What was previously a crime-ridden underpass dividing the Guadalupe and Jackson neighborhoods has been transformed into a welcoming, revitalized space that now connects the two areas. Amy McDonald, director of the nonprofit Brolly Arts, and many well-known artists, such as Lily Yeh, Jimmy Lucero and others, contributed to the Bridge Over Barriers community art project under the Interstate 15 overpass at 300 North and 700 West. To celebrate the completion of the project, which began in 2005 and was organized by NeighborWorks Salt Lake, there will be a ribbon cutting at the mural with food and entertainment Oct. 10, at 4 p.m. McDonald spoke to City Weekly about the undertaking and how the power of art can restore communities and bring people together.
Why did the Guadalupe and Jackson neighborhoods need Bridge Over Barriers, and how did the idea come about?
The underpass was dividing the communities. And it was dark underneath the underpass; there was a lot of gang activity and theft. Maria Garciaz, who is executive director at NeighborWorks, was speaking with Jean Irwin, who works at the Utah Arts Council, and said, “I want to do something that would revitalize this neighborhood and the community. What can we do?” Arts and culture are really the most nonthreatening way to do that.
At that time, the University of Utah had brought in Lily Yeh. She’s just masterful at transforming complete devastated areas into revitalized, thriving communities through art. She brings about hope and beauty through art. And, at that time, her signature project had been in Philadelphia where she had completely transformed a downtrodden neighborhood. Jean and Marcia heard her speak … and met with her and came up with the idea for the Bridge Over Barriers project, aka the BOB Project. So what happened was artists were pulled together—myself was one of them—to say, “OK, how do we get community input, how do we use Lily’s model of giving everyone a voice, to be part of this process and decision-making?” To say, “What would this underpass, if we were to transform it, what would it be?” It’s quite a process to give everyone a voice, have everyone be heard [and] based on all that information, make some decisions. And what was behind all that is [the question] “what constitutes your community? And how would you represent it?” Because if you want to bring a community together, you have to have all the communities represented.
So at that time there were eight religious faiths housed in this area, lots of different ethnic communities; I mean the diversity is incredible. It was the leaders of these religious communities that said, “I’m in favor of this” and got their congregations to participate, and also kids at schools to workshop. What came out of it were 16 incredible images for the 16 columns of the underpass that represented each community in that area.
What’s happened now, in this area, with NeighborWorks—there are several NeighborWorks housed across the United States … their focus is really to revitalize communities through affordable housing, education, all kinds of services for the community, and we’re the only [NeighborWorks] that had an art aspect to it. The reason it’s been so successful is there are after-school, during-school and during-summer programs for teens, and these teens have to apply to do internships, and what they learn are lifelong skills. All these groups have worked on the BOB. And so in these past couple of years, Jimmy Lucero has been the guy to work with the teens directly, as well as oversee and curate the quality of the project of the BOB. There are a few of us who have seen this project through to completion.
What happened in each of the three phases of the project?
Meeting Lily, even getting the project idea to be taken seriously—that was pre-Phase 1. Phase 1 was getting the group of artists together and beginning the community workshops. Phase 2 was the drawing of the 16 columns. They’re on canvases, either 8-feet-by-10-feet or 10-feet-by-12 feet, beautiful works of art that we drew [and] painted. And then you mosaiced 1-inch-by-1-inch tiles over the canvas. Then you take this tape and you tape it over the top, cut it like a puzzle piece, put it in a box and then you can take it over to the column. You put the puzzle together when you’re grouting it and installing it.
That took two years, partly because of funding. It wasn’t constant work in the two years, but it was two years of getting it together. And throughout that, we had to work in various warehouses, wherever we could find space. And we had different project coordinators, but it kept persevering.
What is depicted in the murals?
One side was decided to be Mother Earth and the other side is Father Time. This summer, we just finished Father Time, and we also have symbols of time—timepieces; a baby and a then a teenager, representing time, passing of time, the learning that goes on. The other side is Mother Earth—the contours of her body are Earth and her hair becomes mountains. Over time, the colors will [become] somewhat muted. What they do is they serve to “pop” the columns, which are really the masterpiece. Electrical wiring and the lighting has now gone in, so at night it’s lit up. So Mother Earth was last summer, Father Time was this summer, so in total, the artwork has been four years. And this is the largest public art project in the state of Utah. There isn’t anything bigger than this.
What is the significance of the imagery on the columns?
The imagery reflects the peoples who live in this diverse community. What is on there are basically communities and ways of living, or professions. For example, there is a physician with a grandma in a wheelchair, there is a miner, there are farmers, there are Spanish dancers, there’s a soccer player, there’s a classroom. There are things that are going on in the community every day or are part of someone’s culture. Every single one of those [columns] has a significance for somebody in the community.
What has been the community reaction to the project?
I think there’s something very cool when you’re out there working, and people drive by and they honk and they wave at you and they monitor your progress because they’re driving by every day, or people come to visit and talk to you, or people come and drive by and go, “I had no idea this was here, can I ask you about it?” And people seem to react really well when they saw us out there working. That really did more for people than anything, when they actually saw human bodies up there.
Why is Bridge Over Barriers important for the community?
Instead of that area getting tagged, having a lot of robbery, having it be dark and scary … now it’s a destination spot. People walk by and they’re really proud; they know us by name. A lot of people have helped paint and like to show off the BOB because they’ve had a part in it. Nobody tags it, and if they do, it’s very little. If it’s of the people, by the people, for the people, something magical happens. You care for it.
People have taken hold of their community and are building it, and it’s a really vital, thriving neighborhood. And I think a lot of the credit goes to NeighborWorks for the vision of that, and also for this project. What’s it’s done is instead of having this overpass or underpass divide communities, it’s now brought them together, and here’s the visual representation.
It’s so powerful, and a lot of people in the arts world don’t even know that the BOB exists. Once you introduce people to the BOB project, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea this was going on.” And they’re psyched to go see it and then they can’t believe what happened. There’s so much local talent. To harness those resources and invite these people to be a part of it. If you can have people who can work together like that, magic happens. There are so many positive outcomes from this. It really is a great accomplishment for Salt Lake, for Utah, that this kind of a community arts-based project has had such a significant, quality of life impact on the community.
Why is art so effective in revitalizing communities?
The barriers to entry are pretty much zero. It’s the most nonthreatening way we have of bringing people together. There’s nothing that would stop you from joining in. And, in fact, the potential is that everything about it would invite you in, so it’s very inclusive. Once you start feeling or seeing something happen—a transformation or an idea start to happen—it’s a very powerful thing. And because it’s from the ground up, it’s authentic. It’s not somebody imposing an idea on you, telling you it has to be this way, at this time or budget or whatever, it’s actually people coming together and saying, “This is really important to us,” and having it happen because you participated. With technology and everything, we need more ways to have meaningful connections and build community. If you do something like this, that memory is long-lasting. I think Lily said it best: “You bring a spot of beauty, you bring hope.” You can start transforming.
Who contributed to the project?
NeighborWorks has been sort of the stalwart, visionary and supporter of the project because this is really important for this community. And the Utah Arts Council has continued to fund some of it. There are companies that donated the cement stain, the tiles—it wouldn’t have happened without contributions from people. The community workshops … took a very long time and can get frustrating for some people—that really truly democratic process is not quick and it’s not easy, but the end result is you get 100 percent buy-in of what the vision is.
Jean Irwin from the Utah Arts Council. And Maria Garciaz, who is the executive director of NeighborWorks, really had the gumption to say, “Let’s do this,” and stand by it and behind for all these years—that’s pretty remarkable. Jaime Villagomez, the CEO of NewLook, gave us all of the paint and the stain. He believed so much in the project he donated everything. That’s close to 20,000 square feet of cement that he donated enough paint to cover. Mike Howard, who works for Stacy & Witbeck, also donated essential supplies to the project. UDOT would come and do the high-pressure washing, clean everything off for us before and after. There have been quiet champions of the project from day one … without their help, it would’ve been hard to realize it because it’s a lot of money and resources.
When money was tight and project coordinators were shifting … the project would have ups and downs. There’s no way a project of this magnitude isn’t going to have ups and downs. So during that time, Jimmy [Lucero] just stepped up and he said, “Look, I’ll work with the teens at NeighborWorks, and I will make sure that this project keeps going.” He became the curator of it, and he’s really good with the teens, and would work with them. He was hired by NeighborWorks to oversee that this project got done, got done well, got done on time and got done on budget. He’s a really well-known visual artist and teacher in town. I really salute his dedication that way, that he took that very seriously.