On Baltimore's JFX, bridges form artist's canvas

October 22, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

No one bridges the gap between art and engineering like Stan Edmister, the country's first bridge maintenance artist.

In 1990, his scheme for repainting Baltimore's Guilford Avenue bridge in five colors -- red, yellow, green, warm gray and chartreuse -- transformed a once-mundane stretch of Interstate 83 into a Jones Falls Fantasia.

Last year he enlivened the Cold Spring Lane bridge over the expressway by painting the I-beams red-orange and installing TC iridescent foil strips on its fence posts. The shiny foil strips become a rainbow of colors when the sun strikes them.

Now the 53-year-old artist is about to work his magic on five more JFX bridges: the Chase, Fallsway, Biddle, Preston and Maryland Avenue spans.

All five are in various stages of reconstruction and will get their new stripes by the end of next year. The Maryland Avenue bridge will be dark green with light green highlights. For bridges below Guilford Avenue, Mr. Edmister chose a "post industrial palette" that combines ink blue and Chilean red -- dark colors that will add visual weight.

These midtown spans represent the latest phase of the Painted Bridges Project, a multi-year effort that Mr. Edmister, working with engineers and public officials, launched to create a "gateway of color" from the suburbs to downtown.

He has received $60,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts and $30,000 from the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore to develop and execute a comprehensive color scheme for 16 bridges that span the expressway from Chase Street to Northern Parkway.

The project is designed to do for local bridges what Ted Turner has done for old black-and-white movies, except without the controversy. As each bridge comes up for repair, contractors colorize it according to specifications set by Mr. Edmister, who selects paint formulas as well as hues.

He supervises the painters and even proposes ways to replant the landscape, including wildflowers in complementary colors.

National model

Part of Mr. Edmister's goal is education: he paints various parts of the bridge in different colors to highlight its structural components: the flange, the web, the stiffeners.

Through his art, he also wants to make people more aware of the money and effort it takes to build and maintain the city's bridges. Above all, he wants to show that public works projects need not be mere utilitarian features but can enhance the built environment.

"I hope it's something that people who travel on the expressway or who live in the area will discover over time and get used to," he said of the project. "It should not be evident all at once. That act of discovery is what I want to achieve."

A viewer's reaction to each bridge is meant to vary depending on the time of day and the changing light conditions. It also will be affected by "whether you need a lift and you get it," the artist says.

Seen by an estimated 26 million motorists a year, Baltimore's painted bridges have become a national demonstration project that shows how any city can benefit when artists, planners and engineers collaborate to create cost-effective public art.

Mr. Edmister says his method doesn't cost any more than painting the bridges battleship gray -- and actually saves money because he specifies high-gloss, pigment-saturated paints that last longer than those typically used.

Building bridges

Mr. Edmister's work, as photographed by Erik Kvalsvik, is featured through Nov. 13 in an exhibit at the City Hall Courtyard Galleries, 100 N. Holliday St. Visitors to the exhibit are invited to take crayons in hand to suggest a color scheme for the Howard Street bridge, an arched span that has the potential to be a knockout like Guilford Avenue's.

Meanwhile, the concept has caught the attention of planners elsewhere. Mr. Edmister has been asked to suggest ways to enhance bridges in New York, Boston, Tucson, Ariz., and Louisville, Ky. "People tell me they love the Guilford Avenue bridge," he said. "It just makes them feel good. Over time, there will be other bridges that make them feel good, too."

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