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Lakehead's New Antlers Bridge Gets Artsy

03/24/2016 11:00AM ● By Laura Christman

Fish Hooked

April 2016

Story by Laura Christman

How about this fish story? Twenty-five-foot largemouth bass spotted at Shasta Lake.

It’s not a stretch—it’s art. A design featuring two colorful concrete bass leaping at minnows is repeated four times on the new Antlers Bridge under construction on Interstate 5 about 25 miles north of Redding.

If you want to catch it, look fast. There’s an eye-level view of the lunkers—one measuring 25 feet and the other stretching 16 feet—from the current Antlers Bridge spanning the lake’s Sacramento Arm at Lakehead. When traffic switches to the new bridge, which is expected to happen in late summer or fall, the I-5 blur-by will no longer be a viewing option.

Eric Akana, project manager with the state Department of Transportation in Redding, says the largemouth bass were never intended to be a roadside attraction. “Drivers need to keep their eyes on the road,” he says.

The artwork is 150 feet above the lake bottom, or 65 feet from the surface of a full Shasta Lake (let’s hope that happens). After the old bridge, built in 1941, is demolished, the best places to angle for a view will be from the shoreline or boat. 

Why fish on a bridge?

A bridge is all about function, but it also needs a sense of place and grace. That’s Caltrans’ philosophy. The agency incorporates aesthetic elements into projects. They might take the form of the bridge’s actual form or be flourishes, colors and textures. 

“These bridges are there for a long time and we want them to blend in and complement the area,” Akana says.

“The idea is to give it more of an artistic feel, as opposed to a big chunk of concrete,” says Stephan Heath, bridge architectural associate with Caltrans in Redding.

Tutor-Saliba Corporation is contractor for the $125 million bridge replacement. Akana says about 1 percent of a project’s budget can be for architectural/aesthetic features. With the Antlers Bridge it’s about 0.2 percent—or $250,000.

It isn’t common for Caltrans to feature an animal design, but largemouth bass seemed a good choice for Antlers Bridge because of their link to the lake, Heath says. The idea began with senior bridge architect Javier Chavez in the Caltrans Sacramento office (since retired), and became a collaborative effort with others in the architecture unit and district office.

“We found different shapes and sizes of fish and played around with the scale and colors and settled on a design we liked,” Heath says.

Turning fish on paper into something concrete was complicated. The massive fish first were carved in foam, with plenty of back and forth to get eye sockets and other details just right. The foam sculptures then were used to make rubber molds for the concrete.

“It’s similar to forming a sidewalk. It’s made in several sections that are put together like puzzle pieces,” Akana explains.

Once the fish in a relief were on the bridge, it was time to bring in the colorists. Jim Currie of Currie’s Quality Painting in Redding and Jerry Stuart of Jerry Stuart Painting Company practiced on a ground-level mockup before stepping into the small basket of a hydraulic lift to color the bridge fish. They used stain, which permeates the concrete and will hold up better than paint to winter rains and searing summer sun in the canyon. Currie and Stuart applied the stain mostly with sprayers. 

There was much taping to be done to protect from overspray. Currie, a longtime fisherman, wanted the colors to be realistic, not cartoonish. Hues were meticulously blended and multiple coats applied.

“You have to keep building it to get what you need. There’s a lot to it,” Currie says.

“It’s like doing translucent glazes over the top of each other to get depth and perspective,” explains Stuart, who has an art background.

Each panel took a week or so. Work days were eight to 10 hours. It was highly challenging – as in being way off the ground.

“The first day we were up there it was kind of like the first time on top of a Ferris wheel and you are stuck,” Stuart recalls.

But they focused on the task. The real challenge was working so close on something so large. They took breaks, getting off the lift to gain perspective.

The painters also did the faux stonework on the bridge abutments. They had to be sure their work didn’t get in the way of the bridge builders. “A big operation like that is extremely impressive,” Currie says.

It was rewarding to be part of the project and see the results, he says. “Never in my 59 years have I had that much fun on a job.”