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Going for the Gold: California Stories on the Los Angeles Metro Gold Line: Communities, Public Art, and Placemaking.: 09. John Valadez, The First Artists in Southern California: A Short Story, Memorial Park Station

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



The First Artists in Southern California: A Short Story

John Valadez

105’ l x 10’ h

The Memorial Park station artwork honors the earliest artists in the area with a stylized representation of Native American pictographs and pictoglyphs.  These images are laser cut out of 4’ to 10’ high aluminum and steel panels and accented by semi-gloss red, orange, white, black, and yellow paint.  This montage incorporates figurative images based on Southwest designs and abstract ones based on Southern California coastal designs.  They are organized into two overlapping strings of organic shaped images attached to the station’s columns, creating a work 105’ long.     

No public art installation on the Gold Line was more contentious than this one.  There was conflict over the selection of the artist.  There was a battle over the content of the art.  And there was a war over the fabrication and installation of the piece. Public art projects have been known to have problems because the artist had a personality clash with the funding government agency, the developer of the property, or the fabricator.  In this case, John Valadez was caught in the middle of a struggle fought by others over his selection and between the fabricator and the contractor over the cost of installing his piece.  In the one area he was involved, which concerned the design, he was very accommodating to the criticisms of the community and revised his original proposal.  Later, however, when he was insulated from community pressures by the procedures of the Pasadena Blue Line Authority, Valadez redesigned his work to more fully expressed his initial concept

The conflict over the selection of Valadez as the artist for the station began quietly in April 1993, when Metro Art, the department responsible for administering the Art for Rail Transit (A-R-T) program of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), invited people at a public meeting to participate in the artist selection process by joining the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) being established for the Memorial Park station.[1]  During the summer of 1993, the CAC wrote a Community Profile that was to help guide the artist that was to be selected for the station to design art that would be relevant to the surrounding community.  The committee then elected two members to the five member artist selection panel.  At their first meeting, held on December 7, 1993, the panel reviewed slides of artists in Metro Art’s slide registry and reduced the potential pool of artist to a short list of 31 artists.  On December 16, the panel reduced the short list to six finalists, who were interviewed on January 14, 1994.  After a contentious discussion in which race and ethnicity played a divisive part, the committee by a split 3-2 vote selected John Valadez over a local African-American artist.  Two of the panelists felt that the art at station should be done by a local African-American artist because the first NAACP Southern California office was in Pasadena.  There may have also been a conflict of interest because one of the panelists who voted for the African-American artist was the artist’s friend and collector of his art.[2]  Though the selection of the artist for this station was the only one on the Gold Line in which race and ethnicity was a factor in the deliberations, the panelists who raised it were unsuccessful.  In the end, Valadez was selected by the three panelists not because of his ethnicity, but because of his record, history, and experience in creating public art.  

The second battle was fought over the content of the work.  Within three weeks after being selected, Valadez met with the station architect, Harshad Patel, and they discussed placing the artwork on the station’s east wall and on the existing concrete columns.[3]  Valadez initially wanted to combine metal, tile and projected light and shadow images of Pasadena at both ends of the station.  He also suggested putting lasers in the center of the tunnel roof, use water, which would refer to the Arroyo, and incorporate audio effects.[4]  As a result of objections by engineers involved in the project, who wanted a clean and simple design that would require little maintenance, the lasers, water, and audio were eliminated.[5]  As Valadez crystallized his ideas from researching the history of the area, he decided to create a work that would honor the indigenous people.  The subterranean Memorial Park station reminded Valadez of a canyon where Indian art has been found.  This setting was to frame his initial design, which incorporated patterns, figures, and colors from the baskets and pictographs of the Chumash Indians.  He wanted to honor their creators as the area’s first artists by transforming the space into a public gallery with laser cut images in aluminum panels hanging on the station’s columns.[6]  

On April 12, 1994, Valadez presented his conceptual design to the CAC.  In a “confrontational” meeting, the committee rejected it.  They felt the images went too far back in time,[7] they claimed the images did not reflect the personality of the surrounding community, and they wanted more references to the area’s ethnic diversity and the history of the site.[8]  The committee also felt that if artists were to be honored, they should be artists who were active in the Pasadena area during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[9]   

As a result of these complaints, Valadez reconceptualized his design.  The redesign, tentative titled “Old Town Family Album”, was to be a collage of images of the area from the 1890s to the 1920s.  To develop the composition, Valadez looked for photographs in the photo archives at the Pasadena Historic Society, the Pasadena Library, the Los Angeles Public Library, and personal collections to show that the multi-ethnic makeup of present day Pasadena was present at the city’s founding.[10]  In doing his research, he found photographs that had a hidden meaning.  One showed a lynching in Pasadena, and another one showed that the city’s schools were integrated years before they were later segregated.[11]  These two images were among the ones that Valadez planned to silkscreen on nine 30’ w x 10’ h aluminum panels hung on the pillars on the outbound side of the station.[12]  These panels were the design concept for the Memorial Park Station art when construction of the light rail was stopped in late 1995 due to cost overruns.[13]  During the subsequent containment period, Valadez did no further work on the design. 

In 2001, Valadez was notified that construction of the light rail was resumed under the recently created Pasadena Blue Line Authority (PBLA) and was invited to rejoin the project.  However, he was reluctant to do it because of the difficulties he previously had with the people in Pasadena.  Lesley Elwood of Elwood and Associates, the art consultant for the PBLA, said he would not have to deal with them anymore.[14]  She told him that under the PBLA, she would handle the approval process and would shepherd it through the city’s Cultural Affairs Division and the city’s Light Rail Review Committee.  As a result of these assurances, Valadez rejoined the project and went back to his original concept of depicting and honoring the indigenous artists.[15] However, he expanded the geographical scope of his work by incorporating images from the Anasazi of the southwest into the composition. He also added an overlay to the figures to replicate Indian pictographs in which images were painted over each other.[16] 

On August 8, 2001, the Pasadena Arts Commission approved Valadez’s proposed design and the following month the City of Pasadena Light Rail Station Design Review Committee approved it.[17] 

After receiving a $100,000 contract in April 2002 to fabricate the piece, Valadez made a maquette of the work by cutting the string of figures out of paper with an Exacto-knife.  Carlson & Co., the fabricator, then made a full size model based on the maquette.  From the model, shop drawings were prepared followed by initial laser cutting of the figures in the metal plates.  However, before the cutting was completed, issues arose over the capacity of the brackets that were to fasten the panels to the columns in the station.  Pat Nicholson, a consultant hired by Kiewit/Washington (K/W), the builder of the Gold Line, suggested that the installation should be able to resist a 90 mph wind, the continuing vibrations of trains coming out of the tunnel into the station, and a major earthquake.[18]  K/W adopted the consultant’s recommendations and insisted that Carlson & Co. prepare brackets with higher stress requirements.  In the ensuing conflict between the fabricator and K/W over who would pay for the strengthened attachments, Carlson & Co. temporarily stopped fabrication work.[19]  After an exchange of heated letters, K/W agreed on April 2, 2003 to pay for the redesigned attachments and pay Carlson for additional expenses to accelerate fabrication to meet a May 10 deadline.[20]  However, K/W and Carlson continued to squabble over the costs which resulted in Carlson refusing to release all the fabricated sections.[21]  When they were finally released, they were brought to Valadez’s studio, where, under a tight deadline to meet the opening date of the station, he painted the work using an extremely toxic paint.[22]  Supported by an extra $5,000 to pay overtime for his assistants, Valadez completed the painting in time for the panels to be installed when the station was dedicated in June 2003.[23]

John Valadez (1951 - ), born in Los Angeles, received his BFA from Cal State University, Long Beach, in 1976.  He has awards from the California Community Foundation Getty Fellowship, the Architecture Foundation of Orange County, and was the first American artist to receive an artist-in-residency fellowship at the Fondation d’Art de la Napoule in France.  His work has been included in group exhibitions on Chicano art that have been shown in France, Belgium, Sweden, and Mexico, as well as in many large cities of the United States.  Among these group were “Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptures” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and “The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mystical Homeland” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  He has also had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art in New York, the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard, California, and at art galleries in Los Angeles.  His work is represented in major public collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., the Chicago Mexican Museum, the University of Texas, and the Brooklyn Museum.  In 1981, he completed The Broadway Mural at the Victor Clothing in Downtown Los Angeles, which captured the life of one of the most vital pedestrian streets in Los Angeles.  Valadez has also completed murals at the border crossing station in Isleta, Texas, the Federal building in downtown El Paso, Texas, the Junipero Serra State Office Building in downtown Los Angeles, and the Santa Ana Federal Court Building in Santa Ana.   

[1] Metro notice of Public Meeting Pasadena Light Rail Transit Project, no date.

[2] Alan Nakagawa, interviewed by Michael Several, May 28, 2008.

[3] Conference Report No. 3, site visit, Harshad Patel Design Consortium, February 4, 1994.

[4] Conference Report No. 4, Harshad Patel Design Consortium, February 9, 1994.

[5] Conference Report No. 4, Harshad Patel Design Consortium, February 9, 1994, Op. Cit.

[6] John Valadez, interview by Michael Several, January 6, 2009.

[7] Valadez interview, Op. Cit.

[8] Letter from Alan Nakagawa to John Valadez, April 14, 1994.

[9] Valadez interview, Op. Cit.

[10] Handwritten description of design, undated.

[11] Valadez interview, Op. Cit.

[12] Los Angeles-Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority, Status of Artwork Design, February 5, 2001.

[13] Valadez interview, Op. Cit.

[14] Lesley Elwood, interviewed by Michael Several, August 7, 2008.

[15] Artist Meeting Notes, Status of Artwork Design, November 2000; Los Angeles-Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority, Status of Artwork Design, February 5, 2001; Valadez interview, Op. Cit.

[16] Valadez interview, Op. Cit.

[17] Draft Minutes, City of Pasadena Light Rail Station Design Review Committee, September 20, 2001.

[18] Email from Jeff Bennett to Lesley Elwood, re: John Valadez Project for Pasadena Gold Line, January 16, 2003.

[19] Letter from Jeffrey Bennett to Jack Clapp re: Memorial Park Station Artwork for John Valadez, March 20, 2003.

[20] Letter from Stan Driver to Mark Nelsen, re: Memorial Park Station Artwork, April 2, 2003.

[21] Letter from Carlson & Co. to Kiewit/Washington re: Historical Project Summary and Response to K/W Fax Dated May 29, 2003 Regarding Submittal of C&Co Payroll Records, etc., May 30, 2003.

[22] Valadez interview, Op. Cit.

[23] Memorial Park Station, Artist: John Valadez, escalation fee, no date.