Across the street from the old City Hall building in Civic Center Park, just beyond the two homeless men sleeping on benches, there are hundreds of brightly painted tiles depicting images of peace.
A few blocks away, poetry is etched into the sidewalks and the wind whistles a song on an oversized red tuning fork.
All are treasured pieces in Berkeley’s public art collection.
“It’s my job to love and take care of them all like a mom with her kids,” said Berkeley’s Civic Arts Coordinator Mary Ann Merker. “You really can’t love one more than the others, can you?”
The public art program formally started in Berkeley when the Visual Art Ordinance was passed in 1985, but started to gain momentum in 1999 when the city council passed the Public Art Resolution that allotted 1.5 percent of the budget for public art.
Before 1985, the city still gathered works including Romare Bearden’s 1973 mural The City and Its People, which went on a national tour a few years ago. This piece is the crown jewel of the collection, and the Berkeley city logo was derived from part of its design. All pieces are originals.
“Everything we’ve done is specific to the community it sits in,” Merker said. “There’s a great love of the written word and literary themes in Berkeley. I also think there’s a love of history. If you look at the Romare Bearden piece it shows the history of the people of Berkeley. It’s not intentional; it’s just what came naturally.”
Some pieces are only decorative, like Earth Song for Berkeley, the big red tuning fork on Shattuck avenue by Wang Po Shu.
“I thought the idea of a giant tuning fork in the middle of traffic was a little strange at first, but it was interesting after reading the description that it is in tune with the Earth’s tonal center, and even though it’s not the right octave, it was still cool to hear kind of what the Earth’s natural sound is,” freshwoman Natasha Sommers said.
Others are also functional, such as the Corporation Yard gates by Eric Powell, which are now being built.
“I think the idea is to make the world we live in a little more interesting and a little more beautiful,” said artist John Wehrle, who is currently painting a mural at the West Berkeley rail stop. “Part of the artist’s function is making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
Some pieces have proven controversial, such as HERETHERE, a literary marking upon one’s entrance into Berkeley from Oakland that states “HERE THERE” in eight foot steel letters. Many thought it was an insult (over there in Oakland), and Merker went on a local call-in show with the artists, Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, to clear it up. It is facing Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, loosely based on Gertrude Stein’s statement “There is no there, there” after discovering her childhood home in Oakland was no longer standing when she returned to California in the 1930s.
HERETHERE is one of the many pieces completed over the last two years; currently there are over 17 contracts.
“This spring and summer is going to be a real wealth of new public art,” Merker said.
At the beginning of a project, a request for artists is put out; sometimes it is local, sometimes international. A selection panel is formed specifically for the project; from the entries they select finalists and then a winner. The Civic Arts Commission has final approval, but according to Merker, they historically back the panel.
“In public art, the first thing you have to do is return the money to the site where it was generated,” Merker said. “It brings art into the community on a very basic level.”
Public art is art in public spaces that is viewable by anyone. This includes the pieces inside buildings where it is necessary to check in upon entering, like the Martin Luther King Civic Center. Much of the artwork is outside, painted on ordinary walls or resting on a street corner. This often means artists must also work in public.
“It was an opportunity to work in public and work I could do outside,” Wehrle said. “I could speak directly to the public as an artist.”
More information and an art directory can be found at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/civicarts/publicart.htm