ART : Gateway to City of Dreams : Transportation, local history and the L.A. River all have been muses for artists involved with a massive public art project at Union Station.

Any three-year public art project that involves $3 million in federal, state and local funds, 17 artists and architects, plus dozens of technicians and construction specialists couldn't be simple. If you mix those ingredients with a massive reorganization of the project's governing agency, you might expect to have a recipe for disorganization and delay, if not unmitigated disaster. So it's something of a miracle that the Union Station Gateway Intermodal Transit Center opened last week--more or less on schedule and with most of its artworks in place.

The artists--who were selected in 1992, in a juried, open competition administered by Los Angeles-based art consultant Tamara Thomas of Fine Arts Services Inc.--have designed everything from colorfully tiled fountains and a giant aquarium to bus bench pavilions with sweeping metal skeletons and glass roofs. Following their own private muses, but often making connections between the work and its setting, some of the artists have used themes about transportation, local history and the Los Angeles River, while others have tapped into their ethnic roots. Much of the money for the artworks came from Transport Enhancement Funds given by the federal government to the state of California and administered by Caltrans.

The $300-million center--at the corner of Vignes and Cesar Chavez streets, behind Union Station--is designed to be Los Angeles' major transportation hub in the 21st Century. The massive downtown development has four components: the East Portal, a glass-domed public facility connected underground to the historic train station; the Metropolitan Transit Authority headquarters, a 26-story office building; the Arroyo, a sloping walkway flanked by undulating walls and plants, and a bus plaza. Artworks are integrated throughout the complex.

Indeed, local commuters and out-of-town travelers who wend their way through the transit center will encounter much more than functional structures connecting the services of Metro Rail, light rail, commuter rail, Amtrak and regional bus systems. Outside, the bus plaza and the Arroyo--designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin of Philadelphia-based Hanna/Olin Ltd. to recall the nearby Los Angeles River in its original, unfettered state--contain artist-designed fountains, fences, grills and benches. Inside the East Portal, artists have produced the floor treatment, a seating area, a water sculpture, an aquarium, a massive mural and fleeting images in colored light that play across one wall. Additional murals are in the adjacent office tower.

Not all of the components of the massive public art project are finished. The MTA high-rise contains aerial landscape murals by Jim Doolin, but works by Patrick Nagatani and Margaret Nielsen haven't been installed and various other pieces throughout the project still need fine-tuning. What's more, the completed artworks often differ significantly from those that came off the artists' drawing boards three years ago. But the project survived the 1993 merger of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and the Southern California Rapid Transit District--a union that created the Metropolitan Transit Authority--as well as a host of design, construction and union problems.

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With most of their work behind them, Thomas and the artists are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

"This is the most complex public art project I've ever been involved with, and the most demanding, but I think-- I think-- it's going to be the most successful," Thomas says.

"It's been a really frustrating process," says artist May Sun, who worked with painter Richard Wyatt and architect Paul Diez on a multi-part environment in the center's spacious lobby. "But now that I can see results, I'm excited about it. What I enjoyed most was doing the physical work after years of designing and going to meetings."

The trio's initial design for an outdoor pedestrian bridge, lookout point, aquarium and murals had to be scrapped when it proved impractical, so they moved to a new site, inside the East Portal, and came up with a different plan.

"At least we got to hang on to the concept and create something that involves people and allows them to interact with it," Sun says of their collaborative work, "City of Dreams, River of History," which is inspired by the Los Angeles River and the city's ethnic history.

On the lobby floor, Sun has inlaid bronze likenesses of trout, turtles, Sycamore leaves and other flora and fauna that once lived in or near the river. The serpentine shape of a tiled bench and a water sculpture along its top take their shapes from the river, and a mountain-like source of a waterfall at one end of the bench is partly built of river rocks. Broken crockery, medicine vials and other artifacts embedded in the piece were excavated from Los Angeles' original Chinatown, on the current site of Union Station.

A large aquarium on the opposite side of the lobby was intended to replicate the Los Angeles River's freshwater environment, Sun says. But appropriate fish are either extinct, too small or unavailable, so she settled for a California coastal motif, with saltwater and native Pacific Ocean fish.

On the walls of the aquarium she has created a dialogue with Wyatt. Faces etched in the glass replicate larger painted images of Gabrielino Indian and Latino settlers as well as contemporary Los Angeles citizens, which appear in Wyatt's imposing 79-by-22-foot mural, also in the lobby. Wyatt, in turn, has tied his work to Sun's by repeating some of her river motifs on the border of his massive painting.

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Meanwhile, in a section of the lobby leading to escalators that transport travelers to the underlying train and subway concourse, Bill Bell has conjured a far more subtle and ephemeral artwork. His installation of a dozen vertical four-foot "light sticks" is based on a phenomenon known as "the persistence of vision," which depends on the eye's ability to retain an image after it disappears.

"I use a scanning process, similar to the dot matrix printer of a computer," he says. "But instead of spitting out droplets of ink, the 'light sticks' spit out droplets of light. The moving eye is like the moving sheet of paper in the printer."

Further likening the perceptual process to seeing a moving object through the slats of a bridge as one rides in a car, he says that the idea is to "trick the eye into thinking that something is moving behind slits in the wall." People who only glance at the wall will see colored light, but those who pause "will be rewarded by seeing things that they had no idea were there," he says. The images that emerge include old-fashioned freight trains and luxury passenger cars, plus Presidents, movie stars and other famous people who might have ridden in them. Occasionally a historic personage who predates rail transit, such as George Washington, also makes an appearance.

The piece is by far the most ambitious project to date for Bell, who has created a simpler work for Seattle's subway. "I've worked on it solidly for the last nine months," he says. "It's quite spectacular."

All the artists have extended themselves for the Gateway project. Michael Amescua, who is also an anthropologist, has adapted the Latin American craft of paper cut-outs to painted metal fences and guardrails for the Arroyo. He also has created a set of architecturally integrated grills for the facade of the MTA headquarters.

Wayne Healy and David Botello of East Los Streetscapers are known for murals featuring images of people, but they have constructed tree-like installations of metal and ceramic tile under pedestrian and planter bridges along the Arroyo. Cast-aluminum tree trunks, which appear to grow from planters but are actually suspended, lead the eye to branches, foliage and likenesses of native birds and animals made of hand-painted and glazed ceramic tiles and attached to the under surfaces of the bridges.

"We tried to re-create a shaded area in the Arroyo, where you can stop and catch your breath," Healy says.

Two other painters, Roberto Gil de Montes and Elsa Flores, also plunged into ceramics--initially planning to paint on tiles but eventually sculpting in clay and using vividly colored glazes. Working in a triangular park area with veteran potter Peter Shire, each artist has created a tiled fountain. Although the three works evolved separately, those by De Montes and Flores appear related because the artists worked in the same studio with considerable help from Benigno Barron, a Mexican master craftsman.

Flores says she is now hooked on ceramics and wants to pursue clay sculpture along with her painting.

"But the best part is that we got to design the overall space and to provide an uplifting place as a respite for commuters," she says of the park around their fountains. Initially presented with what they believed was a static plan with a few spots designated for artworks, she, De Montes and Shire drew up a new design and got permission to implement it.

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The story behind six bus bench es, designed by artists Kim Yasuda and Noel Korten and architects Torgen Johnson and Matthew VanderBorgh, is equally complicated. But, faced with the challenge of designing benches that were completely covered and attached to undulating walls, and with giving a functional object a beautiful sculptural form, the team turned limitations to their advantage, Yasuda says. Using the arroyo as a metaphor and taking cues from a variety of natural forms, they designed bus shelter pavilions with rib- and vine-like metal structures and etched glass panels.

Construction of the metal forms was so complicated that a Utah company that specializes in building roller coasters had to do the job. Stressing the unusual nature of the Gateway project, Thomas says that the bus benches alone required the work of 26 individuals and firms.

She has shepherded the project to near-completion with Robert S. Vogel, Gateway project director for Catellus Development Corp. Characterizing the giant public art project as "quite a labor of love" that caused him "a lot of brain damage," Vogel says the effort has been worthwhile. "If I have one regret, it's that I wish we could have done more. I already see a few more places that would benefit from art."

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