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Artwork showcased in Calif. FD’s new training center

San Jose’s new Fire Training Center and Emergency Operations Center is home to a large art collection


Johanna Poethig, a visual, public and performance artist, stands in front of her art that was commissioned by the San Jose Public Art Program for the San Jose Fire Training Center and Emergency Operations Center on Senter Road in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Poethig is Professor Emerita of the Visual and Public Art (VPA) department at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB).

Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group

By Sal Pizarro
Bay Area News Group

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Using a firefighter ax, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan officially chopped the ribbon Thursday on the city’s new Fire Training Center and Emergency Operations Center. But in addition to providing invaluable training for first responders and a centralized headquarters for emergency response, the $90 million complex on Senter Road is also going to be home to a large collection of public art.

The most visible of these is “The Resilient City,” a layered, cut metal mural by Oakland artist Johanna Poethig that’s installed on the street-facing wall of the Emergency Operations Center. Over the next month, about 30 more pieces will be installed inside the buildings. So what’s the point of putting a lot of art where the public will rarely — if ever — get a chance to see it?

Michael Ogilvie, San Jose’s director of public art, told me there are some very good reasons to do just that. First, the buildings are expected to serve as regional training centers for first responders and emergency management officials. There’s a public lobby and meeting rooms where the work of local artists will be seen by visitors.

And equally important, Ogilvie said, it was an opportunity for the city to patronize its homegrown creative community at a time when they needed it most.

“When this building was being planned during the pandemic, many artists had lost work or commissions,” he said. “We designed some projects to provide stimulus for as many artists as possible. Along with ‘Holding the Moment’ at the airport, this was one of the projects that did that.”

But Poethig’s installation will be what everyone associates with the building. She spent time talking to Ray Riordan, director of the office of emergency management, San Jose Fire Chief Robert Sapien Jr . and others to understand how to appropriately symbolize the purpose of the facility.

The piece, which took about a year to complete and was installed last year, includes familiar San Jose skyline buildings like the Bank of Italy, City Hall and the 88, as well as the Gonzales /Peralta Adobe and homes from Japantown and other neighborhoods — with monochromatic beams radiating from behind them. Three figures represent first responders and even a clipboard-wielding management figure stands on cube-shaped rubble that eventually becomes like a penrose-tile pattern — one that never repeats — as it gets closer to the city. That’s something Poethig said she used after talking to emergency responders.

“They’re trying to prepare for these disasters, and there are patterns to them but they never repeat,” she said. “It’s kind of an optimistic way to hold the whole composition together but it also has this meaning behind it that I picked up from talking to them.”

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