In traditional Chinese arts and crafts, clouds are a symbol of luck and rejuvenation. They’ve certainly proved lucky for San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Art Michael Arcega: Clouds inspired his designs for seven benches that were recently installed as part of a community beautification effort in Chinatown.
The colorful benches — part of a series Arcega titled Auspicious Clouds | Heavy Fog — can be found along Broadway near Columbus Avenue. The designs were picked to be part of the Broadway Chinatown Streetscape Improvement Project, a collaboration between the Chinatown Community Development Center, San Francisco City Planning, the Department of Public Works, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the San Francisco Arts Commission. The fourth and final phase of the project, which included Arcega’s benches, focused on creating a safer and more pleasant experience for pedestrians featuring new paving, streetlights, trees and seating.
Arcega, a sculptor, considered a number of concepts before he landed on clouds as his theme. “When I was walking around Chinatown, I noticed clouds were everywhere. They were on everything from chairs to tapestries to pillars and lampposts,” he said. “The cloud is not only referencing this deeply spiritual and aspirational aspect of Chinese culture, it’s also referencing the fog that rolls in every day.”
The resulting designs won over a panel of judges from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Public Works and the Chinatown community. Arcega later refined his designs with the help of Gizmo Arts Production, a local team of fabricators, and in August the company installed the finished benches along the Chinatown–North Beach corridor.
Arcega said he was drawn to creating public sculpture because of the way it brings art to the masses. “Art should be legible to more people. It should meet the viewer halfway instead of being oblique,” he said. “It can still be challenging and rigorous, too.” He said he hopes to one day teach a class on public art at SF State.
This is Arcega’s second public art project in San Francisco. His first consisted of four 10-foot tall Victorian-inspired street posts meant to serve as bulletin boards. They were installed along Valencia Street in the Mission District with the hope that they’d spark community interaction. A student approached Arcega after watching him lecture about the project and told him she found her first babysitting job off the posts — proof that the installation served its purpose. Arcega has seen similar evidence that his benches are having the desired effect.
“I like my work to have a quality that people can engage with. In the case of the benches, people can sit and have conversations with friends,” he said. “It’s already integrating well into the landscape. I see ladies with bags of groceries sitting and talking to each other.”
— Jamie Oppenheim
Photo: Artist and Assistant Art Professor Michael Arcega sits on one of the cloud-shaped benches that he created for the Broadway Chinatown Streetscape Improvement Project. Photo by Jamie Oppenheim.