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The best way to tour Buffalo's public art? Take the Metro

In the past five years, Buffalo has received a long-overdue infusion of public art.

In the warm months, a new sculpture, mural or outdoor art project seems to launch every other week or so. The geometric murals of Team Razor Wire are drawing attention to forgotten structures across the city. Entire buildings have been clothed in fabric. And Shark Girl retains her mysterious hold over selfie-snapping locals and tourists.

But longtime observers of Buffalo's thriving arts scene know that public art is not a new phenomenon. It just took a 30-year nap.

In fact, one of the region's most successful public art projects was launched in the early 1980s, when the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority hired gallerist Nina Freudenheim to commission art for Buffalo's newly constructed Metro Rail stations.

[PHOTOS: Sharon Cantillon's gallery of metro public art]

For many frequent Metro riders they've faded into the architecture, much like the stations' broken drinking fountains and empty ticket booths. But they merit a much closer look.

Like any point of Buffalo pride, the public art scene is a mix of new and old, established and experimental. And the best way to get a sense of that changing landscape is to experience both.

To that end, we've devised a (mostly) public transportation-based itinerary that you can follow on a weekend afternoon, chop up into pieces or use as an appetizer to introduce you to some of the more interesting or overlooked public art projects in the city.

The Metro Rail is seemingly designed for a public art tour: $5 gets you a full-day pass, and trains come every 10 to 15 minutes, giving you just enough time to take a look at the art in each station before moving on to the next one. Incorporate that with some Metro-based jaunts and a Shark Girl selfie to bring it home, and you're in for rewarding day of art-hunting.

[Click here for an interactive version of our Metro Rail-centric public art tour]

A bright mural by Team Razor Wire and members of the Bailey Avenue neighborhood stands at Bailey and Stockbridge avenues near the University Heights district.

Bailey and Stockbridge Avenue: Team Razor Wire

When we think of thriving destinations for the visual arts, the unloved stretch of Bailey Avenue from Berkshire to Stockbridge avenues is not likely top top anyone's list. But it's here that public art is serving its most important purpose: as a catalyst for improved neighborhood morale and future growth.

On your way to the University Metro Rail station, why not check out an eye-popping community-based mural project led by Team Razor Wire. They've transformed the anonymous exterior of a laundromat at Stockbridge and Bailey into a jarring, neon-green abstraction that features a jagged line you can read as an EKG of the neighborhood's erratic heartbeat.

"Vertical Presence-Grass Dunes" by Beverly Pepper is a 150-foot tall steel sculpture on display outside of the University Metro Rail Station. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

University Station: Beverly Pepper, et al.

Park your car in the Park & Ride lot on the University at Buffalo's South Campus, and walk over to the northern terminus of Buffalo's retro-metro line. There, Beverly Pepper's steel sculpture resembling an oversized drill bit rises 150 feet above the ground, enticing visitors into a subway system filled with remarkable, if often overlooked, public art.

Excellent work adorns the walls of all eight below-ground stations, from Milton Rogovin's ageless portraits of steel workers in Humboldt/Hospital station to Craig Langager's stunning bronze sculptures in Utica station. For the sake keeping the tour to an afternoon, we're only going to hit the Metro Rail highlights, but you should feel free to explore the rest on your own.

Aleksandra Kasuba designed the exterior brick on the facade of the Amherst Street Metro Rail Station. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Amherst Street Station: Aleksanda Kasuba, Robert Lobe and Ray Hassard

For the sheer concentration of artworks, as well as their quality, you can't do better than a 15-minute walk around and through the Amherst Street Metro Rail station.

The piece de resistance, more noticeable to motorists and pedestrians on Main Street than NFTA passengers, is Aleksandra Kasuba's geometric brick relief on the station's east-facing wall. Because it's made of the same material as the building, it has a workmanlike quality that speaks to Buffalo's legacy of quotidian craftsmanship. It's a stunning design that changes its skin depending on the weather. (You can find more of Kasuba's impressive brick-work at the Rochester Institute of Technology.)

Other highlights are an otherworldly, two-part sculpture -- half-indoors, half-outdoors -- by Robert Lobe and a Ray Hassard mural that features quiet but alluring line-drawings of Buffalo's Victorian houses.

Portraits of steel workers and others by Milton Rogovin line the wall in the Humboldt/Hospital Metro Rail Station. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Humboldt/Hospital Station: Milton Rogovin and Joyce Kozloff

Two can't-miss art projects are housed in this low-slung station near the Scajaquada Expressway. The first hardly needs an introduction: a line of stunning portraits of Buffalo steel workers and others by famed documentary photographer Milton Rogovin, who stare at passengers on their long ride down the escalator. They are, like much of Rogovin's work, politely haunting.

Venetian cut glass mosaic and porcelain tile by Joyce Kozloff, of New York City decorates the Humboldt-Hospital Station. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The other is an overwhelming wall of Venetian glass tile-work by Joyce Kozloff based on motifs found in Buffalo's architecturally significant buildings. The work, impossibly intricate and ambitious, is as vibrant and impressive today as when it was installed, providing a daily dose of beauty for people on their way down into the dark, or up into the air.

Shasti O'Leary Soudant's sculpture "Gut Flora" will soon be installed in the Allen/Medical Campus Metro Rail Station.

Allen/Medical Campus Station: Shasti O'Leary Soudant

Skip this one for now, but put it on your list: By the end of April, it will house a jarring new sculpture by Buffalo artist Shasti O'Leary Soudant called "Gut Flora," which features a multicolored rendering of human intestinal bacteria reaching from the floor to the ceiling. Weird? Yes. But so are humans -- whether in transit or in place.


Fountain Plaza Station: 515 Main Street Mural

Walk south for one and a half blocks from the Fountain Plaza metro station, and you will encounter a key piece in the story of Buffalo's public art revival: A mural on the side of 515 Main St by young artists Max Collins, Chuck Tingley and Matthew Grote.

It's a stylistic riot of wheat-pasted photographs of neighborhood characters, spray-painted portraits and graffiti-inspired creatures all working toward a single purpose: to inject some color into what was once a depressingly monochromatic neighborhood.

Kenneth Snelson’s sculpture "Coronation Day" on view outside the Buffalo City Court Building 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Niagara Square: Kenneth Snelson

For an embarrassingly long time -- from the early 1980s until Shark Girl swam along three years ago -- the shining Kenneth Snelson sculpture in the shadow of Buffalo's brutalist City Court building was the newest major piece of public sculpture in downtown Buffalo.

The piece, called "Coronation Day," remains worth inspection and contemplation, especially for the way its polished-chrome surface stands out like a protest against the mud-brown, Kafkaesque concrete of Buffalo City Court.

“Shark Girl” at Canalside has become a viral attraction since she was unveiled in 2014. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Erie Canal Harbor Station: Bruce Adams and Augustina Droze and Casey Riordan Milard

No tour of Buffalo public art would be complete without a trip to visit Casey Riordan Millard's unlikely sculpture of surprising popularity known as "Shark Girl." But before you make your way to Canalside, it's worth taking a side trip into the Cobblestone District, where, on the south face of 95 Perry Street, a mural by Augustina Droze and Bruce Adams screams out from the bricks. With a Bauhaus theme and a bold color palette, the piece reflects the increasing activity in this newly bustling district.

And, finally, the one you've all been waiting for: "Shark Girl," perched on the edge of a footbridge across Canalside's replica canals, awaits you and the longest selfie-stick you can afford. Since being installed in 2014 and adored to the point of needing repairs by her loyal fan-base, Millard's sculpture has illustrated something Buffalo seemed to know back in the early 1980s and then forgot for about 30 years: When you insert unexpected creativity onto a lonely street or inside a desolate building, those spaces instantly come alive.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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