Parts of Old Bay Bridge recycled into public art

Five years ago, 15 artists were chosen to reuse the rubble of the dismantled east span of the Bay Bridge. The Bay Area’s first public art project was unveiled on Sunday.

“Signal,” a 25-foot steel ring, was built by San Francisco-based concept artist Tom Loughlin with three 12-ton girders and a signal light from the bridge.

“(Signal) is the first project to be implemented from salvaged steel to be placed within sightlines of the Bay Bridge,” Jill Manton, director of the San Francisco Arts Commission, said in a statement. “Tom’s work…allows the material to continue its humble service and benefit the public in this new incarnation.”

The sculpture – on the western edge of Treasure Island near Ninth Street and Avenue of the Palms – is part of the Bay Bridge Steel Program, operated by the Oakland Museum of California and the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee.

As workers dismantled the five wide trusses of the Bay Bridge in 2014, the program collected scraps of coveted steel and commissioned local artists, architects and design professionals to use it for public art.

Of more than 125 tons of reused steel, Loughlin received 36 later that year. But he said it took almost four years to complete the project.

“Signal” was originally designed as a snake-like construction. However, when Loughlin visited his lands on Treasure Island, he felt the design needed overhauling.

“It had to be a ring to honor the landscape,” Loughlin said in an interview with The Examiner. “So people can look around and enjoy the view.”

The artist has ensured that the sculpture remains faithful to its origins. The work deliberately evokes the shapes of the dismantled span, he said.

“The other spans of the bridge have all these large, graceful suspension sections,” Loughlin said, “but the east span was unadorned and purpose-built. We also had to keep the sculpting geometric and simple.

Loughlin even installed a sound system and electric lighting to recreate the atmosphere of the bridge. Upon entering the ring, visitors can feel the glow of the span’s original signal lamp and hear the low tones of electrical vibrations resembling fog horns.

“I hope they … evoke the natural rhythm of tides, sunrises and weather changes, as well as our own biological rhythms,” Loughlin said.

The sculpture is on temporary display until 2022 due to planned construction work on the island. Loughlin said he was actively looking to extend his stay at the current location or find him a new home.

“Signal” is the third work created in affiliation with the Bay Bridge Steel Program, according to Loughlin. In Joshua Tree National Park, Bay Area artist Mark Bulwinkle has installed a majestic “Centennial Art Gate.” In Truckee, a family blacksmith forged a railway platform with a steel bridge.