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Wheels of industry loom large in Tacoma Street MAX Station art

by:  This artist’s concept of the two giant cast concrete sculptures planned for the new light rail Tacoma Street Station was provided by TriMet.

When construction begins on the S.E. Tacoma Street light rail station, for the MAX line from downtown to Milwaukie, amongst the heavy equipment will be a special backhoe with a digging bucket.

But, rather than laying foundations, the backhoe operator will be sculpting holes in the earth for art.

According to TriMet, about $3 million of the Portland Light Rail to Milwaukie Project - or 1.5 percent of the project's civil construction budget - is set aside for public art, funded through capital grants from the Federal Transit Administration and project partners.

Installed at stations along the route, the art will highlight a unique quality about each station location. Keeping in mind that Johnson Creek flows just north of the Tacoma Street Light Rail Station, the station's art installation will feature two enormous earth-cast wheels - one reminiscent of a gear, and the other of a saw.

The preparation for casting the wheels will take place on the station construction site - tentatively, during the summer of 2014 - with North Carolina sculptor Thomas Sayre working alongside his expert backhoe assistant, who will carefully dig giant holes in the earth to create one-part molds for each wheel.

Once that challenging job is accomplished, a concrete mix will be poured into the holes. Reinforced with rebar, the concrete will set for weeks, and then be carefully dug out, lifted, power-washed, and mounted upright alongside the light rail tracks.

'It will pull straight up out of the ground as a circle,' explained TriMet Public Art Coordinator Michelle Traver.

Once mounted on footings, one side of the sculpture will have a rough, earthy texture to evoke our natural resources - forest products - which created the original wealth underpinning the area's development and growth.

The other side of the wheel - the side cast with its surface to the sky - will have a more uniform texture, formed by rippled cardboard placed on top of the wet concrete while it was curing in the earth mold. The resulting sculptures will be extremely large and heavy, with a diameter of 25 feet for one, and 30 feet for the other.

As Sayre explained, when he visited Portland and spoke at an October 19 meeting held at SMILE Station in Sellwood, his idea for the gear and blade wheel sculptures was inspired by the waterwheel-powered sawmill that operated in the 1800s on Johnson Creek.

'The artist refers to one of the wheels as a gear, and the other as a blade,' confirmed Traver.

The blade sculpture suggests the teeth of a saw. As it sliced up enormous Douglas fir logs, the sawmill represented the beginning of local industrial development, Sayre said, adding, 'And the wheels of industry continue turning, through the modern era of light rail.'

She's not sure when it will happen, but Traver added that TriMet plans on having a viewing area on-site where the public can watch, as Sayre and his assistants create the earth cast gear and blade wheels that will eventually distinguish the Tacoma Street MAX Station.