Mosaics for the Avenue U station in Brooklyn are fashioned in Italy. (Photo courtesy MTA)
Trees may grow in Brooklyn, but what about Burdock and Spotted Knapweed?
King-size renderings of 10 flowers native to the borough will sprout up this September as part of a $30.6 million makeover of the Avenue U subway station on the B/Q line. The giant mosaics that will flow along the station’s white walls are the latest in a long-running marriage in subway art — Gotham themes and Italian technique.
“It grounds you to the location and it’s also very beautiful,” said Sandra Bloodworth, director of MTA Arts for Transit, which commissions permanent art in the system.
Mosaics have a long history in the subways, with the system’s original builders include decorative elements such as terra cotta beavers and indigo ceramics. Many of the mosaics fell into the disrepair or were covered over in the 1960s and ‘70s. A wall of sailing ships, for example, was just discovered a year or two ago at the Columbus Circle station.
“We removed a newsstand, and behind that was mint-condition terra cotta,” Bloodworth said.
When Arts for Transit started 25 years ago, administrators found that the glass chips used in mosaics could be easily cleaned and withstand the fine metal dust that spreads from subway breaking. Mosaics could also cover long stretches of subway walls, but few fabricators were making mosaics in America at the time, Bloodworth said. So, artists and the MTA went to Italy.
The Travisanutto Workshop in Spilimbergo, Italy, known as “the city of mosaics,” has trained fabricators all over the world, including the craftsman who made the first Arts for Transit mosaic at the Intervale Avenue station in the Bronx in 1992, Bloodworth said. The station on the No. 2/5 line had been burned down by arsonists, but after a local battle, was saved and reopened featuring the mosaic of bright geometric patterns.
“People were so happy to get their station back, and to have it function and look great,” said Joseph Rappaport, a transit advocate who was involved in saving the station.
Travisanutto artisans still fashion some of the MTA’s pieces by hand, including the one being installed at the Avenue U station. Once complete, the mural will be 90 feet long and 13 feet high, and feature thousands of pieces of Italian glass.
“These plants are bigger than people. It’s going to be pretty dramatic,” said Jason Middlebrook, 43, an environmental artist who designed the flowers as a tribute to the intrepid city straphanger blowing through his commute, like a seed pod from a native flower.
Today, nearly a third of the 215 works of art in the system are mosaics, according to MTA figures. The subways feature some of highest concentration of mosaic-work in the city, and have been part of a larger American renaissance of the art form, said Phyllis Cohen, a mural specialist at the Municipal Art Society.
“(The artisans) have a passion for color,” Cohen said. “There is such a liveliness that has been added to the station walls.”