Art in the fast lane

This sculpture in downtown Phoenix is by Cliff Garten of L.A.

You might think the Valley METRO light rail system is merely a means for getting from here to there.

But it’s actually an impressive mix of art and science, making an afternoon spent riding the METRO a sort of mobile museum adventure that’s fun for all ages.

Seems the clever folks who design and develop such things strive to combine safety and efficiency with aesthetic elements that promote neighborhood pride and cultural identity.

The Urban Design Task Force that planned and designed the Valley’s first light rail system included local architects, engineers, environmental experts and artists.

Their work was guided in part by more than 100 volunteers working on various panels and committees.

Valley METRO credits the 28 artists involved in creating artwork for various stations with helping to make the light rail a “celebration of place and community.”

Artists hail from around Arizona, and from other states including New York, California, Washington and North Carolina.

You’ll see the diversity of their work as you travel around the Valley via light rail — whether you’re traveling across 19th Avenue, Central Avenue, Washington Street, Apache Boulevard or beyond.

I enjoy "HANDS" by Suikang Zhao of New York each time I travel along Apache Blvd. in Tempe

My own personal favorite is a 21-foot high sculpture titled “Hands” by New York artist Suikang Zhao — which is part of a larger installation (“The Space Between”) created by four artists in collaboration.

I see it each time I drive to and from performances at ASU Gammage, or travel between Scottsdale and Tempe for other purposes — like enjoying Essence Bakery or Changing Hands Bookstore.

You can sneak a peak at various works on the Valley METRO website, but the best way to experience public art is to grab your kiddos and just go. Take a camera, a poetry journal, a sketch pad or just your imaginations.

You’ll see all sorts of themes — like air and water, time and space, language and culture. A large circular sculpture titled “Landmark” at a downtown Phoenix stop reflects “the Hopi belief that life is a circle that we each enter at a particular place.”

Public art is like vegetables. Kids need to know that corn and peas come from the ground, not from a can. And they need to know that the works of art and design we too often take for granted are created by people sharing individual and collective stories and ideas. They don’t just fall from the sky.

You'll see "A Thousand Points of Reference" by Phoenix artist Michael Maglich when you visit Burton Barr Central Library

I’m especially intrigued by the backstory of the Smith-Martin and Apache Metro stop in Tempe, another collaboration of four artists — this one including Dan Corson’s “Carpet of Languages,” which references the 70 languages spoken in the area.

Materials used by these artists range from glazed tiles and sand-cast bronze to red granite and steel railings. While one incorporates a quilt theme, another embraces historical photos of the surrounding community.

It might make for an especially fun outing if your child needs inspiration for using art supplies received during the holidays — or if you want to help your teen think through issues of identity and design as he or she starts to redecorate a bedroom or study space.

Let family members help plan the route. Your children might discover an intriguing museum alongside one or more of the Valley METRO stops, whereas your teens might uncover some trendy coffee joints where they can gather with friends tired of meeting at the mall.

And you might just discover that riding the light rail is more than a mere convenience — it’s actually a rather creative enterprise.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about the Federal Transit Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation and their position on art and design in public transportation.

Coming up: I-Spy: Sculpture style

Photos: Valley METRO