It's easy to see where the bus stops in Highlandtown

Arty transit stop draws national nods

  • Artist Pablo Machioli takes a break in the B-U-S sculpture outside the Creative Alliance.
Artist Pablo Machioli takes a break in the B-U-S sculpture outside… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
August 14, 2014|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Artist Pablo Machioli hangs out in the belly of the letter "B."

Kyle Miller likes to linger in "U," a letter he helped shape from steel and pine.

And bus driver Kaliha Taylor waits for her shift to begin while perched on the lower curve of "S."

Baltimore's most distinctive bus stop was unveiled late last month on the side of the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown. The trio of giant letters — which resemble a set piece from "Sesame Street" — has become a favorite spot for residents to lounge or pose for photos.

The project has also drawn accolades from national publications, including Slate, which called the sculpture "instantly appealing" and marveled that more bus stops were not similarly designed.

"It's hit-you-over-the-head simple, but a really elegant idea," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, an organizer of the project, which brought European artists to a transit stop in each of the city's three arts districts. The initiative was funded with a $130,000 grant from the European Union National Institutes for Culture and $200,000 from ArtPlace America, Gilmore said.

"The whole idea was to get the three arts districts doing something together," Gilmore said. "One of the things that we all came to a consensus on was that the European Union knows how to do transit better than we do."

The project, dubbed "Transit," involved two other transportation hubs. A group of British parkour performers flipped and twirled along the plaza in front of Penn Station in May. Austrian artists collected stories of losses — from tragic deaths to misplaced umbrellas — from passersby in Lexington Market later in the summer.

The Spanish art collective known as mmmm… spent a month working with the staff of the Creative Alliance and the Southeast Community Center to conceive and create the 14-foot letters that make up the bus stop.

Two pairs of siblings — Eva Salmeron and her brother, Ciro Marquez, and brothers Emilio and Alberto Alarcon — make up the group. They have been making public art for the past 16 years, most notably a set of giant bowl-shaped seats called the "Meeting Bowls" in Times Square in 2011.

Salmeron said by email that the artists found Baltimore enchanting and reminiscent of their home city of Madrid. "Both are open cities where everyone is welcome," she said. "Baltimore is a city with a lot of personality."

The artists stayed in Station North but traveled to Highlandtown each day to spend time at the Creative Alliance.

Staffers took the artists on walking tours of Patterson Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, pointing out sculptures, painted screens and wall murals. They introduced them to Baltimoreans, bringing them to bars and parties, said Gina Caruso, the Creative Alliance's managing director.

The Creative Alliance also helped steer the group toward a design that would work for the neighborhood — an ethnically diverse mix of families with children, recent graduates and retirees.

The group's initial proposal — a statue incorporating a nude photo by the early-20th-century photographer Edwin Weston — was a little too highbrow for the space, Caruso said.

"We were looking for something that would reflect the values of the neighborhood," she said. "Interactive. Fun. Family friendly."

The Spanish artists then proposed one of the first ideas that had occurred to them — a set of oversized letters spelling out "BUS," with room to sit or stand inside The concept was in instant hit, Caruso said.

Maria Aldana, the Creative Alliance's community arts manager, said part of the appeal was that the word "bus" has the same meaning in English and Spanish. The surrounding neighborhood is home to Latino immigrants.

Once the group settled on the design, construction proceeded rapidly. Kyle Miller, a Creative Alliance staffer and sculptor, built the letters with his friend and fellow sculptor, Tim Scofield, at the latter's East Baltimore studio.

The steel bars that provide structure for the letters where shaped by the Joseph Kavanagh Co. in North Point, which has been bending and rolling metal since 1866.

Miller, Scofield and the Spanish artists spent a few sticky weeks in July fastening planks of pine to the structure.

"Tim and I were working 12-to 14-hour days," said Miller, who canceled his family's summer vacation to work on the project. "It took us about four or five days to finish each letter."

Caruso said the pair were covered in dark dust and sweat when she would stop by. "They looked like coal miners," she said.

The artists decided to leave the pine slats untreated, so that sun and rain would gradually color and shape the wood.

"That's part of the process," Miller said.

The smoothly-sanded slats are inviting to touch. Each letter provides intriguing views and a variety of surfaces to explore. "B" and "S" offer shelter from rain and wind, while "U" frames the sky.

The second two letters are raised off the ground, while "B" is just a few inches high, making it accessible to people with limited mobility.

Taylor, the bus driver, said she has not seen anything like it in her routes through Baltimore.

"It's different," said the 38-year-old. "Who would think to put a big 'BUS' at a bus stop?"

Nicole Hoffman, a 32-year-old marketing employee from Highlandtown, passed through the shade of the letters as she walked her newborn daughter Thursday.

"It's a wonderful addition to the neighborhood," she said. "We've seen a lot of people stopping by to take pictures."

Those who work and live near the sculpture have chosen favorite letters. Aldana, the Creative Alliance's community arts manager, likes the negative space in the letter "B."

Jeremy Stern, the exhibitions and program manager, is partial to "S," a letter which invites people to recline.

"It's genuinely relaxing in there," he said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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