My first terrazzo.
Christine Wong Yap, Guiding Stars, 2017, terrazzo, 31 x 31 inches. San Mateo, California // Photo Source: cityofsanmateo.org
Last year I was invited by art advisor Lisa Lindenbaum to develop a public artwork to be permanently installed at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, California.
As many Bay Area residents know, Bay Meadows was a racetrack. It closed in 2008, and has been converted into a housing development. There’s a publicly-accessible town square lined with shops and restaurants, with Jeppe Hein’s mirror installation in the middle. And a few steps away, you can find my little terrazzo.
When I got Lisa’s invitation, I thought about how Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to California racetracks before being sent to internment camps. But I learned that Bay Meadows was never an assembly center. It was the only West Coast racetrack to stay open and in operation, because owner Bill Kyne made a deal with the government to donate 92% of profits to the war effort.
Over several months in 2017, I conducted research. I knew that Ohlone are indigenous to the region, and I learned about Bay Meadows’ history as an airfield; that the wildlife observed in 1797 included grizzly bears, black bears, antelope, and sea otters; that Bay Meadows was home to Seabiscuit’s records in 1937 and 1938; that there were even Indy car races in 1950-51 and NASCAR races in 1954-56; and more. (For better or worse, to this day, Google’s algorithm informs me of every mountain lion sighting in San Mateo.)
I also had a very pleasant chat with Peninsula Humane Society/SPCA Captain Jeff Christner. He confirmed that there still are coyote, lots of jack rabbits, and burrowing owls in the area. It’s always nice when you reach out to a stranger, and when you explain your art project, they think it’s fun and are happy to help.
Paths Not Taken
I got a lot of information, and incorporated some into my sketches. I couldn’t possibly fit everything. The materials of terrazzo—an aggregate like glass or stone in cement—and the small square footage available require limited detail.
Here’s an earlier design I was pretty fond of…
A preliminary sketch with a thoroughbred racehorse, mountain lion, Mission Blue butterfly, coyote, cyclist, jack rabbit, biplane, and red-tailed hawk.
I liked thinking about how Bay Meadows has always been about movement. It made me think about enjoying the body’s capacity for self-propulsion—just how nice it can feel to move your body through space.
Public art projects involve so many partners. Huge thanks to Lisa, who coordinated the stakeholders, met with fabricators, and even checked in with stonemasons who would be setting the terrazzo, not to mention interfaced with the client and architects.
On another note, early on, I’d considered doing a mosaic, and I reached out to Stephen Miotto. He’s created around 40 NYC subway mosaics over the decades. When we talked, he was nothing but friendly and helpful. I hope one day to get to work with him. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy seeing his work around town differently, knowing that a master craftsman made the mosaic by hand.
Like much of my work, the final design is less of a picture to be viewed, than an invitation to reflect and interact. Here’s what I wrote for the plaque:
Guiding Stars uses a compass as a metaphor for the continual evolution of a place and its inhabitants. Approached from any direction, it invites viewers to center, re-orient, and pivot, as they consider moving forward in space and time. Movement is characteristic to all phases of Bay Meadows, as a place where Native Americans gathered, airplanes took flight, thoroughbreds raced, and people commute, live, explore, and celebrate life.
I bought pure pigments from Kremer Pigments in NYC. The sales people were super helpful, which I appreciated since I’d never made a terrazzo before. Kremer is a painter’s wonderland. When I left the store, I felt like my eyes had had an optical experience—I just wasn’t used to seeing so much pure, vibrant color. It was a special treat. I love that small specialty businesses like this still exist in NYC.
From there, I shipped the pigments to American Terrazzo in San Francisco. They were founded in 1906 by an Italian immigrant, whose family has kept the business going in the same location for four generations! They have a huge shop hidden behind a house in the Laurel District in San Francisco. I hope they get to stay in SF for many more generations. (If you haven’t given terrazzo much thought, start looking around, and you’ll notice how quintessentially San Francisco terrazzo staircases are.)
The zinc water jetting was done by their partners, Manhattan American, in North Carolina.
David at American Terrazzo was upfront about how working with new pigments would require making test tiles. When I visited their shop, they had this 14-foot rainbow waiting for me.
Color test terrazzo tiles.
After we adjusted the colors, they made the final artwork. I love how it all came together.
Finished terrazzo, before installation.
Guiding Stars, installed. // Photo source: cityofsanmateo.org
I feel so honored to create a public artwork in San Mateo County. I grew up on the peninsula, and my family still lives there, including many relatives in the city of San Mateo. My mom and aunts and uncles may be immigrants from Vietnam, but the peninsula is where they feel most at home now. The compass in Guiding Stars sort of marks a spot where you can think about where you are coming from and where you want to go, and how you will get yourself there.
Guiding Stars is installed in the plaza at the corner of Delaware & Franklin Parkway, in San Mateo, California. You can go see it, and answer for yourself:
What are your guiding stars?
What moves you to race ahead or slow down?
When do you soar?
How will you stay on course?