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Going for the Gold: California Stories on the Los Angeles Metro Gold Line: Communities, Public Art, and Placemaking.: 07. Michael McMillen, Geologica 42, Fillmore Station

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


Geologica 42

Michael McMillen, Fillmore Station

Description of work

The title of the installation, Geologica 42, is a Latinized description of geology and a metaphor for time.  The number 42 was the jersey number of Pasadena native Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier in professional baseball playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.[1] 

There are two art elements at the Fillmore Station: an embellished 40’ steel spire near the station’s entrance; and a collection of five bronze replicas of steamer trunks that serve as benches on the station platform.  Together, both elements allude to the geological and cultural history of Pasadena.  Rich in symbolism, the decorations on the tower mix personal and communal memories into a narrative on the passage of time. Capping the tower is a finial in the shape of a life size baseball that symbolizes Jackie Robinson.  Below that is a stationary compass with arms pointing to the cardinal points, and two wind powered steel mobiles—a weather vane identifying wind direction, and an anemometer attached to a spinning coil displaying the wind velocity.  The area’s technology and science activities, centered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology, are referenced by the weather vane’s pointer which looks like a Bell X-1 rocket plane, which in 1947 was the first plane to break the sound barrier.  Though it is not explicitly displayed anywhere in the installation, that year is a subtext of the work for that was the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.  The tail of the weather vane, patterned after a tail fin of a 1950s Cadillac, represents the area’s design and artistic energy, which is cultivated and nurtured at the Art Center of Design.  Underneath these mobile elements, the tower is decorated with what McMillen described as “art deco/streamline moderne details that evoke a 1920-30s view of modernism.”[2]    Below these details are two arms parallel to the railroad tracks, each topped by the name of the station, “Fillmore”. The bottom of the tower is encased by a 9’ tall bronze collar imprinted with a montage of images that Michael McMillen described as a “sedimentary column of artifacts and symbols both natural and manufactured, interlinked and mutually dependent.”[3]  What appear to be pebbles and rocks embellish the base of the collar.  This morphs upward into a depiction of two shelves of books. According to McMillen, these books represent repositories of knowledge and serve as a metaphor of historic changes built on knowledge.[4]  Above the books are bas reliefs of pencils and writing implements which disappear into a profusion of old wooden typefaces.  These images evolve into an aerial view of a neighborhood or small city bordered by six lanes of gridlocked traffic.  This is capped by a ring of additional buildings and an open space framed by serpentine lines of railroad tracks.  A variety of cultural and personal references mark another stratum on the collar.  Keys, paintbrushes, pencils, locks, doors and books represent a sense of discovery while a toy car is a reference from McMillen’s childhood.  Paint brushes also pay homage to McMillen’s late friend Jim Doolin, who painted three large murals inside the lobby of the MTA headquarters depicting the changes in Los Angeles since the late 19th century.  The number 42, prominently portrayed in this mix, is another reference to Jackie Robinson.  Wooden typeface, data entry punch cards, books and other objects are things McMillen collected.  McMillen’s initials are among the letters as well as the initials of people McMillen knew, including Eve Doolin, the daughter of his friend Jim Doolin.[5] 

The five benches replicating historic steamer trunks have identical measurements and a similar design, but differ in the hinges, locks, rivets, and textures.  The trunk with the most locks also bears the nameplate of Harry Houdini, the famed escape artist and magician, who stayed at the nearby Green Hotel.  These bronze trunks not only function as seating for transit riders, they embellish the station platform and serve as a link connecting travel on the Gold Line with rail travel in the past.[6]

History of work

In the Spring of 1993, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) held a series of public meetings in Pasadena to inform the community about the light rail project and the Art for Rail Transit (A-R-T) program.[7]  At these meeting, Alan Nakagawa from Metro Art, the department at the MTA responsible for implementing the public art program, invited people to participate in the art creation process by joining one of the three Community Advisory Committees (CAC) that were being formed for the six stations planned for Pasadena.[8]  One committee was for the Fillmore and Del Mar stations.  During the summer of 1993, the eight member CAC for the two stations prepare a Community Profile to guide the artists who would be ultimately selected.[9]  After completing the profile, the CAC elected two members to the five member artist selection panel.

The artist selection panel first met on October 7, 1993 and reviewed slides of more than 600 artists who were in the Metro Art’s slide registry.  A short list of artists was created and the panel reviewed them in more depth at an October 20 meeting.  At that meeting, they selected nine finalists, who were then interviewed on November 3, 1993.[10]  Following the interviews, the panel voted and selected Elsa Flores for the Del Mar station and Michael McMillen for the Fillmore station.

After being selected, McMillen read the Community Profile prepared by the CAC and the Overall Aesthetic Philosophy (see introduction) prepared by Seyed Alavi.  He also read books about the history of the area, and met with the other Gold Line artists at the Southwest Museum where Vera Rocha, the chieftess of the Gabrielino/Shoshone Nation, talked about the Gabrielinos and their relationship to nature.[11] 

McMillen structured his design with a vertical element because of the station’s narrow site.  He wanted the tower to have a strong presence that would identify the station and mark the station’s entrance and exit.  He also wanted the tower placed close enough to the access ramp for the station’s platform so transit riders could see the details on the richly embellished bronze collar.[12] 

By April, 1994, McMillen made a model of his basic design and showed it to the CAC.  The committee members made minor suggestions but overall they were excited by his proposal.  All the elements of what was installed--the baseball finial, the compass, the weather vane with an airplane pointer and the Cadillac fin tail, the anemometer, and the “Fillmore” signage, were in the model.  The collar was also in the model, but it did not have any details, which McMillen planned to develop later.[13] 

When the light rail was put on hold during the containment period in 1995, McMillen stopped work on his project.   Six years later, after the light rail project resumed under the newly created Pasadena Blue Line Authority, McMillen was given a new $10,000 contract to finalize the design and prepare industrial drawings for Carlson & Company, the tower’s fabricator, and Sandy Decker, the collar’s fabricator.  Under this contract, McMillen designed the detailing on the collar, and added a flared base to hide the structural features of the tower’s footing to the ground.[14]  In mid 2002, McMillen received a $91,500 contract from the Pasadena Blue Line Authority to fabricate the tower and collar, an amount later raised to $145,500.[15] 

When McMillen began working on this project in 1993, he proposed to the landscape architect that a low-water landscape, with an abundance of cacti and succulents, be planted around the base to deter access to the column.[16]  However, when the tower was installed, only a small number of succulents and cacti were planted, which McMillen felt was the consequence of the departure of the original landscape architect.[17]  McMillen also considered incorporating into the collar, diagrams that Richard Feynman created in his pioneering work in particle physics,[18] but these were not included.[19]  There were issues involving the location of the tower.  McMillen wanted the tower placed at the intersection of Fillmore Street and the rail right of way, but it had to be moved northward because the serpentine walkway to the platform interfered with the initial location.  Even with the new location, the tower still serves as a focal point and landmark because people approaching the station on Fillmore Street can see it.[20]  The location was also impacted by safety concerns about the proximity of the tower to the overhead electric wires.[21]

From the beginning of his involvement in the project, McMillen wanted to replace the standardized benches that were planned for the platform with cast replicas of the kind of equipment and containers that would have been found at old railroad stations.  Among the objects he planned to replicate were a luggage cart, suitcases, crates, and shipping trunks.  Because of cost, all the objects were dropped except for the trunks.[22]  But even this was removed from the MTA budget during the containment period.[23]  It was not until after the project resumed in 2000 that financing for the trunks was resolved.  As the first step in the process that ultimately resulted in the City of Pasadena taking over the funding of this component of the installation, McMillen, in the summer of 2001, made presentations to the Pasadena Art Commission and the Pasadena Light Rail Design Review Committee.  At these meeting, he said that he wanted to replace the planned seating with trunks to make the platform more aesthetically interesting, and give transit riders something that they would animate by interacting with them as benches.[24]  After the Commission approved the design concept for the trunks, the City of Pasadena issued a contract to fabricate and install the benches as a station “betterment”.[25]  In August 2002, the Pasadena Arts Commission gave final approval for the design of the trunk benches.[26] 

McMillen made a pattern for one trunk, and then altered it by adding locks and other details to create a varied five-piece series.  Before fabrication began, the staff from Metro Art told McMillen that it wanted the trunks made of reinforced concrete because of maintenance concerns and fears that they would be too hot to sit on during the summer months.  McMillen responded by saying that he preferred cast bronze because it was more durable than concrete, it ages well, and it would be more aesthetically reflective of what he was trying to do.[27]  In the end, the MTA dropped its objection.  However, the bronze trunks were moved out of the sun because they had a finish that retained a lot of heat and were placed on a line in a shaded area between the pillars of the canopy.[28] As a safety precaution, Pour House fabricated the trunks so they did not have any sharp edges.[29]  

Michael C. McMillen (1946- ) received his BA from San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge) in 1969, an MA from UCLA in 1972 and an MFA from UCLA in 1973.  Early in his career he made models for movie sets, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. He received a Young Talent Award in 1978 from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.  His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States, Europe, the Pacific, and Asia, and is in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, Australia, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and other prominent museums in California.  Describing his work as installation art, McMillen involves the viewer into the art experience by making constructions and paintings that integrate time, change and illusion, and incorporate cast-off materials and objects to create a visual/spiritual poetry. 

[1] Michael C. McMillen, interviewed by Michael Several, October 14, 2008.

[2] Michael C. McMillen, telephone interview by Michael Several, December 18, 2008.

[3] Fax from Michael C. McMillen to Lesley Elwood, re: Geologica 42, October 31, 2002.

[4] McMillen interview, October 14, 2008.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Letter from Monica Gonzales, Public Affairs Manager, Metro Pasadena Project, MTA, to John Jontig, Light Rail Manager, City of Pasadena, April 12, 1993; Announcement of Public Meeting, Pasadena Light Rail Transit Project, no date.

[8] Alan Nakagawa, interviewed by Michael Several, May 21, 2008.

[9] See sign-in sheet for Community Advisory Committee Fillmore/Del Mar Stations, July 8, 1993; Community Advisory Committee/Fillmore/Delmar for list of members, and attached Community Profile, no date.

[10] See letters from Alan Nakagawa to Elisa Crystal, Terry Shoonhoven, Margaret Garcia, Sabra Clark, Bob Takata re: dates of meeting; September 29, 1993; Nakagawa interview, Op. Cit.

[11] McMillen interview, October 14, 2008.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Service Contract Change Orders, July 1, 2002, Executed August 20, 2002.

[16] Fillmore Station, description from Los Angeles to Pasadena Construction Authority Public Art Program, September 3, 2002; Fillmore Station – Project Description Michael McMillen, Artist, Statement July 16, 2002.

[17] McMillen interview, October 14, 2008.

[18] McMillen Statement, July 16, 2002, Op. Cit.

[19] McMillen interview, October 14, 2008.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Fax from Lesley Elwood to Michael McMillen, September 12, 2001; Fax with attached drawing from Lesley Elwood to Jim Holmes, Robert Holmquist, November 27, 2001.

[22] Plan and Elevation from Michael McMillen, re: Cast Bronze Trunks for Fillmore Station, November 15, 1994, McMillen interview, Op. Cit.

[23] Fax transmittal from Lesley Elwood to Tom Stone re: Fillmore Bench Drawings, June 18, 2001, Draft Minutes of July 24, 2001 meeting of the City of Pasadena Light Rail Station Design Review Committee. 

[24] Letter from Richard D. Thorpe, Chief Executive Officer, Los Angeles to Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority to Cynthia J. Kurtz, City Manager, City of Pasadena, April 11, 2002.

[25] Fillmore Street Station Project Overview, June 24, 2002; Los Angeles to Pasadena Gold Line, Project Description, July 16, 2002; Letter from Lesley Elwood to Rochelle Branch, Public Art Coordinator, City of Pasadena, September 5, 2001

[26] Transmittal from Lesley Elwood to John Rawlings, Monica Born, Robert Holmquist, John Skoury, re: Fillmore Station, August 15, 2002.

[27] McMillen interview, October 14, 2008; Lesley Elwood, interview by Michael Several, August 28, 2008.

[28] Email from Jorge Pardo to Lesley Elwood, re: Fillmore Station-Benches-Metro Art, September 23, 2003.

[29] The Trunk Seating (Betterment Funded by City of Pasadena), no date.