Beneath the Beast

A tile mural by Martha Daniels aims to ennoble an ignoble public space.

Over the years, Daniels has principally made her living buying and selling antiques. This activity brought her into firsthand contact with the great ceramics of the American arts-and-crafts movement of the early twentieth century. At the same time, she became exposed to modernist Scandinavian and Italian ceramics, Mexican folk art, and traditional Japanese and Chinese pottery. She has also done considerable research in ceramics history, and she often riffs on different styles in one piece, as seen in spades in "Currents and Eddies."

When the underpass project started a year or so ago, Daniels was given a choice of two themes: the river or recreation. Since the Platte runs nearby -- and since the hardscrabble world of Washington Street and I-70 is not exactly the ideal place to promote camping and hiking -- the river theme was the obvious choice.

"I have a river going through points of land, and the forms I used to create it come from the history of art and from science," Daniels says. "I looked at different depictions of water. The final shapes come from decorations on Shang bronzes and from the capitals of Carolingian columns. The big forms that come out of the frames I took directly from Japanese prints; there's lots of open space in the middle, and that's from Japanese prints, too. But all kinds of things went into the shapes. They also come out of contour drawings of water and engineering drawings of vortices tracking the movement of water.

Close-up of "Currents and Eddies," by Martha 
Daniels, tile and paint.
Close-up of "Currents and Eddies," by Martha Daniels, tile and paint.
Detail of "Currents and Eddies."
Detail of "Currents and Eddies."

"It's very graffiti-like, and that somehow makes it contemporary," she adds.

The mural runs along the west side of Washington Street and starts just above shoulder height. It measures 212 feet from end to end, though there is a fifteen-foot-wide expansion joint in the middle that has been left blank. Running horizontally across the composition is the river itself, symbolized by a battleship-gray painted field.

Within that field are the arching and swirling shapes inspired by all that art and science. These are carried out with thousands of American Olean swimming-pool tiles made of industrial porcelain with a matte surface. The edges are outlined in dark-blue tiles, with turquoise tiles used to make the inner lines. Finally, the shapes are fleshed out with white tiles.

John Pascal set the tiles, and Daniels encouraged him to improvise when filling in the forms that she had drawn on the wall. With that in mind, he shattered some of the tiles and pieced them in like jigsaw puzzles. And within the porcelain fields, according to Daniels's direction, he inserted rectilinear panels of shiny Venetian-glass swimming-pool tile. The glossiness of the glass provides the perfect contrasting visual effect with the flat sheen of the adjacent porcelain tiles.

Partially framing the currents and eddies are the riverbank that contains them. The land is carried out with organically shaped ceramic tiles that Daniels made in her studio with the help of assistant Larry Freeman. There are more than 2,000 of these rock-shaped tiles, with another thousand round tiles scattered throughout. They have been glazed with a gloss surface in a variety of purples and violets. Daniels points out that in the firing process, the glazes flow in the same patterns as water does, and proof of that is frozen in the tiles. The glazed pieces pick up the reflection of the passing traffic and the signal lights at the corners, an effect that is visible in daylight but even more impressive at night.

This mural is one of Daniels's greatest achievements. Its size alone ensures a place as one of the most important commissions of her life. This, of course, makes it even worse that it wound up where it did.

Though it would require a rewrite of CDOT's public-art guidelines, couldn't these highway-funded pieces be installed in nearby parks rather than under the road? As it happens, Swansea Park is only a few blocks northeast of where "Currents and Eddies" was installed, and wouldn't that have been a nicer place to see it? Sad to say, there's nothing to be done about it now, but maybe in the future, CDOT will be more flexible in identifying appropriate sites for publicly funded artworks. Yeah, right.

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