“Steps to Wisdom”: Illustration Alumnus Designs Public Art Project for Portola District

Academy of Art University School of Illustration alumnus Phillip Hua. Photo courtesy of Phillip Hua.

By Greta Chiocchetti

When Phillip Hua first moved to the Portola District with his husband in 2013, it was for the same reasons that many others in the lesser-known neighborhood did. Motivated by the promise of more space and a quiet, family-oriented community, the couple bought a house in Portola so that Hua, an Academy of Art University School of Illustration alumnus (2003), could have room for a home studio. 

“You know, affordable, big, or close—you can’t have all three when you’re living in San Francisco,” he said with a chuckle. “So, we got affordable and big.” 

A mock-up of the Goettingen stair’s “Steps to Wisdom.” Image courtesy of Phillip Hua.

As Hua settled in and began to meet his neighbors, he was introduced to the Goettingen Neighbors Group (GNG), a resident-run initiative to beautify and add greenery to the stairs connecting Goettingen Street to Dwight Street. The stairs, which neighbors used daily for decades to access the commercial corridor on San Bruno Avenue, had become a derelict dumping ground after years of neglect. GNG members picked up trash and landscaped the area, adding native plants and a retaining wall with the help of awards and grants.

“As I talked to my neighbors, I just kept thinking about the stairs. We could make the stairs something really special,” said Hua. “So, I eventually pitched it to the group. As an artist, I thought I could add an art element to the stairs, and we could make simply climbing the stairs an experience.” 

Rather than being a means from point A to point B, there was an opportunity to make the Goettingen stairs a public art installation and an outdoor space for the community. 

“I didn’t want these stairs to be like all the other stairs in the city. San Francisco loves its mosaic stairs—which is great—but I wanted this project to be different,” said Hua. “That’s when I started thinking about the site, specifically. My philosophy toward public art is that it must always take the site into account or its history, or its community.”  

The result? “Steps to Wisdom,” a project that seeks to transform the Goettingen stairs into a landmark. In his design, multicolored tiles are placed ascending along the stairs in a gradient that gradually changes from dark (gray tiles) to light (mirrored tiles) at the top. 

“There are metaphors of ascension, illumination, and enlightenment in the journey up the stairs,” said Hua. “I want people to have a meditative walk like the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral or the Philosopher’s Way in McLaren Park.” 

Passersby will step over 225 “words of wisdom” tiles interspersed along the climb, which will include advice, reflections, and musings offered by members of the community and anyone who donates at a certain level. The words of wisdom range from “Marry someone who is kind.” to “Learn to let go” to “You are stronger than you think. Trust yourself!” 

A look at the proposed “words of wisdom” tiles. Image courtesy of Phillip Hua.

“There’s such a human element to this staircase. It’s also just getting me more in touch with more of my neighbors, which I feel is kind of interesting in this time of quarantining and isolation,” said Hua, who collected the different passages from his neighbors by tabling. “This is, in a way, bringing people together.” 

Phillip was an example of someone who leaned hard on his work as a student and, when he found his métier in digital tools, blossomed, according to ILL Emeritus Director Chuck Pyle.

“His design and color sense is so impressive,” said Pyle. “He mixed this with smart marketing and a passion for social justice and public art that has mixed beauty with powerful messaging.”

The project, which received $155,000 in funding through a Community Challenge Grant in 2021, will need to raise an additional $65,000 to become a reality. To date, the community has raised about $32,000. To learn more about “Steps of Wisdom” or make a donation, please visit https://stepstowisdomsf.org/support.

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