The design team of Lucy Begg and Robert Gay (Thoughtbarn) flew in from Austin yesterday to begin assembly of their public art installation, Ghost Prairie, on the Prairie Line Trail. Begg and Gay, with Philadelphia-based urban planner, Todd Bressi, have been charged with creating a public art plan for the highly anticipated walkway/bikeway project now underway. But this week, the artist/architects will be switching laptops for work gloves as they install a light-emitting, 25′ x 4′ sculpture at a site on the University of Washington-Tacoma (UW-T) campus.
Ghost Prairie is one of eight temporary public art projects that will be unveiled on Saturday, Nov. 12, along the half-mile landmark trail, which marks the terminus of the 19th-century Transcontinenal Railroad. The other seven projects are by Tacoma artists and participants in PA:ID (Public Art In Depth), an intensive program created by the City of Tacoma to provide selected professional artists free training and mentorship in how to apply for and advance through the process of creating public art works. Saturday’s demonstration project is “the pilot for a public art program that will enliven the new civic artery,” says Begg. “We’ve been working in tandem with urban planner Todd Bressi, who is devising the public art masterplan for the trail.” The public-art strategy is being developed with support from a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Guidelines for the eight commissioned works indicate that recycled, reused or reclaimable materials be used in construction. Thoughtbarn’s installation is made from laser-cut, industrial-weight cardboard with long, feathery zip ties, and will be illuminated at night. The enigmatic design, suggesting an insect or a chiton, was inspired by a visit to the Mima Mounds Natural Preserve in Thurston County. The startling natural landscape of undulating, uniform mounds is best described as resembling an upside-down egg carton, multiplied outward, and blanketed in prairie grass.
“Several theories compete for how the mounds came to be,” says Begg. “Earthquakes, erosion, giant gophers…” She and Gay chose the title, Ghost Prairie, in “playful reference to the once-vast prairies in southern Washington that the rail-line crossed to reach Tacoma.” Of 160,000 acres originally managed by Native Americans, she says, only 3% remain today. “We were inspired by both the plight and the poetry of the prairie. Our 25′-long undulating structure will be covered with a field of zip ties, simulating a grass-like effect. The goal of it is to be a tactile, intriguing object. We want it to invite people in to touch it, but also catch eyes from afar.”
Gay has written about the big-picture ramifications of public art projects such as the one underway in Tacoma, noting that “public art can act as a small-scale catalyst to set in motion larger urban development agendas” that enrich and beautify communities. Students from Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA) will participate in assembling Ghost Prairie this week.
Look for other fine examples of “urban theater” on the legacy trail, which connects UW-T, the Brewery District, Union Station, the Museum District and the Bridge of Glass, and Thea Foss Waterway. A free public tour of the eight Prairie Line art installations happens this Saturday, Nov. 12, starting at Tollefson Square in downtown Tacoma. For short descriptions and a map of each installation’s location, check out the Community Walk Map. The tour will entail about two miles of walking and conclude with light refreshments.