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April 6th, 2017 under West Texas Talk » West Texas Talk Highlight
The Bay Lights

The Bay Lights

Lighting the bridge that spans the bay

By LONN TAYLOR

My wife, Dedie, and I returned last week from a four-day ramble to San Francisco. My last sustained visit to San Francisco was in 1947, when I was 7 years old. My mother and I were on our way to the Philippine Islands to join my father and we had passage from San Francisco on a freighter whose departure was repeatedly delayed. We spent a month in a hotel on Geary Street before it finally sailed, with my mother hoarding our dwindling funds and trying to keep me amused. One day she decided to take me to the Top of the Mark, the cocktail lounge on the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, so that I could see the unparalleled view from there of the city and the Bay. She called the lounge to make sure that it would be permissible to bring a minor there. The maître d’ told her that it would be fine as long as I was with a parent, but that unescorted ladies could not be admitted. My mother was a very persuasive woman, and after she explained that her husband was overseas, that we would only be in San Francisco for a few days, and that she wanted her little boy to see the view, the maitre d’ told her that if she would bring me at five o’clock that afternoon he would serve as her escort.

I remember that we were met at the elevator door by an elegant man in a dinner jacket, who showed us to a table by a window and brought me a Coca-Cola and my mother a cocktail and then sat down with us while the fog rolled in, obscuring everything outside the window as effectively as if a gray curtain had been pulled across it. We left without ever seeing the view.

Dedie and I stayed at the Mark Hopkins on this trip and went to the Top of the Mark several times. There was no fog, and the view was indeed spectacular, with the city, surrounded by water on three sides, spread out under us. The most spectacular thing after the sun went down was the Bay Bridge, which has been turned into a permanent work of art, a giant light sculpture, by Leo Villareal.

While Villareal is not exactly a local boy – he was born in Albuquerque in 1967, grew up in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, and lives in New York – he has close ties to Marfa and owns a home here. He is the great-great-grandson of pioneer rancher Lucas Brite and his mother and stepfather, Jane and Bobby Crockett, live in the house here that Brite built in 1917. Villareal and his family are frequent visitors to Marfa and I have to say he is one of the nicest people I have ever met, a modest and soft spoken man with immense talent.

Villareal transformed the Bay Bridge, which is a 4 ½ -mile long, 10 lane suspension bridge linking San Francisco and Oakland, by stringing 25,000 LED lights on a mile-and-a-half long section of its cables and hooking them up to a computer program that causes them to flash in a never-ending and never-repeating series of bars of light that race back and forth across the bridge and up and down the cables. The result is an indelible and vastly improving mark on the nighttime cityscape of San Francisco.

When Villareal entered Yale in 1986 he thought he wanted to be an art historian, but then he took a class in installation sculpture and discovered that he would rather make art than write about it. He was also interested in computer technology and its application to art. “Computer technology was really getting interesting when I graduated from college in 1990,” he told me. “There was Photoshop, and people were talking about virtual reality. It was all very exciting.”

In 1992 Villareal got an internship in Silicon Valley and immersed himself in computer technology. “I was trying to figure out how to use technological tools to create art,” he said. “Most artists at that time were using computer technology to create projections on screens, but that did not particularly interest me. Then I discovered how to connect programming with light.” Villareal has never looked back.

The Bay Lights, as the Bay Bridge project is called, came about because San Franciscans are divided into two camps: aficionados of the Golden Gate Bridge and fans of the Bay Bridge.  The Bay Bridge folks feel that their bridge has always taken a back seat to the more glamorous Golden Gate, and they wanted to find a way to use the 75th anniversary of the bridge’s construction in 2013 to put the spotlight back on the Bay Bridge. One of the Bay Bridgers, Ben Davis, a communications specialist, was contemplating the bridge one morning in September 2010 when he realized, as he said, “instead of just being a bridge, it could be a canvas.” He texted the idea to a friend, artist Dorka Keehn, who happened to be at a Villareal retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art when she received the text. She sent back a photo of one of Villareal’s light sculptures, and that was all it took – that and the $8 million that Davis and his associates raised and the myriad permits that had to be obtained and the efforts of hundreds of people, from the influential San Franciscans who secured political support for the project to the electrical contractors who labored for five months through the cold, wet, windy winter nights of 2012-2013, walking on the bridge’s suspension cables 500 feet above the water and hanging in baskets dropped down from them setting each of the 25,000 LED bulbs in place and stringing the 8 ½ miles of cable required to connect them. As Villareal said, “It’s not like putting in a kitchen sink. The scale of the project is huge. It took a lot of brave and talented people to make it happen.”

The lights went on for the first time on March 5, 2013. The original plan was to keep them on for two years, but the sculpture was so popular that it has been made a permanent installation.

It is worth a trip to San Francisco to see it.

Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at taylorw@fortdavis.net.

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