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Riding the Rails of History : Art: $10-million program is creating public works for train stations around Los Angeles County over the next 10 years.


THE REGION — The brass inscription is an unlikely one for a train station platform.

"When the Indians died, the villages ended," the lettering underfoot says at the Metrolink stop in Baldwin Park.

That quote from early in this century by one of the last fluent speakers of the Gabrielino language was embedded recently in the platform. Commuters now step across tiles, colored concrete and other lettering that spell out words in five different languages, telling the story of Southern California's missions: its baptisms, deaths, cattle and grapevines.

And to the east, down the rail line in Claremont, train commuters traveling to and from Los Angeles soon will pass unusual sculptures that conjure up images of railroading: a lantern, a rivet, a conductor's watch.

In somewhat the same way that mural projects of the Works Progress Administration put dramatic artwork in post offices around the land in the 1930s, a $10-million program is creating public art for train stations around Los Angeles County over the next 10 years.

"There is a wonderful, logical tie-in between art and rail," said Jessica Cusick, director of the county's Art for Rail Transit program. By building the train stations, she said, "de facto you are creating new landmarks" and prime places to display art.

So far, 65 artists are working on Los Angeles County projects, including ones in the San Gabriel Valley and Glendale. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is providing matching funds, up to $30,000, to communities with stations that want to display public art.

The finalists among competing artists are being selected for the Glendale and Pomona Metrolink commuter rail stations. El Monte and the City of Industry are making their plans. At Cal State L.A., student artists are working on a mural for their station.

Baldwin Park's project--by Venice artist Judy Baca, a founder of the mural movement in Los Angeles who has overseen hundreds of murals since the late 1960s--is nearing completion. The one in Claremont, by Mt. Washington artist Rod Baer, is expected to be finished by late this year.

Only one San Gabriel Valley city, Covina, chose not to participate because of cost.

For Claremont and Baldwin Park, there was no question about whether to raise matching funds, officials in those cities said. In both Claremont, the classy college town where art abounds, and Baldwin Park, the gritty working-class town where there has been no public art in recent memory, city officials and community leaders sing praises for the program designed to perk up the stations.

Dr. Joseph S. Unis, a radiologist who spearheaded Claremont's campaign to raise private donations to match the MTA art funding, said the station--restored to its original 1927, Spanish-Colonial Revival grandeur--is an architectural jewel.


Still, he said, "the station would have been a bit too Spartan without art. It's nice to have embellishments in life--something that goes beyond the bare necessities."

From a marketing standpoint, Claremont and Baldwin Park saw opportunities: the stations function as billboards to tout the cities in front of a captive audience. For that reason alone, there was value in spending local transportation funds on the project, Baldwin Park officials said.

"This station might be the only glimpse of Baldwin Park some people will ever see, just passing through on the train," Baldwin Park City Planner Larry Onaga said. "So we wanted to do something special, instead of just building a generic-looking train station."

Beyond serving as advertising for outsiders, the station artwork can become "an exhibition that will go on forever," said Baldwin Park Mayor Fidel Vargas.

"It's almost a museum within itself," he said. "Kids can literally take a field trip to the station" and learn what Baldwin Park, the San Gabriel Valley and Southern California were like 200 to 300 years ago.

Vargas said he is talking with Baca about overseeing a program to use the stations to teach students history and art.

For Baca, 46, the project represents a continuation of themes she has explored in other works such as "The Great Wall of Los Angeles." Billed as the world's largest mural and located in a San Fernando Valley flood control channel, the mural details Southern California's textured ethnic history.

That is what Baca, a UC Irvine art professor and board member of the Museum of Contemporary Art, has also addressed in Baldwin Park.

When she first met with city officials, they told her they were interested in the early missions. The artistic problem, she said, was "how do you do that without its being 'Taco Bell' " art?

The more she thought about it, she said, the more she realized that missions were "a terrific way to learn about who we are now. Who are the Mexicanos ? The Spanish? And the native people?"

With those questions, she researched mission history to develop a three-dimensional story line along the 400-foot-long platform and 100-foot-long plaza.


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