Highwire Act: Mural by Day, Light Show by Night

It's one of the Bayview District's biggest structures — ­as tall as the Statue of Liberty and as long as a football field. Located at Pier 92, the former industrial complex — comprised of two connected grain silos — has stood unused for decades, which has allowed taggers to break in and bombard its interior and exterior with wild lettering and symbols. The inside will remain a jumble of crude drawings, but the outside is being transformed into an art project that's as ambitious as anything ever done in San Francisco's southeast corridor.

When it's completed in late December, Transfiguration will be one part Broadway light show, one part giant mural that uses colorful and surprising shapes (including a cow's head) to narrate the Bayview's past and present. Like the Bay Lights project that, at night, has transformed the Bay Bridge's western span, Transfiguration will turn Pier 92's most expansive building into a must-see edifice. Even from great distances — including Highway 280 and Bernal Heights — people will be able to watch the structure come to life during its nightly metamorphosis, when brilliant patterns will emerge from different colors of light. It's artwork that pushes the boundaries of people's expectations. And it's artwork that's highly collaborative — commissioned by the Port of San Francisco and the San Francisco Arts Commission; originated by a cutting-edge design team in Seattle; executed by a young Bay Area illustrator and street muralist; and influenced by longtime Bayview residents, whose stories helped inspire the images now going up at Pier 92.

Transfiguration is adorning the facade of the taller of the two former silos. In the early 1900s, the silos were an intricate part of the Bayview's economic life. So too were slaughterhouses, which is why the Seattle designers, Laura Haddad and Tom Drugan, included an image of a cow in the project. Also featured in Transfiguration: a heron's head that resembles Heron's Head Park, which is a short walk from Pier 92; quadrilaterals shaped like the birds that frequently flock overhead; and rising balloon-like hexagons that represent the Bayview's potential, and are based on a resident's poetic quote. During Haddad's research on the neighborhood, she came across a longtime African-American activist named Essie Webb, who said of her neighborhood's potential: “All the air came out of the balloon, and it just came to the ground and it's still there, and it's just waiting for someone to put some more air in and blow it up.”

The closer you get to Transfiguration, near the intersection of Cargo Way and Third Street, the closer you can see the fine intricacies of the $250,000 project. “It's this dynamic thing,” says R.B. Morris III, the baseball cap-wearing artist who, with a team of friends, is implementing the design. “I'd already been two months working on the project when we came out here for the color tests, and I was with one of my guys, and we were like, 'Whoa, this is going to be seriously awesome.'”

On a recent afternoon, Morris was in the bowels of the tallest silo, inspecting the red, blue, green, magenta, orange, yellow, and black paints that his team is using to decorate the exterior. From the inside, the silos are labyrinths of dark passageways, stairwells, and rooms of faded glory that are filled, ceiling to floor, with overlapping graffiti. Besides taggers, thieves break into the silos to strip away its metal. The outside is what really matters, though, and the last weeks of November and first weeks of December are an ideal time to see Morris and his cohorts paint Transfiguration as they dangle from the moving platform that transports them up and down the silo's facade. At the top, wind can push the platform around, and Morris and his painters say they “try not to look down.”

Transfiguration will be up for at least five years — part of the city's ongoing effort to create more inviting areas from waterfront spaces in southeast San Francisco that were basically off-limits to casual visitors. High fences will still keep pedestrians from entering the former grain silos, but Transfiguration should inspire more people to explore an area that feels almost desolate compared to other city waterfronts like Crissy Field.

As art, the scale and lighting of Transfiguration put it in a league with the works of Christo, James Turrell, and JR — artists with big reputations and big projects that attract international attention. Transfiguration, though, is meant first for the Bayview. It's local art as exclamation point. It's art that says the Bayview — an area once epitomized by toxic naval shipyards — is now a central locale instead of a footnote or an afterthought.

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