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The Artist Behind San Francisco’s Hidden Mosaic Staircases: Revealed

Updated: May 08, 2022 11:39
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Hidden Garden Steps – photo from Barr’s website

As a local, I’m sure you’ve had many a touristy friends ask you what locals-only hidden gems are worth seeing in SF. For me, I always suggest finding some of San Francisco’s not so hidden – hidden stairs. Their bright cheerful colors always brings a smile to your face and while you enjoy the artwork you’re also somehow getting your steps in. With the weather shifting towards summer, this is the perfect time to go exploring and check them out. But who made them?

While in Vallejo with Stuart and company, we came across some hidden stairs of their own which made me think of our 16th Ave. stairs (also known as the Moraga Street Stairs). As a journalist, I’m naturally very curious. When I got home, I investigated the Vallejo stairs more. 

Broke Ass Stuart Team at the Vallejo Stairs

The Broke-Ass Stuart team stands at the Vallejo Stairs – photo by Vita Hewitt

To my surprise, our own coveted 16th Ave. mosaic stairs were created by the same dynamic duo who designed the Vallejo set; Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher. The pair met when they were the top two artists selected by the 16th Avenue neighbors organizing the grassroots project. Paraphrasing, neighbors said to the artists “we can’t choose so we’re wanting to know if you’d be willing to work together”. They obliged & combined their two designs to make what you see today. Since then, Barr and Crutcher have become really great friends and have worked on many projects together.

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Classic view of the Moraga Street Stairs (16th Ave. Stairs) by Aileen Barr and Collete Crutcher – photo from Barr’s website

I love getting to know other artists in The Bay Area. Especially when the artist works in a form that is close to my heart. You may not know this but my Dad is a working artist, a potter. Seeing Barr’s intricate carved ceramic tiles reminded me of my Dad and I just had to get to know the artist Aileen Barr more after seeing the way she creates her tiles…all by hand. I figured maybe we’d all wanna get to know her more given she’s behind so many of our coveted hidden mosaic stairs!

Lincoln Stairs Detail

Lincoln Stairs Detail – photo from Barr’s website

When I hopped on the phone with Barr, I immediately was struck by her kind and soft voice with a distinctive Irish accent. Clearly, Barr isn’t a local to The Bay Area. So, my first question to her was all about her origin story.

Are you from Ireland? When did you move here?

“I moved to the Bay Area in 2002 and before that was working as an artist in Ireland for 10 years. I studied ceramic design in Dublin and once I graduated I was unsure what I wanted to do. I was in New York in the 80s and discovered architectural ceramics and tile making there and immediately knew that that’s what I wanted to pursue! I was intrigued by the idea of making lots of small things that can be put together to create something quite large.”

Barr’s commissioned pieces span across the entire Bay Area. The commission for the 16th Avenue mosaic stairs with Crutcher was her second commissioned piece but it helped propel her local public art career.

Detail of a work in progress tile by Barr - photo from her website

Detail of a work in progress tile by Barr – photo from her website

Roughly how many different projects have you worked on in The Bay Area since you moved here?

“My first commission in San Francisco was for the Recreation Center at West Portal, through the SF  Arts Commission. The 16th Ave Tiled Steps was my second commission here.

I’ve done about 20 public art projects here so far. Everything from staircases to murals, seating areas, benches, and fountains. I have also worked on some free-standing sculptures. I have had projects in public parks and spaces, schools, though private commissions and on MUNI,” recalls Barr.
 

Interestingly, The Lincoln Steps are Barr’s favorite commission she’s done. I am not surprised. The design of these stunning mosaic stairs is striking when you see them from the street. When you’re up close, you can see all fo the detail that went into the tiles. So much of what Barr does is by hand. I can’t imagine how long this took her and her team to create.

“The Lincoln Park Steps on California Street, which I created solo, was the most challenging in terms of size and I am very proud of it. The 16th Ave Tiled Steps holds a special place in my heart as I learned so much doing that project and it opened up many other opportunities for me. It was the first project I collaborated on with Colette Crutcher and we have worked on many other projects together over the years. The 16th ave Tiled Steps is also a grassroots project, initiated, fundraised, and developed by the local community,” says Barr.

Lincoln Park Steps detail

Barr’s favorite piece, the Lincoln Park Steps

My friends and I love hiking. We call much of our hikes around the city “urban hikes”. My friend Annou and I love visiting any of the mosaic stairs created by Barr. At the top of the 16th Ave. mosaic stairs, you can see all the way out to the Golden Gate Bridge and take in the entire Sunset District from the top as well. If you’re starting to feel tired of living in the city, this view will help you fall back in love with SF. Fun fact: Barr lives in The Sunset. I’ll now forever think to myself, “Ailleen Barr is somewhere down there”. 

The meaning and story behind the 16th Avenue stars is really interesting. Barr recalls, “The 16th Ave Tiled steps, which I collaborated on with Colette Crutcher, has a Sea to Sky theme. Beginning at the bottom steps you see an underwater scene with fish and sea creatures in swirls of blue representing the ocean. As you move up the stairways, the colors gradually change and the design transforms from the sea to a river. The riverbank teems with birds and small creatures. Climbing upwards the river becomes narrower as it flows from the mountains. Above the mountains, the sky appears and then fades darker to the moon with its contrasting mirror. At the very top flight of the steps, the sun shines with a yellow, orange, and red tile mosaic. The project was mainly funded by the local community through donor tiles. You can see the names of the donors on the handmade tile depicting fish, shell, bird and animals, each one unique.”

“Once you get to the top, enjoy the view!”

view towards the sea at The Moraga Stairs

View from the top of the 16th Avenue mosaic stairs – photo by Inspired Imperfection

Is there a meaning behind any of your work? Which one has the most meaning to you personally?

“Through my artwork, I explore and contextualize the natural environment, particularly in an urban setting.  I am drawn to working on large-scale public art pieces that exist outside the usual confines of art galleries and museums. Working on a large scale allows for the creation of environments where bold designs engage the audience from afar and reward closer observation with hand-carved details and interesting surfaces. I believe that art should be a part of our daily lives. I am also interested in working with communities to develop art in public spaces and to have their involvement in all aspects of a project,” encourages Barr.

Capital Street Stairs detail

Detail of the Vallejo Capital Street Stairs designed by Aileen Barr and Collete Crutcher – photo from Visit Vallejo

I really love the story of how Barr and Crutcher became good friends after meeting through the 16th Avenue mosaic stairs (Also known as the Moraga Stairs). Women supporting women is something I wish happened more often. I have found that women artists tend to lean into supporting each other knowing that the art industry has historically been male-dominated (as mentioned by artist Ursula Young during our feature on her).

detail of mosaic tiles

You can see Barr’s attention to detail in her carved tiles – photo from her website

Barr gave some sound advice for other women looking to do this type of work. She says, “Starting out as an artist is a daunting and brave endeavor! My advice would be to find other creative women in your life. Encourage each other and collaborate on ideas and projects. Work on community art projects.  Create opportunities for yourself. I developed my first community-based public art project in Ireland and I applied for the funding to do it. Be prepared for lots of rejection! Always be interested and open to learning new things. Every project I work on teaches me something new.”

Where to find some of the Hidden Mosaic Stairs:

Many of which are co-designed between Barr and Crutcher

16th Avenue Stairs (Moraga Stairs) – Moraga & 16th Ave.
Lincoln Park Stairway – Moraga & 16th Ave.
Hidden Garden Stairs – Golden Gate Heights – 16th and Kirkham
Miraloma Mosaic Stairs – “A Dragon’s Tale” 215 Bella Vista Way, SF
Arelious Walker Stairs – Innes Avenue to Northridge Road in Bay View/Hunters Point

If you’re in the area… check out the Vallejo Stairs (Capital Stairs) – Capitol Street and Sonoma Boulevard

There’s also a book on the hidden stairs in SF called “Stairway Walks in San Francisco: The Joy of Urban Exploring” which features Barr and Crutcher’s work and has the Lincoln Stairs as the cover art.

See more of Barr’s projects online:

Instagram: @aileen.barr
Website: Aileen Bar Tile

Barr, center, works on the Lincoln Park Stairs – photo by Art and Architecture

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Katy Atchison

Katy Atchison

Katy is a professional smiling machine raised in The Bay Area since the age of 3. While other kids were attending summer camp & soccer practice, she was raised selling wares at craft shows with her working artist parents and spent vacations in a small 1920s Montana log cabin. This has all given her a unique perspective on the ever-changing texture of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Currently a blend of all that is The Bay Area - she's a web designer at a tech-company, artist and DIY teacher.

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