The new Bay Bridge is still more than a year away from opening, but it’s already inspiring the art of Amanda Hughen, M.F.A. ’03.
Hughen and her frequent collaborator, Jennifer Starkweather, created a series of abstract prints, paintings, and drawings that reflect the past and future of the Bay Bridge. Titled “Approach, Transition, Touchdown,” the series was on view at San Francisco’s Electric Works gallery last fall. The artists are now working on a follow-up show to coincide with the debut of the new bridge in 2013.
“Originally, we were going to focus on all the Bay Area bridges, but we were just so taken by the Bay Bridge, and there’s so much excitement around it right now,” Hughen says. “What’s inspiring and fascinating to me is seeing the two bridges together. The juxtaposition is a rare moment in time.”
For two years, Hughen and Starkweather gathered data about the bridges and observed the progress of construction. They examined photographs and maps, met with engineers and architects, and traveled under the spans by boat. They also took a construction elevator to the top of the 525-foot bridge tower, emerging outdoors to find only scaffolding separated them from the water below. Hughen describes that experience as “astounding.”
“The biggest challenge was stepping aside from our research and diving into the artworks,” Hughen says.
To focus, they divided the bridge into six parts: Yerba Buena Island, the San Francisco and Oakland touchdowns, the two spans, and the new tower. Hughen says, “You can see parts of the visual aspects in our work, but viewers can bring their own meaning.”
The Bay Bridge project fit perfectly with the artists’ interest in transitional places. Earlier, they’d created a series that stemmed from their observations about flight patterns, runways, and highways at seven U.S. airports. “Between Above and Below,” their first commission as Hughen/Starkweather, explored spaces and activity along and beneath Market Street in San Francisco.
Hughen’s path has taken unexpected turns before. Until she was 20 years old, she never anticipated becoming an artist. She’d never even picked up a paintbrush.
“I discovered painting during a semester abroad in Florence, and I realized that this was what I wanted to do. I’d always been a visual person and liked to create things, but that had manifested itself in reading and writing rather than objects,” says Hughen, who earned her undergraduate degree in English literature.
Hughen transitioned from words to images, eventually deciding to study art formally. She chose Berkeley’s graduate program in art practice and says, “There was encouragement here to reach out to other programs, and I think that’s an important part of art making. I wanted to learn more about theory and art history, about the philosophical side of art criticism and art thinking. I also knew I’d go through a critique experience and get asked a lot of hard questions. The critique and the interaction with peers and professors had a significant impact on the way I challenge myself as an artist and think on a conceptual level.”
Today, Hughen can’t imagine being anything other than an artist. She’s branching into new materials, preparing for two group shows featuring her solo work, and focusing on the next phase of the Bay Bridge project. She says, “It’s a drive. I’m in my studio seven days a week. I get in there at least a couple of hours each day because I’m so hungry to continue with this work.”
— Amy DerBedrosian