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Wednesday, September 12, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tunnel Visions -- Artists Alter Public's View Under The City

``If the art had been purchased in a traditional way, through commissions, it would have produced some nice postage stamps to stick on a 747,'' Jack Mackie says of the $1.5 million Metro earmarked for bus tunnel art.

After five years of design and construction, Metro is holding an opening celebration at the northern terminus, the Convention Place station at Ninth Avenue and Pine Street, beginning at noon Friday. When the buses start rolling underground the next morning, Seattle will be able to see on a regular basis just what its art investment purchased - not isolated aesthetic islands, but a cultural experience that seems to grow from every surface.

``Being underground is frightening. It's being buried and nobody wants to be buried,'' Mackie says. His goal as one of five lead artists working with Metro's many teams of engineers and architects was to prevent the tunnel from becoming ``a deadly psychological space.'' Put in positive terms, as Mackie and others involved in the project prefer to do, the tunnel was to be somewhere people would want to go, offering an experience to enjoy rather than endure.

As a result of their work, city residents riding through the tunnel may become more aware than ever before of the character of Seattle's urban neighborhoods because of the tunnel's visual parallels to the city above. At the very least, they'll know precisely where they are.

Some of the orienting features can't be missed, such as directional signs Vicki Scuri designed for the tunnel interiors to apprise riders of their positions right

down to the foot. ``I think of the signage as being a large-scale tape measure,'' Scuri says.

Inlaid granite diamonds outside each of the tunnel's 16 entrances are tipped with colored compass points - white for north, black for south, red for west and green for east. Risers on the stairs leading to the sidewalk are similarly inlaid with colored granite to indicate direction. ``It's fun to tell people the key,'' says Carol Valenta, Metro arts coordinator. ``But it's also fun to let them discover some of these things over time.''

Over time. The phrase has a particular ring when applied to how design and execution developed on Metro's tunnel project. Mackie signed up for three months of advisory work back in 1985, and soon realized ``I was going to have to stay.'' Other lead artists came aboard a little later, and three years of intensive collaboration with architectural and engineering design teams began.

``These were not commissions, they were tasks,'' Mackie says. ``It was clear we had a job to do.''

The collaborative process of public art takes the artist out of the private studio and into an arena of constant discussion, consensus and change. Leaning back in his chair in the Pioneer Square loft where he works and lives, Mackie recalls those days of mutual productivity. He lifts one moccasin and points to the sole. ``We finally decided that wherever these were, that was the studio,'' he says.

Eventually, a corps of 21 artists produced works for the tunnel stations and adjacent street areas.

``Artists need to come out of the studio and participate as citizens,'' Mackie says. He's quick to add that he's not advocating that route for every artist. ``Even though a lot of art will always be made in isolation, I think there's a place for the influence of common people in

public art.''

Nothing could be more human, more commonplace, than the boarding area at Westlake Station. Other design teams might have left the marble framing element for murals by Fay Jones and Gene Gentry McMahon just as it started, rounded away from the surface. But Mackie got to thinking about how people can rest if they're just given a place to lean. The outward curve became concave, providing a hollow perfect for perching.

It's hard to tell, in cases like this, where art, engineering and architectural design leave off and psychology, physiology and sociology take over.

``If we don't shape our public spaces, they shape us,'' says Scuri. She believes some elements along the tunnel route, especially in the Westlake and University stations, may be quietly subversive of the traditions of male-dominated public architecture.

``It's a woman's world introduced to a man's world,'' Scuri says of the domestic imagery of fabric she used to warm and soften the emotional impact of chill surfaces and vast ``rooms.'' For Mackie, the effect of cloth has produced some of his favorite reactions in people moving through the stations. ``When was the last time you saw someone touching a building,'' he asks.

Watching such moments of encounter, Mackie finds himself thinking that this is what public art at its best can be. He welcomes his relative anonymity. ``This is not about me,'' he says. ``This is about the solitary experience they're having in a crowd.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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