Art connects us — to the past, to a place, to one another — and in the greater Phoenix area, art also connects the 28 miles of the current Valley Metro light rail network.
Since it first began operating in 2008, art has been an integral component of the light rail system, with one percent of the total cost of all construction projects dedicated to art. Its goal: to bring beauty, inspiration and a sense of wonder to daily commutes. Fast forward to 2023, and more than 45,000 riders rely on light rail each day, and view nearly 50 pieces of commissioned artwork, created by 24 Arizona artists as well as many others from around the U.S.
“Implementing public art along any of our extensions and involving local artists creates a really vibrant, inclusive and culturally rich environment,” said Juliana Vasquez-Keating, a public information officer with Valley Metro. “I think it’s a reflection of the community. The community feels involved and it interests a lot of people. It also gives them a more pleasant ride.
“And I think being able to support our local art community has been great as well. We invest in their talents and provide them with opportunities to showcase their work.”
Currently under construction is the Northwest Extension Phase II project, which will extend the light rail 1.6 miles west on Dunlap Avenue from 19th Avenue, then north on 25th Avenue and across I-17 at Mountain View Road, ending on the west side of the freeway near the former Metrocenter Mall. The project also includes new stations, including the system’s first elevated station. Construction began in 2020 and the line is anticipated to open in early 2024. For updates, visit www.valleymetro.org/project/ northwest-extension-phase-ii.
Along this extension, five of the seven artists are local, and residents may notice a bit more whimsy in the art that has recently been installed.
“For this extension, we wanted it to support not only the local creative community, but be a representation of the people that live in this area,” said Vasquez-Keating. “The aliens are representative of the Phoenix Lights. And if you’ve been here a while, that’s likely a core memory for you.”
The installation, “The Travelers,” is created by Eugene, Oregon, artist Pete Goldlust and sits atop the 25th Avenue/Dunlap station, as well as incorporated into the station panels. Further along this line will be “Zig-Zag Block” by Phoenix artist Janelle L. Stanley. The utility gate features two plates painted in an abstract Navajo rug design and acknowledges the Diné grandmothers who influenced the artist’s weaving design.
Artwork at the Metro Parkway Station includes a tile mosaic of a Costa’s Hummingbird that graces the staircase risers of the elevated station (“On a Journey with You” by Phoenix artist Oliverio Balcells), playful sculptures that reflect the fun spirit of the former Metrocenter Mall ice skating rink and nearby amusement park (“Metro Muse” by Phoenix artist Laurie Lundquist), ocotillo stems and blooms that add flourish to the concrete piers of the station (“Ocotillo Rise” by Phoenix artist Mary Shindell), as well as seven sculptures that resemble flowers and are attached to the face of the Metro Parkway Park-and-Ride. The artwork (“Vespertine” by Seattle-based artist Susan Zoccola) is inspired by the night-blooming flower of the Sonoran Desert’s native Datura plant, as well as the iconic roofline of the nearby Sarmiento building. Lights placed at the base of each sculpture will illuminate them at night.
Phoenix artist Mary Lucking, who has created eight other pieces of public art for Valley Metro, created “Up in the Sky, Down in the Grass” for the Mountain View station, which is adjacent to the Rose Mofford Sports Complex and Dog Park at 25th Avenue and Mountain View Road.
Lucking, who moved to Phoenix at the age of 10 and attended Central High School, has been part of the light rail art program from the beginning. She creates public art in all sorts of mediums. For the Mountain View Station, part of the Northwest Extension, the artist used glass, steel and enamel panels and added, “but I’ll use concrete, and I’ll use electronics, balloons, bubbles and fish…whatever it is that I think that a particular site needs.”
“For this station, I wanted to make something that evoked as much fun and playfulness, color, life and movement as I could, to kind of mimic what I was seeing at the park,” she said.
Two large sculptures tower over the station and “look either like a bouncing ball or like a giant dandelion, depending on how you look at it,” and the station screens have cut outs that evoke movement and motion. There are also enamel panels mounted on the shade screens that depict either a birds-eye view of four surrounding locations, and four panels that have medallions, “which are views as if you were a bug, down in the grass, looking up at dogs, playing with balls.”
This is her third light rail station. She also did the artwork at the Indian School/Central Avenue Station and Mesa Drive in Mesa, as well as three streetcar stations in Tempe and three park-and-ride locations, and she encourages Phoenix artists to explore the potential of Valley Metro’s public art.
“I find it a really rich, rewarding and interesting process, besides being able to make something that goes out into the world, which is really nice too,” Lucking said, adding, “I love how committed Valley Metro is to the variety of art that they put out there. If you look at all the different stations, each one looks absolutely different from the last one. There are all sorts of different materials and techniques and styles.”
Also currently under construction is the South Central Extension/Downtown Hub. The five-and-a-half-mile extension will connect South Phoenix to the regional light rail system, operating from downtown Phoenix to Baseline Road. Along the line, there will be eight stations and two park-and-rides, and 18 artists will showcase their talents. A lot of the Downtown Hub art has already been installed, Vasquez-Keating said, and the South Central art will be installed over the next several months. Once the South Central and Northwest Extension Phase II are complete, the rail line will encompass a total distance of 35.1 miles.
Up next for Valley Metro is the Capitol Extension, a 1.4-mile extension that will connect the existing line in downtown Phoenix to the State Capitol. Up to eight artists will be selected to create artwork for this extension, and the process is already underway. An initial meeting was held July 24, and prospective artists are invited to submit a project for consideration. The deadline to apply is Aug. 23. Prospective artists can visit www.valleymetro.org/about/artsline and click on the “Art Opportunities” tab for a link to more information.
It is not just light rail stations that benefit from beautification, but the train itself as well as Tempe streetcars, area bus stops and park-and-ride locations. The light rail is unique, however, in the way that it also connects residents to Valley arts and culture destinations along the line — from museums to music venues and everything in between. Valley Metro created the Artsline program for residents who want to explore not only the public art, but the destinations throughout the Valley.
“I think public art can have positive economic impact,” Vasquez-Keating said. “Our Artsline attracts people to areas because they want see the art. It is its own art tour, and that’s just another aspect of bringing more people to the community and the surrounding businesses.”
Residents who would like to take an Artsline art adventure on Valley Metro light rail can download a brochure or check out an interactive map at www.valleymetro.org/about/artsline. Or, just hop on the line at any point and enjoy the view.