For a limited time, if you drive north on Interstate 5 from Redding, there is a rare opportunity to enjoy magnificent art – 150-feet in the air – from your vehicle during the Antlers Bridge replacement project. There, you’ll see two gigantic colorful panels that depict realistic-looking bass fish, with mouths open to catch bait fish, high above the dancing waves.
Two more panels of the same image will be installed in the coming months, as the Antlers Bridge construction project nears completion. Antlers Bridge is located in Shasta County, on I-5 above the Sacramento River arm of Shasta Lake near the community of Lakehead.
Once the project is complete, the artistic fish scenes will only be visible by air or water.
The opportunity for this huge art project came as the old Antlers Bridge was near the end of its life, and needed replacement, as well as realignment of a 0.4 mile southern section of highway to mitigate a high accident rate.
The $125 million Caltrans and Federal Highway Administration bridge project began in 2009, and is estimated to be completed in 2016. But in addition to being functional, the bridge project also included an artistic element.
Enter Artist Jerry Stuart of Redding, hired to bring realism to the Antlers Bridge fish scene.
A native New Yorker, Stuart grew up in Wells, New York, where he graduated high school, attended college in Johnstown, New York, and majored in Fine Art.
One of Stuart ‘s earliest ventures in mural painting was during his service in the Army, in Charlie Co. 20th Engineer Battalion, where he was asked to paint scenes on day-room walls. Stuart was free to paint anything he chose, as long as there was, “some sort of Army theme: G.I. Joe with a heavy metal twist.”
Stuart discovered that he enjoyed large-scale painting, primarily for two reasons. No one bothered him while he worked, and his art was met with approval and appreciation.
“Everyone loved what I did,” Stuart said.
Stuart also realized that when making art, he felt that his life had a greater sense of purpose, which is reflected in his artist’s vision statement: “To create a better living and playing environment through my art. At the end of the day, did I create a better place for others?”
Stuart laughed and added that sometimes, creating a better place for others might be as simple as taking out the trash, or cleaning up a job site.
Stuart is proud that his favorite hero is, as he quips, a “she-ro” – Helen Keller, someone he likes to quote for such wisdom as, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight, but no vision.”
Stuart agrees, with his own adaptation: “The worst thing you can ever do is not use the talent that God gave you.”
Fast forward decades beyond the Army to today, where Stuart uses his many talents. He still paints murals, but he is also a general painting contractor who specializes in faux finishes in high-end homes, businesses, churches and theaters.
No doubt Stuart’s lifetime of artwork and painting led to the call from another licensed painting contractor, Jim Currie of Redding. Currie had received the contract for color staining and sealing the massive span in a faux rock effect on either end of the new Antlers Bridge, as well as four fish-scene panels.
Originally, artist Javier Chavez and Structures Architects of Sacramento designed the fish scene, and created the forms for the concrete pour.
Next, Currie got the contract, the equipment and materials to implement the work, yet he needed an artist to create a more realistic effect. Currie asked around at local paint stores, where he was advised that Jerry Stuart, with his specialty in faux finishes and murals, was the man for the job.
Stuart was charged with researching bass and bait fish to come up with the most authentic colors. Next, he had to map out the staining, applied with a sprayer and an assortment of brushes for the panels that measured approximately 36-by-40 feet. But large scale job doesn’t necessarily mean large tools.
“The smallest brush is 1 inch, for tiny detail of fish eyes that sparkle and shine, and speckled scales and highlights,” Stuart said.
Attention to detail is crucial to Stuart, despite how far away the scene is from view. In his work, he utilizes a technique gleaned from one of his favorite artists from the 1600s, Caravaggio, famed for his painting, “David and Goliath”.
Caravaggio’s innovation was “radical naturalism” in painting with an effect known as “chiaroscuro” – the shift from light to dark, with little intermediate value.
Prior to color-staining the pillared faux rocks and fish scene, Jerry and Jim went through rigorous Caltrans safety training. The job required that both men obtain a license in operating the JLG rig hydraulic lift.
Stuart describes the experience of creating art on the Antlers Bridge as, “Two men in a basket, 150 feet in the air.”
Stuart recalled how early on in the process, Currie asked about formulas for mixing colors, to which Stuart replied, “I’m an artist, I just mix as I go. I don’t do formulas.”
Now, Stuart is grateful that Currie insisted that Stuart chronicle everything from measurements to custom stain recipes created along the way to depict rocks, fish and water, each consisting of multiple colors. For example, the rocks are made up of eight separate colors.
This documentation will be crucial when creating future panels, as well as eventual touch-ups, though Stuart noted that the durable sealing he applied over the stain will protect the surface for many years.
One of the first challenges of this project came on the first week on the project, when Stuart and Currie adapted to operating the hydraulic lift so high in the air. They began with a mock-up/sampler to familiarize themselves with material blending and mixing consistency.
The faux rocks provided opportunity to practice application and shading for realistic effect, before moving on to the fine “high” art of painting the fish and water. The eight colors were painstakingly applied to the stamped concrete to achieve the appearance of real stones. It took two months for the men to complete just the faux stones.
To protect the brand-new bridge from getting stain overspray, it took Jerry and Jim 12 hours to block off each panel of fish and waves with paper and painters tape.
“God blessed us with calm weather during the time we were working,” Stuart said.
Even so, he said there was a fair amount of concern each day that after 12 hours of taping, that they would return the next morning to find the paper and tape blown off from windy nights. They put their trust in 3M painters tape, and found that the orange tape was better than the blue at staying put.
A typical day of creating art on the Antlers Bridge started at 7:30 a.m. in an attempt to beat Redding’s July and August heat.
Wearing hard hats and harnessed to the basket, the two men rode the hydraulic lift to their job site high in the air. There, they’d work steadily in four-hour shifts before lowering to the ground to step way, way, way back to assess and critique their progress.
For reference as he worked, Stuart kept photos of bass and trout in his vest pocket, but said that he had “sketched it out” in his head, complete with a plan for color, highlights and shading. Twelve separate color stains were used for the fish and water, taking on average, 50 to 60 hours for each panel. The smaller fish hovering over the bass on the panels are called the “bait fish” and were painted to resemble trout.
Currently, until the Antler Bridge construction is finished, the public can still view this art while crossing on the older section of the Antler Bridge.
Public reactions have been mixed, and Stuart admits feeling surprised at some of the negative comments he’s read on Facebook about the art project.
Some people complained about the cost for art on a bridge, while others complained about the eventual visual inaccessibility to see the art scenes, unless viewed from the river below, or from the air.
Stuart’s response is that he likes that viewing the panels requires getting in a boat, canoe, kayak or tube on the river, as it helps promote outdoor resources. He likens it to viewing the ancient Native American Petroglyphs while traveling on the Colorado River.
“You can’t get in a car to see those petroglyphs,” Stuart said. “The only way is to get on the water, just like with this bridge.”
As an artist, Stuart takes exception to those who belittle the value and long-range importance of quality art.
“I’m sure, when the great pyramids were being built, or when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, that there were people complaining about how the money could have been better spent,” he said.
The way Stuart sees it, although the Antlers Bridge may not rival the great pyramids, or the Sistine Chapel, the realistically colorful renderings of fish, water and rocks will pay proud homage to the beauty and natural resources of the north state for generations to come, thanks to two men in a basket, creating art 150 feet in the air.