Interviewsand Articles


Interview: Rick Hawes: Civic Beauty without Permission

by Richard Whittaker, Dec 25, 2009



Besides introducing me to Ted Fullwood, artist Tony May told me about Rick Hawes. In fact, we'd just left Fullwood's house when Tony said, "Let me show you..." —I couldn't make out the rest of it - something about a bridge.
     "A bridge?"
     "There's a guy who's been tiling them."  
     "You mean like freelance?" 
     Tony nodded again.
     "He just started tiling them?" 
     Another nod.
     "You're kidding." 
    It wasn't long before we were standing on Santa Clara Street, cars whizzing by, looking at a vintage concrete bridge. It reminded me of the bridges from the '20s and '30s I'd seen as a kid in West Virginia. The sides of the bridge had large inset panels and sure enough, the panels were tiled. In some places, tile had been broken off, vandalized. Each panel featured colorful original designs. Hawes had filled out the rest of the surfaces with a field of broken white tiles all carefully fitted together. The work obviously had required hundreds of hours, but seemed to have been suspended in a state of benign neglect.
     "I want to meet this guy," I told Tony.
     If a man had decided to just start tiling a bridge in the middle of San Jose without bothering to get a permit, without seeing a commissioner, without lobbying the board - well, what would you call that? An unauthorized act civic improvement?  

     Tony sent me a phone number a few days later, which yielded one of those pre-installed voicemail recordings--impossible to know if I had the right guy. I left a message anyway. A week passed, then another, and basically I forgot about it. Then five or six weeks later, I had a message on my own voicemail. It was Hawes. 
     We chatted a little and I proposed an interview. Hawes was agreeable. Not a loquacious man. A few weeks later I found myself in a trailer park in Sunnyvale and was soon lost in a warren of little lanes. With the help of a generous mailman, I finally stood at Hawes's door.  
     He invited me in and immediately wanted to show me around. It had been his mother's place he told me. Here, in her bedroom, was where he kept his books--loose-leaf notebooks, really, covered with white paper and hand-lettered. These were filled with clippings, pictures, evidence of an interest in things Oriental, Eastern philosophy, Islam, world religion. And there were birds and animals, too, many volumes.  
     We went from room to room. Except for the notebooks and the ceramic tiles and the jars of glazes, the numbered glaze tests, the various sheets of design sketches and the long lines of tiles laid out in the living room carpet and also on the coffee table, the place had a conventional look. The furnishings and decor must have been his mother's. In a little back room, he showed me his kiln where he fired the tile he made, a tiny electric kiln that might handle three or four tiles at a time. Amazing.
     When I'd first come in, I noticed on a little kitchen table several treats, which clearly had been set out, probably for me--a plate with watermelon wedges carefully cut, a bowl of chocolate chip cookies and another bowl of mixed nuts--enough for ten people. But as Hawes hadn't said a word about this spread, I'd kept my hands to myself. Eventually I couldn't resist and I pointed over at the table. "Oh, they're for you," he said and invited me to help myself.
     I carefully moved a few tiles to make some space and set up my old tape recorder on the coffee table. By then I knew that Hawes was not an embellisher of tales. Instead, he was a man of action, perhaps of quiet action. But clearly he did not lack in either boldness or vision. Santa Clara Street is a busy, four-lane thoroughfare. Thousands of cars cross his bridge every day. It was hard to imagine setting up right there with all the traffic and also with people constantly walking across the bridge. No permits. Can people do that? Rick Hawes did. —Richard Whittaker
works:  You started tiling a bridge in San Jose, an old concrete bridge on Santa Clara Street. Tell what made you start tiling that bridge?
Rick Hawes:  I'd been doing volunteer community service for many years, gardening and landscape work. At that time I was still going to San Jose State, getting my master's degree in art when I discovered the bridge there. Someone had started tiling and had only done maybe a fifth of it. So I thought, this is something I could work on. I could beautify it. It would be an avenue where I could use my talents for service to the community. 
works:  Did you talk with anybody about your idea before beginning?
Rick:  [laughs] No. I just went ahead and started. 
works:  You saw a need and just started in on it?
Rick:  Yes. I thought they would welcome it. Police would see me sometimes and would ask me if I had permission, and I'd say, no. I'd tell them I just thought it needed to be done. Eventually an agency got a hold of me and told me I needed permission.
works:  How long before that happened?
Rick::  Several months. Then they wanted me to stop. And they didn't want me to paint the concrete where I wasn't tiling. At first they didn't want me to put the broken white tiles around the inset panels. They told me I had to get permission to do that. 
works:  So eventually you ran afoul of the city.
Rick:  Yes. But eventually they got me a $1000 grant. 
works:  Was this something you had applied for? Had you asked for anything?
Rick:   No. 

works:  So for several months before that you were just working away. How often during the week would you go out there?
Rick:  Three or four times a week. For a while, I was going every day. I used to go there before going to my job as a janitor. I'd get there at 7am and work an hour. Then I'd come back after finishing my janitor job and work on the bridge until dark. 
works: That'd be five or six hours a day on the bridge. And you did this for several months before the city told you to stop. Now the police, they left you alone? 
Rick:  Sometimes-I don't know if they were joking around-they'd kind of grab me and flip me around like they were going to arrest me or something, like I was a criminal. [laughs] I had a lot of different policemen. Later on, they'd kind of wave at me while I was working and say, "Good work!" and stuff. 
works:  They became friendly.
Rick:  Yeah. But occasionally they'd act like I was in trouble or something.  But they'd always let me go. 

works:  So they didn't ever put cuffs on you?
Rick:  No. Not until 2007 when the lady went crazy and stirred things up. The work I was doing wasn't up to her taste, the style of the tile work.  
works:  They put cuffs on you then?
Rick:  No. They told me if I worked on the bridge any more, they'd throw me in jail. The lady found out my permit was out of date. And I didn't get permission from the transportation department. I didn't get a permit from the San Jose arts program. So that's kind of how it is now. I can't work on the bridge. 
works:  Now what was the year you started? 
Rick:  1990.  
works:  So this was seventeen years later. 
Rick:  Yes, I worked for about seven years pretty consistently, but I had a real small apartment then and I just accumulated too much stuff. It got so I couldn't work anymore and I ran out of ideas, too. I burnt out. So I quit for years. Then I lost my job and I moved to Mt. Madonna Center in the Santa Cruz mountains. I started doing tilework up there. 
works:  So when you were first working on the bridge after seven months you had to go and get a permit. Was that a big hassle? 
Rick:  Yeah. The city works very slow. I was ready to work and I had to wait. They were very slow. They had to get the right people to look at it. But some of the council members, David Pandora, he came over and thanked me for what I was doing. 
works:  Was it just one permit you needed?
Rick:  Just one. It took about six months. And then there was something about the white tile, which enhances the rest of the work. 
works:  Did you have to present drawings or plans?

Rick:  Yeah, they wanted me to do that, but I told them I couldn't do it that way. 
works:  And they accepted that?
Rick:  Yeah. So I was working on the Santa Clara bridge for a year and some neighborhood association ladies came over and asked me how would I like to work on their two bridges. These are to the south on the same creek, Coyote Creek. I said okay. So they got me permission to do that. Then they collected three hundred dollars to help me out. But I turned them down. [laughs] I said, "Keep the money." 
works:  Why did you turn them down?
Rick:  Three hundred dollars to do two bridges with tile work? People get paid three hundred dollars for one little piece of work! 
works:  But you weren't getting paid for the work you were doing on the Santa Clara bridge.
Rick:  Just that one thousand dollars.
works:  Have you done work on any other bridges?
Rick:  I got three bridges! Santa Clara Street, San Antonio Street and William Street. 
works:  So those other two were your idea, too?
Rick:  Well, like I said, these neighborhood association ladies asked me to work on their two bridges.
works:  I thought you turned them down.
Rick:  I turned down the money! I told them I'd work for free. So I did the work. 
works:  Oh, I see. Wow! That's really interesting. Did you complete any of these bridges? 
Rick:  No. The Santa Clara is closest. It's a lot of work. See, I've dealt with the small panels and now I've got the large panels. Those are the hardest ones to do. 
works:  Are you interested in finishing any of these?
Rick:  Yes. But right now, I'm not allowed to work on them. The director of Public Art in San Jose told me they could get me a permit. They want me to finish the Santa Clara bridge first. That's the one that's closest to being done. And they want to pay me for my materials. And there's a guy who owns a tile store in San Jose who is going to help me. He's going to supply the bisque tile and help me fire the tiles. But now we have this recession going and there are all these budget cuts. I'm thinking that maybe next year something is going to happen.
     My friend tells me I've done all these bridges without any help from anyone, so why don't I just keep working and finish it by myself? But I don't have a permit now. If it was just up to me, I'd rather work on the other two bridges. They have the smaller panels. I'd finish them and then get back to the Santa Clara Street bridge. 
works:  Tell me about your tile designs. 

Rick:  I used to do a lot more animals, a lot of birds and plants. I did some abstracts when I was going to junior college. I did some cat skulls and some self-portrait series. Each series of drawings took me about a year to finish. From the drawings, I made some designs and then I made some tiles from them. After I finished those, I thought I'd like to start a plant series, so I started drawing ice plants. It's just a very sculptural plant. I thought I could get something in a year or two, but the thing has gone on for twenty years and I still haven't been able to take it to the level I wanted to. Now I'm burned out on it and am kind of lost. But if I go back to the bridges, I'll go back to nature. 
works:  Now these tiles here [letterlike designs], when did you start working on these designs? 
Rick:  A lot of these letters are very old. I dug them up from my journals. I've been keeping a journal for thirty years. These are mantras, names of God. I'm exploring this. If they gave me permission to work on the bridges again, I'd do the nature thing and maybe put the mantras in the background in a subtle way. [Hawes gets up and retrieves one of his journals, large with pages full of writing and lots of visual content- sketches, photos, torn-out magazine pages. I spend some time looking through several pages. The drawings are quite interesting.] A lot of this stuff is not high art.
works:  More like design. This is from what, the '80s? 
Rick:  '70s, '80s. 
works:   When did you first get interested in doing art things?
Rick:  I did a little drawing in high school and had some artist friends, but never thought of becoming an artist until I was in pre-med at DeAnza College over here. My fantasy was to become a chiropracter, but I was having some difficulty with the math and science. An astrologer told me I might have a little art talent. So when my medical studies sort of fell through I switched over to art. Eventually I got a master's at San Jose State in ceramics. 
works:  [He hands me a folder with photos of the bridge tilework.] These bird designs are beautiful. I don't know if I've seen any of your animals. Do you have any animal drawings? 
Rick:  For my master's show, I had some vases with dolphins on them. I sold some of those. 
works:  If you had a clear shot at those bridges, what you would want to happen?
Rick:  If they gave me permission, I'd like to finish them. It'd be a challenge, because I'd like to get the colors right. I've been having problems. I keep redoing and redoing it. In order to finish them, they're not going to be perfect. You know Marlow Bartels? [no] He's a tile artist down in Los Angeles. Great stuff! He can just do it, and it looks pretty good. But I'm trying to get it perfect and it's a lot of trouble.
works:  You want the colors to be just right.
Rick:  Yes. Something like a mosque. But it takes too long. They're not going to be quite perfect. Sometimes you get a beautiful color, but the relationship next to another color changes it. And sometimes, the glaze colors don't turn out quite right. It's not like painting where you can change the color right there. You've got to make another tile, glaze it and fire it up. 
works:  Why do you think this woman stirred up trouble? Have you ever talked with her? 
Rick:  I don't even know who she is. The crazy thing is that when I first started, she had one of her sons come over and give me some fruit. It's funny that at one time she thought I was doing ok. I think maybe some other people talked with her and put some ideas in her head. She's into more conservative stuff. Mine's more like graffiti. But Antonio Gaudi, he did it. And that was a hundred years ago. She's out of touch. She doesn't know what's going on. His stuff kind of looks like graffiti, in a sense. 
works:  He's a wonderful artist. One art friend of mine went to Barcelona and was standing there in Parque Guell, and it made her cry. Ever been there? 

Rick:  No. There's one part of the park there. If I could just get a book on that section, I wouldn't need to go there. I'd just need a couple pictures here and a couple of pictures there. 
works:  What is it you love so much about that part you're referring to?
Rick:  Gaudi took the tiles and cut them up and made all these different squares about two feet by two feet with white in between. It's just really neat. They had neat tiles, too, then. 
works:  Some of your work you probably feel really good about and some maybe isn't quite right. You're a bit of a perfectionist, I think. So how do you tell when it's just right?
Rick:  It just sings. Sometimes I work for months and I keep changing. I get an idea. I try this. I try that. And I run out of ideas. On the bridge I tried out all these ideas. And I hope to keep doing this. Eventually you figure it out and it just sings. 


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 


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