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Going for the Gold: California Stories on the Los Angeles Metro Gold Line: Communities, Public Art, and Placemaking.: 13. Beth Thielen Gold Line Alignment and Sierra Madre Station

The project was funded in 2008-2009 by the California Council for the Humanities through its California Stories: California Story Fund


Images of Commonality/Nature and Movement, 2003

Beth Thielen

In 1992, the Metro Art staff of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) became involved in what became the Gold Line by initiating a rigorous selection process to hire an artist who would identify artistic opportunities along the route.  After a nationwide search, Seyed Alavi was selected by a panel representing non-profit and government cultural institutions in the three cities (Los Angeles, South Pasadena, Pasadena) through which the proposed rail line was to run.[1]   During the six months of his contract, Alavi wrote an “Overall Aesthetic Philosophy” which recommended that the light rail project reflect the area’s diversity, yet have a unified aesthetic based on the region’s myths, climate, history, and geology.[2]  With a design philosophy on hand, Metro Art saw an opportunity to develop unifying visual elements for the line.  But rather than organizing a new artist selection process to develop those elements, Metro Art awarded the work to Beth Thielen, the runner-up in the competition that selected Alavi.  Contracted as the “alignment” artist, she was instructed by the MTA to translate the broad concepts contained in Alavi’s “Overall Aesthetic Philosophy” into something specific[3] within the constraints of using the available construction materials and having a very limited budget for installation.[4] 

After being chosen, Thielen reviewed the “Overall Aesthetic Philosophy,” which inspired her to think about using art to create visual repetition and rhythm, and to design common images that represented the environmental complexity, cultural diversity, and natural variety along the alignment.   She then had discussions with the alignment design team about painting the overhead centenary system poles, the concrete railroad ties, and the ballast—rocks used as the foundation of the tracks, different colors to create rhythmic patterns.   In addition, Thielen proposed decorating the fences around the Traction Power Stations,[5] imprinting a suit of identical images on sound walls, fences, and around the portals of the line’s subway sections.[6] She also wanted to create a ghost-like transparent image of a train from the mist of a sprinkler that would be triggered by a train just before it entered the Memorial Park station from the Colorado Street subway tunnel in Pasadena.[7] 

For a number of reasons, all but one of the proposals was rejected.  The ties and ballast were not painted because of the cost of manufacture and installation.  The train image formed by the mist was also abandoned because of installation and maintenance cost, and the decoration of the Traction Power Stations was rejected because there was concern that it would be vandalized.[8]  The only concept that Thielen was able to ultimately execute was imprinting images on structural elements along the alignment.    

In determining what images to use, Thielen conducted research at the library of the Southwest Museum, met with Vera Rocha, the late Chieftess of the Gabrielino/Shoshone Nation, and had discussions with people in the communities along the route.  She also walked along the alignment, and took notice of common and distinct elements in both the physical and natural environment.[9] 

Thielen’s initial images were: a boy running, representing a sense of space; the profile of the United States of the lower 48, symbolizing the nation’s immigrant culture; a house that symbolized hope and the end of a journey; and a Red Tailed Hawk in flight, evoking flight and movement.  These four images, according to Thielen, were “common to the communities along the alignment”[10] and together served as a symbol of a journey.[11]  She wanted this symbol imprinted around the subway portals in Pasadena and Highland Park.  She also wanted it on soundwalls along the alignment, where it would be supplemented by inprints  of a Native American on bended knee evoking the early Spanish era, and a male figure suggesting either Fr. Juan Crespi, the main diarist of the 1769 Portola Expedition through California, or Gaspar de Portola himself.[12]  Later she replaced the figures suggesting Portola or Crespi and the knelling Native American with an ostrich, a book, and an antelope.  The ostrich, recalled the ostrich races that were held at the beginning of the 20th century and symbolized the tension in the City of South Pasadena’s love of both tradition and progress.  The book symbolizes knowledge and is a reminder of the grass-roots effort to save public libraries from budget cuts that were planned during the economic recession in the early 1990’s  by the cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles.  But as Thielen refined her choice of images, she eliminated the book, ostrich, house, and the profile of the United States.  She also dropped a design that combined the San Gabriel mountains and a Gabrielino because of its complexity.[13]  By the end of 1993, Thielen settled on the basic five images that were ultimately installed along the alignment: an antelope, mountains with a stream in an arroyo, the Red Tailed Hawk, a Gabrielino woman, and an oak tree.  In her correspondence with the MTA, she described this ensemble as “Images of Commonality/Nature and Movement”, words which she later adopted as the title of her work.[14] This suite of images, according to Thielen, create a rhythmic element that reflects the area’s diversity, unifies the alignment’s appearance, resonates with the communities along the route, evokes a sense of the past, present, and future, and places mankind in nature.[15]  They are also images that children could easily identify.[16]

After determining what images to use, she continued modifying them.  She considered art deco styled versions of the hawk, the Gabrielino, and the antelope, but rejected them because they were too abstract.[17]  Thielen simplified the design of the hawk and shifted its orientation from flying to the viewer’s left to flying to the viewer’s right.  She also modified the Gabrielino woman.  Initially, the Gabrielino was depicted as carrying a jug on her head, and pouring water out of another jug into a vat.  Thielen removed the jug because she learned that Gabrielino women did not carry jugs in that manner and simplified the portrait by depicting her walking toward the viewer’s right, carrying a basket in front of her.[18]  She also modified the images to give a sense of movement to the viewer’s right by giving a slant to the oak tree, the mountains/arroyo, the Gabrielino, and the hawk.[19]    

The antelope is a reminder that according to the diary that Fr. Juan Crespi kept of the 1769 Portola Expedition, they were abundant in the area of what is now Chinatown. According to Thielen, the antelope is also a symbol, of local history, lost nature and the area’s changing landscape.[20]  The oak tree, because of its protective status, symbolizes the survival of nature and is a metaphor of the commitment by the communities along the alignment to preserve the environment.  The mountains/arroyo “defines the intimacy of place”[21] and is a permanent place-making image that provides both a context and a contrast to the transience of the other images.  The Gabrielino refers to the Gabrielino woman who lived alone for 18 years on San Nicholas Island after other Gabrielinos were forcibly removed and taken to the San Gabriel Mission in 1834.  She is carrying a basket that honors the Gabrielinos’ basket making skills.  By including the image of the Gabrielino, Thielen “reunited” the indigenous people to the landscape of their ancestors and is a reminder of the respect the Gabrielinos had for the natural environment.  The Red Tailed Hawk is a common sight along the alignment and represents the continuity of nature.[22]  

In January 2001, after the Pasadena Blue Line Authority took over the construction of the light rail line, Thielen was hired “to conduct a review of the current construction documents to provide direction into the location, size, and scale” for artwork along the alignment.[23]  This review was done to explore new opportunities for placing additional art along the alignment.  With this new review, Thielen proposed hanging panels along the alignment that would describe the colors in the surrounding landscape.  These panels would be supplemented by handouts on the trains that would instruct and inform riders about the colors in nature.  She also proposed installing glass blocks in the sidewalk in Pasadena so people would see the train passing underneath them at night as it went through the tunnel under Colorado Street.  In addition, she suggested placing signs along the alignment that would identify the cities as the trains entered and left them.  However, because of a lack of funds, none of these proposals were installed.[24] 

What was finally installed along the alignment were the five images that Thielen settled on in 1993-94—the hawk, Gabrelino woman, antelope, mountains/arroyo, and the oak tree.  These images were not imprinted into every sound wall but only where they were most visible.  They can briefly be seen on walls between Cypress Park and Heritage Square, between Highland Park and Mission Street, and between Mission Street and Fillmore.  They were also imprinted on the structural supports of the Chinatown Station, and in the elevator lobbies of the Sierra Madre Villa parking structure.[25]

When the developer of the Del Mar Station assumed full responsibility for funding the artwork for the station, the MTA had additional funds which it earmarked for enhancing the design of the Sierra Madre Villa parking structure.  Elsa Torres, who was replaced as the Del Mar Station artist after the developer took over the project, was invited by the MTA to prepare artwork for the parking structure.  But after Torres turned down the offer, the project was given to Thielen.[26]  Responding to the goal of creating signage that would orient people to the different levels of the structure, Thielen painted the images that she developed for the alignment into the elevator lobbies.  The hawk is at level 5, the Gabrieleno is at level 4, the antelope is at level 3, the oak tree is at level 2, and the mountains and arroyo are at the ground level.  Thielen also imbedded the five images in the floor in front of the ground level elevators as both separate solid figures and as overlapping figures in different colored Italian glass tile.[27]  The five images, made of Plexiglas, are also cut into two stainless steel sheets attached to the southeast corner of the ground floor elevator bank.  Behind these panels, a neon unit moves up and down on a timer at night, illuminating the images and imitating the movement of the elevators.[28]

Beth Thielen (1953 - ) received her BFA from the School of Art Institute of Chicago in 1977.  Her art is rich in content, drawing inspiration from people, and the physical and natural environment.  She is also a prinmaker and has worked with people incarcerated in the California prison system to create art books with narratives of their experiences.  Thielen received grants from the California Arts Council to be on the Caltrain Design Team, the first art planning team for a state transportation system, and to work in California prisons.  In addition to her installation on the Gold Line, Thielen has done public art projects for Huntington Beach and Playa Vista   She has participated in group exhibitions, such as the one at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. about people with Alzheimer’s disease.  Her work is in private and public collections, including the J.P. Getty Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. 

[1] Letter from Alan Nakagawa to Regina Almaguer, dated October 14, 1992.

[2] Overall Atesthetic Philosophy, Pasadena Metro Project, by Seyed Alavi, 1993.

[3] Interview, Alan Nakagawa, May 9, 2008.

[4] Memo from Beth Thielen to Pasadena Line Design Team/Station Artists/Architects describing images, April 12, 1994.

[5] Interview, Beth Thielen, October 8, 2008; Letter from Beth Thielen to Alan Nakagawa, October 5, 1994.

[6] Cover letter from Beth Thielen to Alan for Scope of Work, undated.

[7] Interview, Thielen, Op. Cit.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Memo from Beth Thielen to Pasadena Line Design Team, describing concept of Unity Through Diversity, dated September 2, 1993.

[11] Cover letter from Thielen to Alan, Op. Cit.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Handwritten fax cover from Beth Thielen to Alan Nakagawa re: re-working of images, no date.

[14] Memo from Beth Thielen to Pasadena Line Design Team, describing images, December 12, 1993.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Interview, Thielen, Op. Cit.

[17] Handwritten fax cover from Thielen to Nakagawa, Op. Cit.; Interview, Thielen, Op. Cit.

[18] Memo from Thielen to Nakagawa, December 12, 1993, Op. Cit.

[19] Memo from Thielen to Nakagawa, April 12, 1994, Op. Cit.

[20] Memo from Thielen to Pasadena Line Design, Op. Cit.

[21] Statement describing images and proposal from Beth Thielen, no date.

[22] Memo from Thielen, April 12, 1994, Op. Cit.

[23] Memorandum from Habib Balian to Richard Thorpe, re: Sole Source Justification Beth Thielen, Allignment (sic) Artist, January 24, 2001.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Handwritten note on email from Maya Emsden to Alan Nakagawa, Jorge Pardo, re: FW: headline for Friday, June 27, 2002; email from Maya Emsden to Jorge Pardo, re: Pasadena Gold Line-Parking Structure and drop off, dated July 1, 2002.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Consultation Report on the SMV Parking Structure Artwork, from Sculpture Conservation Studio, re: Review of proposed fabrication and materials, October 10, 2002; Sierra Madre Villa Parking Structure, Statement of artist, July 17,  2002.