomac River along Arlington’s southwest edge, is the inspiration for the fountain “Down Stream” located in front of the Shirlington Village library in South Arlington.
Created by Washington, D.C. artist Martha Jackson Jarvis, the fountain is composed of river stones and Italian glass tiles. “I tried to relate the structure of the fountain back to nature. Four Mile Run is right there and I wanted to pick up on some of the natural stone formations. I used river stones that are formed in water, making them very smooth and rounded, very tactile,” she says. “I paired them with little glass pieces of Italian tiles that stand up to weathering and don’t lose their color.” The tiles are shades of blue, red, orange and green.
“The fountain has become an attractive element for children and their parents. It invites you to touch and feel it,” says Jackson Jarvis, 64. “I think children are naturally intrigued by stones and water, sunlight and color. The fountain is a gathering place and that is exciting. I think that is a really strong element of public art.”
Six-year-old Lucas Aronson thinks it’s fun to climb on the fountain. What does he see when he looks at the patterns the tiles make? “I see a snake,” he says as he runs around the fountain and then sticks his hand in to touch the stones. Rachel Aronson, Lucas’s mom, says the fountain is a great play area for kids. We live in Arlington and come here often.”