Function meets beauty alongside the Lynx train

The Lynx Blue Line train glides along on a sunny morning and I'm having fun, although I'd prefer more "clickety clack" and "whoo-whoo."

As the sleek passenger car passes through stations, light shines through glass panels etched with the patterns of flowers and leaves and illuminates sculptural objects such as the green plastic canopies at Third Street and the towering red clay disks at Scaleybark.

Such public art, likely the area's most intensive collection, doesn't make the train go faster. But several years after its installation it's clear this art work creates a more pleasant experience.

"Improve the experience and people will want to repeat it," said Pallas Lombardi, program manager for art-in-transit for the Charlotte Area Transit System, whose Blue Line averages 15,000 weekday riders.

And although not its primary purpose, the art also makes a statement about that elusive subject: What makes Charlotte Charlotte?

Sprinkled up and down the line's 9.6-mile length and along 15 stations are 144 pieces by 13 regional and national artists that cost $1.9 million.

People encounter the art in different settings: waiting at the station, riding the line and driving by in a car. After a couple of days of doing all three, I came up with three ways to look at it.

Most of the art is functional. It wasn't made to hang on a wall, to be admired for its aesthetics. This is working art, connected to utility.

Different arrangements of paving stones decorate the stations. Leaf shapes appear in the fencing between the northbound and southbound tracks. And the cast bronze basins of drinking fountains are based on dogwood leaves and blossoms. Designed by New York artist Nancy Blum, they now have a rich patina.

Beauty and the bench

Asheville artist Hoss Haley's benches, made of polished concrete and steel and shaped like giant boulders, are an appealing mix of function and beauty.

The six 18-foot-high disks by Raleigh artist Thomas Sayre at the Scaleybark station seem more aesthetic than functional. Inspired by harrowing disks used to plow fields and recall the surrounding area's agricultural heritage, their curved shape and pocked surfaces catch sun and shadow.

Yet they also have a purpose, marking the horizontal train line's midpoint with a strong vertical. One of the few artworks visible from a moving train, the disks also hail auto traffic on busy South Boulevard.

One of the least successful pieces is one almost all about aesthetics. New York artist Dennis Oppenheim's "Reconstructed Dwelling" hangs from the bridge at the Tyvola Station.

The pieces of a house - a peaked roof, fence, door, windows - seem to have been blown apart in some Wizard of Oz mishap. But the work is more a one-liner than anything else.

More on target is Washington state artist Richard Elliott's "Tower of Light" on the elevator at Archdale. Thousands of reflectors - like those on bicycles - jazz up the elevator housing with patterns in red, green, gold and white.

The optical experience comes while riding on the elevator when the morning sun streams in, dissolving the piece into a dazzling wall of color.

Surprising details

Art on the transit line does not depend solely on such a big statement. It shows up equally in the details.

Formed in the low concrete walls are oak leaves and acorns. Outlines of flowers, leaves and cotton bolls mark the glass panels in the station shelters.

Two local artists, involved when the line was under design, contributed to the details.

Shaun Cassidy of Rock Hill suggested a floral pattern for the ceiling of the cars and the seat fabric. Marek Ranis of Charlotte influenced the attractive salmon and gray colors used on bridges and walls, kind of an abstraction of Carolina's clay and blue sky.

Ranis also contributed details such as the fluting in columns at the Tyvola bridge and the use of thick capitals. These mimic classical architecture, but not the fakey-fakey look commonly found on Charlotte buildings.

Stopped going south before the Interstate-485 station, practically nose to nose with a concrete retaining wall, I appreciated the relief to the eye afforded by the ridges and the play of light.

The big blank wall - 360 feet - facing Camden Road at the East/West Boulevard station needed attention. Charlotte artist Thomas Thoune obliged. Using bits of broken crockery, plates and vases, he decorated it with a repeated circular pattern that reinforces the idea of motion.

It's a shame it can't be seen more closely. I dodged the traffic to take a look and saw flowers, birds - even a mermaid.

On any large project such as the transit line, details add up. They give texture to surfaces and make them tactile. "You want to surprise people every day," said Lombardi.

I looked out the train window, enjoying the unkempt vigor of South Boulevard, and a theme uniting the transit line, its public art - and Charlotte - popped into my head.

I would call it the machine and the flower.

The line, as you'd expect, is high tech, machine-like. That alone gives it great visual appeal.

Look at the design of the shelters at the stations, with their bold stanchions, curved roofs surmounted by heavy finials. I love the bridge at Sharon Road West, all structure and engineering, painted a bright blue so you can't miss it.

Yet much of the art on the line is based on nature and contrast with this aggregation of steel and glass.

Patterns at the stations overwhelmingly draw from natural forms.

Translucent during the day and illuminated at night, the grouping of New York artist Jody Pinto's 20 fiberglass canopies at the Third Street station recall groupings of Charlotte's trees, its most distinctive natural feature.

Lombardi said Cassidy and Ranis, the two artists involved early in the design process, came up with the idea of taking inspiration from nature. Artists given commissions were free to interpret it their own way.

Past and future

Combining nature with rapid transit perhaps added up to more than they knew.

Like other Southern cities, Charlotte has a rural past and so a persistent appreciation of natural beauty. Here, in the glory of spring, people take rides and walks to revel in flowering shrubs. The care of lawns and gardens is a sort of civic religion.

But we also love the sleek and new, especially expressed in buildings and infrastructure that then become emblems of change and technological advance.

So you can enjoy any one piece of transit line art.

But it's also possible to see the art, along with the stations and the trains as representing two sides of Charlotte's sense itself: the flower and the machine, the treasured past and the anticipated future.