Public artist Scott Donahue crafted Berkeley’s newest monument.
Tool by the pedestrian/bike bridge spanning I-80 near the University off-ramp in Berkeley and it’s hard to miss the city’s new landmarks: twin sculptures—one on the east side that honors Berkeley’s various protest movements and another on the west depicting Berkeley’s outdoorsy side. Funded by the city, the sculptures (dubbed “Berkeley Big People”) are the work of Emeryville’s Scott Donahue, who specializes in public art. Donahue’s sculptures can be seen at a railway station in Denver, in front of Stockton’s new downtown arena and in other cities nationwide. But not all of his public art is tax-supported. He got his start in the ’80s when he put up sculptures on light poles throughout the Bay Area (including Berkeley) on his own dime, without permission. How Berkeley is that? I caught up with Donahue recently to pick his big Emeryville brain.
Paul Kilduff: How did you determine which golden Berkeley moments to immortalize in the western sculpture?
Scott Donahue: First off, the piece is not conceived of as moments in history. It’s conceived of as how it relates to the viewers of the site. And the protesters are not meant to be individual time periods in history on these large figures. Only in the [sculpture’s] base, on the small little relief narration, do I make reference to particular times in history. So the larger figures are not particular people.
PK: So, why did you pick the ones that you picked?
SD: I started out thinking, “What was the beginning of Berkeley’s real prominence?” The Free Speech Movement really was the beginning of its [Berkeley’s] international prominence and so I started with that. Berkeley used to be a Republican city and it’s become a more left-leaning city, and the Free Speech Movement started it in that direction. Finally its political leaders became very left-oriented.
PK: Do you agree with all of the goals and the methods used by these movements?
SD: Well, I certainly do agree with a lot of them, yeah. Like the disability rights movement is probably the most prestigious international movement that Berkeley can really feel proud of. I think that really influenced the rest of the world and I have depicted a particular scene that really did occur on the steps of city hall. A guy pulled himself out of his chair and, without having lower legs, was crawling up the steps of city hall. It was a famous image from that time period.
PK: That’s hard to disagree with—what’s the downside of disability rights? But what about People’s Park? I used to live a couple of blocks from there years ago and it was a lawless place. I’m not completely backing what the university wanted to do with it, but the spillover of what it ended up being—open prostitution, drug dealing—led to the sorry state of Telegraph Avenue today in my humble opinion. Are you behind the goals of People’s Park, considering what it’s turned into?
SD: No, I am not. And my depiction is not intended to be People’s Park as much as the antiwar protesting that really made Berkeley internationally known. The People’s Park issue in the context of the rest of the world was not as important as the anti–Vietnamese War effort that occurred in a much bigger area than just People’s Park. It was all over campus and all over a lot of Berkeley and that’s my understanding and what I tried to depict.
PK: There’s also a reference to the tree sitters. Do you really think in 50 years, the tree sitters are going to be thought of as anything more than a nuisance? To me it seems like the real argument they were making was that Cal shouldn’t participate in big-time college football at all. All these other buildings on campus have gone up very near to where those trees were cut down and I never heard a peep about it. But a training facility for the football jocks? Oh no!
SD: If you look at the little reliefs around the sculpture, they are just that—small, little vignettes. I have a lone tree sitter sitting in the trees and I doubt that people in the future will have any idea about that other than, “Oh, here’s a scene of nature.” These little reliefs are meant to be playful with references to the larger images above and these protesters are carrying symbolic placards. These placards are in effect going to be stand-ins for the next protest—we don’t know yet what it’s going to be about—occurring on that bridge. What looked like University of California supporters of the McCain/Palin ticket were out on the bridge for two weeks holding up signs. Thirty of them or so were chanting for McCain and Palin and drivers were honking in support and yelling “F— you, McCain!” as we were working on it. Am I a McCain supporter? No. Is the bridge a focal point for all the Berkeley people expressing themselves? Yeah. And it’s a venue and will be in the future for all kinds of issues we don’t even know about.
PK: Wow. It’s like you’re christening the bridge as another Sproul Plaza. CalTrans will love that.
SD: That’s how it functions and I’m trying to make artwork that honors that function and celebrates it as a place.
PK: For any point of view?
SD: For future points of view. If they’re not my point of view of course I’ll be disappointed. But it’s going to be other points of view. I don’t have a choice about that so I’m trying to make an environment that is specified in ways that people grow to accept that it’s not just these cubic feet that we’re occupying, but this environment has a certain inherent meaning to it. I’m trying to make sure that my work brings that out. I’m trying to get the place to be more of itself.
PK: In the Chronicle story on your protest sculpture one passerby was quoted as saying that it was unnecessary and compared it to putting a “Live Green” sticker on a Prius. How do you respond to that?
SD: Let’s put it this way. The total experience of the sculpture is not the history of Berkeley protest. The total experience of the sculpture is a celebration of the bridge, the transit from the city side to the Bay and more natural side. And I think that’s going to be the more inherent long-term meaning of this. And I think that the furor over the protest side of the artwork is partly because of the random nature of having that piece installed first, combined with how people perceive Berkeley today and how people use the bridge today. But I think that that perception will be a minor point of view. Two of the 10 large figures are protesters. What about the other eight?
PK: But doesn’t everybody know about Berkeley’s connection to the modern protest movement? I mean, what’s next? Does Berkeley need a theme park, Protestland? Should the Campanile be turned into a water slide?
SD: Let me tell you this side about what it’s been like on the bridge. I’ve had people come and visit us on the bridge who were at the anti-war demonstrations, who are proud of their participation in that historic event. They love that this has been included as part of the content. I’ve had more than one person in a wheelchair thanking me profusely for having an image of someone in a wheelchair depicted as a part of figurative art. This offers a kind of validation for things that normally do not get validated in any overt way.
PK: Wow, Scott—did you go to law school or something?
SD: Hey listen, I had to sell this idea to a panel of conflicted people. This is what public art is. Public art is, “There’s a budget, there’s a place, you artists tell us what you’re going to do for us.” And each artist has a different idea of what they would do with that site and that budget.
PK: Were there any objections to your plans for the bridge among the powers that be in Berkeley?
SD: Oh yeah, the panel selected me by a narrow one vote.
PK: What were the naysayers concerned with?
SD: I didn’t get to hear all of their arguments. I heard some of them. Some of the objections were that this was retrograde artwork. That this kind of figurative artwork has long since been eclipsed and is no longer relevant. That was the one issue that I heard.
PK: Yeah, really, shouldn’t you be making videos? What are you sculpting for?
SD: I, in fact, started out as a film major. If you look at what I call the static arts, the arts that do not move, they are not as much a part of popular culture as music, film, video, comedy and the performing arts, which offer a kind of living vitality in time. I went into art that doesn’t move on purpose from filmmaking. And I like the long-term. You look at something, a painting, you go back and you look at it years later and you notice things you didn’t see the first time. There’s a kind of quiet contemplation about the whole process and when you notice things you didn’t see the first time. Has that painting changed? No, you have changed. It makes you aware of your own perceptions and I just like that about the art form.
PK: With public-funded art you always have to deal with those who don’t like what you’re doing and therefore don’t want their tax dollars going toward it. What do you say to those people?
SD: All I can say is that city by city people keep passing public art ordinances that require public buildings, often private commercial buildings, sometimes even housing, to support public art. Cities in very right-leaning communities in many parts of California are doing the same thing. Why are they doing that? Well, there’s a kind of perception that if you have public spaces more inherently interesting in their fine-grained experience for people to live with, that you’re going to somehow improve the quality of your city in the minds of the occupants of the city and people visiting. So I think regardless of political ideology, it seems like these ordinances are passed that require public art.
PK: What if some conservative community asked you to pay homage to invading and occupying Iraq? Would you agree to take that on?
SD: Ah, no.
PK: I like a short answer sometimes. What did you do for Stockton?
SD: I did this piece called Stockton Rising right next to their new arena. And the city of Stockton had trouble with their downtown for a lot of years. And they decided that they were going to do the thing that a lot of cities decide to do which is somehow make their downtown more vital. They made a redevelopment district and did all these things to encourage development. And the new arena had a budget for public art and so I made something between it and the walkway along the water that celebrates that place and I’ve got five athletic figures. And then there’s an image of downtown Stockton on top of this and the figures are emerging out of the Delta landscape. And it is cylindrical and sort of similar in shape to the arena itself and my intention there was to celebrate that place.
PK: So, apolitical then.
SD: I would say it was apolitical even though some people within Stockton don’t like the public and city efforts to revitalize downtown—they see it as a lefty push. You’re getting the government involved in development. Those people didn’t like it. I’ve had taxpayers come up to dedications screaming. Just in Denver I had a taxpayer who was just livid that money had been spent at a public celebration for an installation I did at a light-rail station. There’s always going to be that.
PK: Do you remember Concord’s Spirit poles? Were they a dud? Why did they come down?
SD: Do you know the reason why they were taken down? What happened was they were made of aluminum and they couldn’t take the constant flexing in the wind and they started to break. Even Concord, where it had continuous, year after year of negative publicity, still didn’t have enough [criticism] to eliminate it from a purely aesthetic viewpoint.
PK: Up until then I think Concord’s lone landmark was the big C above a vintage strip mall downtown. That’s gone, too, now. Sad. You know, the Netherlands buys all art from any citizen claiming to be an artist. Fair way to handle the public art?
SD: That program collapsed.
PK: Under its own weight of crappy art. So if the government is in the position of making artistic decisions should we just become more comfortable with that?
SD: If you’re going to mandate it. People should be more concerned. In the Netherlands they didn’t have any throttle and no brakes. No quality control. They just had unfettered buying. Here we have something in the realm of public art. It’s very different. It’s highly competitive. I don’t how many original applicants there were for Berkeley, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 100 for the bridge and then they winnow it down to finalists. Artists really want to do these and it’s hard to win them.
PK: What if you were tapped to immortalize some of Telegraph Avenue’s colorful characters in bronze? I remember in the ’80s there was this buff wildman with long dark hair and no shirt who’d jump in front of you, strike a wrestling pose, and shout “Rare!” And then he’d run off.
SD: After he was done, you were relieved.
PK: If you do him I’ll pay for it. I’ll cut you a check for that tomorrow.
SD: I don’t do portraiture so much. Portraiture is a specific person and even though people pose for my figures all the time . . . portraits are not what I’m after.
PK: So you’re not up for a Telegraph Ave. rogues’ gallery yet?
SD: Ah, not yet. Give me a budget. Give me a location. Show me the place. You might get me going.
PK: Hold on—I’ve got Larry Ellison on the other line here. Let me mention it to him.
Age: Almost 57 | Astrological sign: Feces, would you put that?
Birthplace: Hinsdale, Ill.
First real job and/or first job out of college: I never had a real job.
Favorite pizza topping: Anchovies.
Mideast peace plan: It just seems impossible. It’s a hole that gets dug deeper. It just seems like tragedy is going to repeat itself continuously. Even though I do not harbor any true negativity toward sincere religious beliefs, you’ve got to admit that they are generating a huge number of conflicts around the world.