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Going for the Gold: California Stories on the Los Angeles Metro Gold Line: Communities, Public Art, and Placemaking.: 02. Cheri Gaulke, Water Street, Lincoln Heights Station

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



Water Street: River of Dreams

Cheri Gaulke

Water Street: River of Dreams is a visual and literary narrative using myth, poetry, and history to capture the physical and cultural presence of the nearby Los Angeles River.  A triptych of hammered copper panels along the outbound or east platform forms a fractured silhouette that mimics the ridgeline of the San Gabriel Mountains in the background.  Called a “story fence” by Cheri Gaulke, the three sections are punctuated with allegorical and metaphorical text that records the importance of the river.  The 10’ wide x 4’- 6’ tall section on the viewer’s left contains a quote by Vera Rocha, the late Chieftess of the Gabrielino/Shoshone Nation, made to Gaulke during a phone conversation: “The water is the blood of our mother, the river her veins.”[1].  Attached to a stainless steel mesh background, the 15.5’ wide x 10’ tall curved center panel is embellished with a gold-colored coyote cut out of translucent Lexan,[2] and a turquoise-colored Lexan river that weaves between a shortened version of a Gabrielino legend about a wily coyote challenging the river to a race.  The translucent quality of the Lexan enables back-lighting to make the coyote glow at night.  The story, recorded by Hugo Reid who printed it in the Los Angeles Star, the city’s first newspaper, in 1851, reads “Coyote came one day to a river.  On seeing the water run so slowly, coyote challenged it to a race.  Coyote ran at full speed until collapsing from fatigue.  The water ran smoothly on.  Coyote slinked off with something to reflect upon for many a day.”  At the center of the panel where the river bends is a stainless steel button saying “You Are Here.”  The 10’ wide x 4’- 6’ tall panel on the viewer’s right contains an excerpt of a poem by Lewis MacAdams, founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River: “The river is a rigorous mistress, but when you tickle her with your deeds, you can hear laughter from beneath her concrete corset.”  Adjacent to this section is a panel containing a photograph of Vera Rocha and the full story about the legend of the coyote racing the river that Hugo Reid wrote for the Los Angeles Star.

The entrance to the inbound or west platform has a life-size bronze sculpture of a Gabrielino  woman pouring water into a basket.  The significance of this portrait is found on a nearby panel with  an historic photograph of a Gabrielino woman pouring water into a basket and a quote from Ralph Hancock’s book about Wilshire Boulevard, Fabulous Boulevard: “The Indian woman who dipped water from the zanja madre (mother ditch) and carried it to the several households was the city’s first municipal employee, the city’s first waterworks.    References to nature and water are seen in the four boulders and the chips of aqua-colored glass simulating a stream near the statue.  This faux stream crosses the landings of the stairs and flows into the parking lot as if it cascaded down the riverbed of Arroyo stones between the twin staircases.  The sculptural representation on the platform of the beginning of the city’s water resource management is extended to the present day by the presence of three manhole covers embedded in the faux stream.  The oldest one is on the first landing below the statue and has the name of the agency the city used at the beginning of the 20th century, “Los Angeles Water Bureau.”  The manhole cover at the second landing is embossed with the name used during the 1940s, “L.A. Water”, and the parking lot entrance is marked by one that is currently used, cast with the name “Water D.W. & P.”  Imprints of sycamore leaves are embedded in the lower part of the ramp where sycamore trees that are planted, while coyote prints are embedded in the pavement of the platform near the Gabrielino woman and in the stairs to the parking lot.

The road from inspiration to the installation of this narrative was long and windy, with paths of different lengths branching off of it that were abandoned for a variety of reasons.  Architects, contractors, other artists, public art administrators, and workers on the site appeared along the way.  While the road spanned a decade of time, Gaulke’s journey on it began even before she was hired for the project.  In the spring of 1993, Metro Art, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) department responsible for implementing the agency’s public art program, held meetings in the communities surrounding the planned stations at Avenue 26 (later renamed Lincoln/Cypress Park Station) and French Street.[3]  At these meetings, Alan Nakagawa from Metro Art outlined the role of the community in the art creation process, and invited people to join the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) that was being established for the two stations.  During the summer of 1993, the CAC prepared a Community Profile and then elected two members of the five member artist selection panel.  The Artist Selection Panel first met on October 8 when it went through the slides in Metro Art’s Slide Registry and created a short list of 21 artists.  After evaluating these artists further on October 14, the panel selected seven finalists for the two stations.  On October 28, the panel interviewed the finalists and then selected Cheri Gaulke for Avenue 26 Station and Roberto Delgado for French Street.[4] 

The development, fabrication, and installation of the public art at the Avenue 26 station passed through two phases.  The first began when Gaulke was selected as the station’s artist and lasted until December 1994, when construction of the station was stopped because contamination was found at the site.[5]  What was initially a temporary delay became an extended one in late 1995, when construction of the entire light rail system was terminated because of cost overruns.  The second phase of the station’s art program extended from early 2001 when construction of the Gold Line resumed and Gaulke was brought back into the project through the summer of 2003, when the line began operation. 

The first phase involved the development of two collections of work.  One group of ideas and concepts grew out of Gaulke’s involvement in designing a canopy and seating in collaboration with Lamb and Associates, the architectural firm for the station.  She was initially unable to develop any concepts, however, because the station had a string of architects from the firm who only worked on the project a short time.  This changed after Kevin Peterson was hired as a design consultant.  He and Gaulke collaborated in designing a number of features that were to be integrated into the fabric of the station.[6]  Treating the station as a return to nature, they designed a canopy that looked like a series of individually stylized trees.  Enhancing this tree-like appearance, Gaulke proposed that saw cut lines embedded with aggregate and color to give them earth tones should radiate from the canopy poles to evoke a sense of roots.[7]  They also considered having the station’s seating made from river boulders raised by steel rods so they would appear to be floating above the platform.  In addition, Gaulke proposed a bench designed like an inverted Chumash canoe[8] and suggested placing a cluster of three boulders on each platform and scattering five boulders alongside the west stairway.   

Though Gaulke’s second group of ideas were conceived in part to be aesthetically integrated into the station’s stairs and platforms, they were largely developed independently of the station’s design team.  The content of this collection of art was conceived to specifically refer to the history and importance of the Los Angeles River. These concepts were built on an earlier video project that Gaulke did with students at Wilson High School called the L.A. River Project.[9]  In addition to the two projects having the same theme—water and the Los Angeles River,[10] Gaulke created an artist book using text and images about the river that she collected from her research for the L.A. River Project.  This book, which was later in the 1993 exhibition “Fragile Ecologies: Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions” that toured the country through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service,[11] was the basis of her initial proposal for a 4’ tall, 270’ long fence along the east platform of the Avenue 26 station.  Described as a “story fence,” “a book unfolding a story of the past, present and future of this community,” and a “folding screen,” the fence Gaulke designed had folds that gave it a fold-out book appearance.[12]  She planned to weld, etch, and stamp out images and text on the surface that relate to the Los Angeles River, dates of important periods of Gabrielino history, and stories drawn from the variety of ethnic groups that resided in the area.[13]  Gaulke wanted a long fence on the east platform to block a graffiti tagged and abandoned warehouse that was located east of the station where the apartment complex now stands.  She also proposed installing a faux river made of glass, tiles, and a variety of other materials that would begin at the fence, cross over the train tracks, pass underneath the west platform, exit between the grand staircase and disappear into a metal grate.[14]  In addition, she wanted to imprint coyote footprints, referring to the Gabrielino story about the cunning coyote who challenges the river to a race, in the serpentine ramp on the west side of the station.[15]  The book, the river, and the footprints in modified form are all part of the installation at the station.

However, there were other proposals Gaulke made that were ultimately discarded.  After learning that the site had previously been used as a storage yard for street lights, she proposed an “island in the center of the parking lot full of light fixtures that would be like a forest.”  In the center of this island was to be an embedded medallion with the words “Hope springs eternal.” This proposal, however, was quickly rejected because it was claimed that it was derivative of a work that Sheila Klein had recently created at the corner of Vermont and Fountain in collaboration with the Los Angeles City Bureau of Street Lighting.[16]  Gaulke also proposed installing photographs into the six recessed panels in the walls supporting the bridge over Avenue 26 that would capture the Arroyo Seco in its original natural state, locals picnicking along the river in the late 19th century, and the indigenous Gabrielino people in front of their homes.[17]  In addition, she suggested putting silkscreened photographs of people in the neighborhood on ceramic tiles lining the risers of the twin staircase rising from the parking lot.

When construction of the station was suspended in December 1994 due to unforeseen high levels of contamination at the site, Gaulke’s installation included the elements she developed in collaboration with Kevin Peterson—the tree-like canopy, cut-lines in the pavements suggesting tree roots, and boulders seating, and components she developed independently—the fence, the river, the coyote footprints, photographs in the recesses under the bridge over Avenue 26, and portraits on the stairs.[18]  During the subsequent containment period the canopy and the cut lines in the station platform were eliminated when a decision was made to hold down costs by building the station with a standardized canopy and seating.  However, the other elements of Gaulke’s design remained when she was brought back into the project in early 2001.

After being rehired, Gaulke redesigned her installation but maintained the central theme of water and the river.  Though Peterson was no longer working on the project, she attempted to incorporate into the station some of the concepts they developed.  She wanted the station to have the boulder seating and the sense of nature incorporated in the canopy by placing large leaves made of metal on it.  However, Leslie Elwood, the public art manager, persuaded her to abandon that element because management of the Gold Line was committed to having a standardized canopy and there were no funds in the art budget to embellish it.[19] 

She also thought of having a 270’ long story fence bordering each platform rather than just along the outbound platform as she planned at the beginning of the containment period.  She also changed the fence along the outbound platform from one having folds like an accordion to one shaped like undulated water and fashioned out of blue steel.  The panel would have had cut-out text about the Gabrielino story of the wily coyote challenging the river to a race, and smaller panels with text and images telling the history of the area.  The story fence along the inbound platform was to be made of transparent mesh with text composed of the quote that Gaulke got during a phone conversation with Vera Rocha and the excerpt of a poem by Lewis MacAdams.[20]

For budget reasons, the two fences were eliminated.  A long fence along the outbound platform was also no longer necessary since the warehouse that it was supposed to hide was no longer there.[21]  As a replacement for that fence, Gaulke developed a 35’ long triptych.[22]  In contrast to the fence, which was to be anchored off the platform, she moved the triptych to the platform so it could be better seen by people on the trains.  In addition, she curved the central section of the fence along the curved edge of the platform.  Initially she planned to add an oval porcelain enamel photograph of Rocha to the quote cut into the panel on the viewer’s left, and attach a portrait of MacAdams with the text of his poem to the panel on the viewer’s right.  These small panels, however, were removed because of problems with lighting and maintenance.[23] 

After being reengaged in the Gold Line project, Gaulke added the three old manhole covers to the station which she got from the Los Angeles City Department of Water and Power.[24]  But the most significant addition she made to her installation was the life-size sculpture of a Gabrielino woman pouring water into a tightly woven basket.  This image is based on a photograph from the collection of the Department of Water and Power that Gaulke used in her earlier artist’s-book.  It was such a striking photograph to her that she intended to include it on the accordion-shaped book she planned before the containment period.  With the replacement of the story fence with a triptych, Gaulke took the image and reconfigured it as a sculptural piece, putting it on the platform without a pedestal to give it a human scale.  Gaulke was the model for Ruth Ann Anderson who sculpted the figure.[25]  Though the statue is based on the photograph, Anderson created a younger woman and added waves at the hemline to suggest water.[26]

The river that Gaulke originally wanted to begin at the story fence was installed but in a much shortened version.  Without a budget for this component, she began it at the statue, and purchased with her own money the material--turquoise tumbled glass and rocks that created the river.  When the station was being constructed, Gaulke established a relationship with the construction crew which put the material into the concrete without cost.  The coyote footprints that refer to the Gabrielino story about the coyote challenging the river to a race, was another component installed by the construction crew without costs.  As an echo of her proposal to have imitation leaves on the canopy of the station, sycamore leaves were imprinted by the construction crew without cost[27] into the ramp next to the stairway to the parking lot.  These imprints are located underneath sycamore trees that are part of a landscape of native plants developed through a collaboration between the landscape architect and Gaulke.  The landscape architect also allowed Gaulke to select the boulders of the arroyo running between the stairs.

There were some elements of Gaulke’s design that were eliminated after she was reengaged in the project.  The proposal to install historic photographs of the site in the six recessed panels under the Ave. 26 bridge was eliminated for a number of reasons.[28]  First, the bridge was on city property and there was uncertainty whether the city would maintain them.  Second, there were lighting issues that drove up the cost.  And third, the bridge was a designated historic bridge that required a complicated and expensive approval process to even get the photos on it.[29]  Another element Gaulke eliminated for budget reasons was the silkscreened photographs of people in the community on the risers of the stairs linking the parking lot to the inbound platform. 

Carlson & Co fabricated the story fence and Sandy Decker cast the Gabrielino woman in 2002, and all the artwork was installed by the time the station was dedicated on May 10, 2003.

In the title, Water Street came from an old street sign Gaulke found at the site shortly after she became involved in the project.  To Gaulke, the name suggests the flow of water from the river, the passage of trains, and the migration of various communities through the area.  The other part of the title, River of Dreams, is a reference, she said to the dreams of the people who pass through the area.  According to Gaulke, the complete title conveys what she wanted the artwork to evoke: “an oasis, celebrating the natural and human history of the location.” [30]  

Cheri Gaulke (1954 - ) received her BFA in intermedia at Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1975 and her MA in Feminist Art/Education from Goddard College in Los Angeles in 1978.  Early in her career she worked with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal and at the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman’s Building.  Gaulke taught at the Otis College of Art and Design, Mount St. Mary’s College, and California State University, Long Beach.  Currently, she is the chair of the art department of the Harvard-Westlake School.  In addition to being a performance artist, Gaulke has created artist’s books and multi-media pieces which have been exhibited in numerous solo and group shows.  The installation at the Avenue 26 Gold Line station was her first public art commission.  Since then, she has been awarded commissions for the Lake View Terrace Branch Library of the City of Los Angeles, a memorial to the Filipino WWII veterans in Los Angeles, and artwork in connection with the reconstruction of bridges over the Los Angeles River.  Gaulke has received many awards including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, and the California Arts Council.

[1] Cheri Gaulke, interview by Michael Several, January 19, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Avenue 26 & French Avenue Blue Line Station A-R-T Schedule of Meetings.

[4] Metro Pasadena Blue Line Art for Rail Transit Avenue 26 & French Avenue Stations Finalist Interviews, October 28, 1993; Letter from Alan Nakagawa to Cheri Gaulke, October 28, 1993.

[5] Interoffice Memo from Robert Ball to Alan Nakagawa re: suspension of design on Avenue 26 station, January 24, 1995; Letter from Alan Nakagawa to Cheri Gaulke, March 14, 1995.

[6] Gaulke, Op. Cit.

[7] Ibid

[8] Undated sketches, drawn by Cheri Gaulke.

[9] Gaulke, interview, Op. Cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid

[12] Water Street: River of Dreams.  Artist concept for Avenue 26 station by Cheri Gaulke, no date.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Gaulke interview, Op. Cit.

[17] Avenue 26 Station-Project Description.  Water Street: River of Dreams, Cheri Gaulke, Artist, no date.

[18] Los Angeles to Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority, Artist Meeting Notes, Status of Artwork Design, November 2000; Los Angeles – Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority Status of Artwork Design, January 18, 2001.

[19] Gaulke interview, Op. Cit.

[20] Water Street: River of Dream, A Public Artwork for the Avenue 26 Station by Cheri Gaulke, handwritten notation “1st version my draft”, no date; Avenue 26 Station, Art Concept, 35% Submission, Cheri Gaulke, no date with cover Los Angeles to Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority Memorandum from Lesley Elwood to Jack Clapp, April 18, 2001.

[21] Lesley Elwood, interview by Michael Several, August 28, 2008.

[22] Los Angeles to Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority Memorandum from Lesley Elwood to Andre Mack, Monica Born, re: Avenue 26 Station/PCO, August 20, 2001.

[23] Handwritten notes of conversation with Lesley Elwood, September 14, 2001.

[24] Gaulke interview, Op. Cit.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Letter from Cheri Gaulke to Lesley Elwood, October 17, 2001, Gaulke interview, Op. Cit.

[29] Lesley Elwood, interview by Michael Several, August 28, 2008.

[30] Gaulke interview, Op. Cit.