When walking through any Metro station in the region, you’ll see 50 shades of grey–concrete, that is.
However, thanks to a partnership among the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Montgomery County Public Schools and Strathmore, one North Bethesda station now features multiple pops of vibrant colors.
In mid-June, 32 art installations found a new home address at the Grosvenor-Strathmore station parking deck designated as an Arts Walk. Seven additional installations, also known as totems, can be found on the Strathmore campus’ sculpture garden. “If you just pick one (totem) a day (to look at), you’ll have it covered in about a month,” said Eliot Pfanstiehl, Strathmore’s CEO and founder. “They are compelling though. You really can’t walk by them without looking at them. …The fact that anybody going to work on any given day has a little bit of art in their life that they wouldn’t otherwise have is a pretty compelling vision.”
When Metro was building the station more than a decade ago, Strathmore officials were invited to see design plans and reflect on their new neighbor’s potential impact on the multidisciplinary arts center. Pfanstiehl said when they looked at the garage’s walkway, they asked if it could be the future site of an arts walk that would serve as a visual connection to the center for riders. Metro agreed.
Fast forward to last year when Strathmore board of directors member Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg suggested that the non-profit follow up on the dormant arts walk plans. She asked her friend Stephanie Gage Ellis, Walter Johnson High School’s 3-D and ceramics teacher, to recruit area students for the project. “(Brennan Firstenberg) is a sculptor herself, so she knows that a lot of times, the kids who do 3-D work, their stuff just doesn’t get shown,” Gage Ellis said. “It is really easy for 2-D work to be put up on the wall, but nobody has pedestals or anything” for 3-D work.
After researching other 3-D community art projects across the country, Gage Ellis got approval from Strathmore and Metro to proceed with the totems. Of 26 county high schools, 14 participated in the project with eight to 10 students per totem.
Each team came up with a concept and submitted a drawing and miniature version of the totem to be reviewed by the three project partners. Once approved, the 6-foot tall installations took about nine weeks to complete, using materials such as architectural clay, underglazes and stains. “I was really amazed with my students,” Gage Ellis said. “They were really excited about the project, probably because I was so excited about the project. I sold it big time. The collaboration was amazing. They worked so well in groups. Students who I wouldn’t necessarily consider as leaders ended up being leaders. A bunch of my advanced senior students rose to the occasion and organized their groups. …In order for these to be shown, everybody had to pull their weight. Otherwise, they would let the whole team down, and nobody wanted to do that. It’s not just a grade. This was real life. They were going to have something shown.”
Totem themes varied. Some are very abstract. while some are more architectural. Others feature habitat themes such as dessert and rainforest. One is a large fire hydrant with small dogs’ faces on it, created by a team of students from Northwest High School in Germantown. “I dare anybody to try to walk by that (one) without looking at it and then stopping and then looking at each dog face,” Pfanstiehl said. “Each one of them is its own narrative and of course, when you look at art, you put your own story into it. That’s the beauty of art. It doesn’t necessarily demand that you think what its creator thought. These are just compelling. Everybody will look at them and see their own story.”
The totems were installed over a period of three days. “The transformation was very quick,” Gage Ellis said. “People were happy. They would get off Metro and be walking along that walkway, and then they would stop and take a picture with their phone because they found something that they like.”
The Metro Arts in Transit program aims to create an environment that is more visually pleasant for riders and for the community, according to Laurent Odde, program manager. The Arts Walk “was a perfect opportunity to try to turn something like a parking garage into something that would be a bit more attractive. We’ve noticed actually (the section) didn’t receive much foot traffic and since we have put the art there, people are talking about it on the train, they are stopping by taking photos, bringing the children. It’s a great way for us to interact with the community.”
The totems will be up for the next five years. The project has given Strathmore the opportunity to be involved in a project with a lasting effect. “Every kid could walk by and see something (in a totem),” Pfanstiehl said. “If a kid sees another kid having done art, they think they can do it, too–even more than seeing adult art. So it was too good a (project) to pass up. …It was a labor of love. As one of the (participants) said, ‘I’m graduating as a senior this year, but now a piece of me will be here for a long time after I’ve graduated,’ so a little bit of legacy is not a bad gift when you graduate.”