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Public art transforms the urban canvas

Artist Michael Owen painted his first Baltimore Love Project mural in Mount Washington
Artist Michael Owen painted his first Baltimore Love Project mural in Mount Washington
Everyone has a favorite. It might be “Common Threads” by Meg Saligman, where neighborhood youth appear to pop out of a stories-high mural in Philadelphia. Or it might be the City of Asylum's “house publications” — a series of rehabbed houses in Pittsburgh's Northside that are decorated with text by exiled artists-in-residence. Or it could be the 20 murals by Michael Owen that feature hands spelling out the word love as part of the Baltimore Love Project
At one time the province of select sculptors like Alexander Calder, whose massive kinetic pieces grace public spaces in New York and Chicago, public art is increasingly an interactive, community-based experience. A focus on “social practice,” or engaging local communities in creating change through art, is borne out in public art pieces that are as thought-provoking as they are aesthetically pleasing.
It should come as little surprise that in the era of Facebook, Twitter and the 24/7 conversation, public art is morphing into a tool for community engagement.
“Public art's mission is to engage people in unexpected ways in unexpected places,” says Kemi Ilesanmi, director of The Laundromat Project in New York City. “Instead of living in rarefied galleries, public art meets people where they happen to be and, in doing so, brings them something delightful, thought-provoking and engaging. It makes people take note of their surroundings in a different way, talk to one another and make a connection.”
Painting a post-industrial canvas
Across the state in Pittsburgh, the city's public art is experiencing its own renaissance on the heels of an economic transformation in the post-industrial era. A solidifying public-private partnership with entities including Pittsburgh International Airport and the city's Sports & Exhibition Authority is affording artists “a more varied infrastructure for public art,” according to Renee Piechocki, director of Pittsburgh's Office of Public Art.
Personal interaction is in play on Love Front Porch in the city's Homewood section, where performance artist Vanessa German is encouraging kids to get together and make art in the name of healing one of the most violent corners of the city.
Equally interactive is Conflict Kitchen, a mobile installation that has artist-chefs preparing the foods of countries with which the U.S. is in conflict, such as Afghanistan and Iran. Cuban cuisine is currently being served at the “Cocina del Conflicto,” steps from the University of Pittsburgh campus. Students and nearby workers line up to place an order at a take-out window and wind up at a nearby table, but not before perusing a handout on the U.S.-Cuba conflict and hearing about upcoming events, including the “Obama Speech,” a crowd-sourced speech to be delivered by an Obama look-alike. Chef Robert Sayre oversees the food operation and did his homework by paying a 10-day visit to Cuba prior to this iteration of Conflict Kitchen.
“I was able to do a series of dinners in paladares, private homes that operate as a restaurant,” says Sayre. “I met some of the most educated people I've met anywhere.”
People-powered art in unexpected places
Michael Owen says that the murals scattered in Waverly, Highlandtown, Lauraville and other neighborhoods have brought the message of love into the conversations of everyday Baltimoreans and now he wants to take that message beyond Charm City neighborhoods. Writer Rafael Alvarez is working on a book on the Baltimore Love Project that Owen wants to put in the classrooms of middle and high school students. Owen is also talking to city groups and leaders throughout the world, including the Middle East, about how his public art can foster dialogue.
The Baltimore Love Project has sought to connect the city’s residents with something positive, Owen says. 
“Community murals talk about specific communities. This project has transcended individuality of the neighborhoods and talked about something universal. To bring love into the conversation and bring love into people’s mind is a very simple mission.”
Also inviting serious reflection and introspection is The Heidelberg Project, artist Tyree Guyton's plea for understanding in his ravaged Detroit neighborhood, once home to the likes of Wilson Pickett and Berry Gordy. Guyton employs a handful of run-down homes as his megaphone, with one polka dot paint job tipping us to the fact that we come in all colors and sizes while another house plastered with stuffed animals can be seen as a plea for space in which kids can recreate.
�Detroit is a canvas that was wiped clean,� says Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of The Heidelberg Project. �No one had a plan after the auto industry's collapse, yet we've always been a creative city � artists, musicians � and able to compete."“Detroit is a canvas that was wiped clean,” says Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of The Heidelberg Project. “No one had a plan after the auto industry's collapse, yet we've always been a creative city – artists, musicians – and able to compete. Placemaking isn't a new term, it's just giving us wheels.”
Those wheels are also generating revenue. “Crain's cited the Williams College economic impact study on how the Project's $450,000 annual budget generated $3.2 million in revenue for Wayne County and an additional $2.7 million for our immediate community,” says Whitfield. “Just by its existence, people afraid to cross 8 Mile had to venture out to see this thing, and they then explored other aspects of Detroit like the Motown Museum.”
Hello, tradition? Meet innovation
In Minneapolis, public art has long been associated with the more traditional form of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” wherein one very large spoon graced by a ripe red cherry acts as pleasing appetizer at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
“The Sculpture Garden is widely understood as a communal gathering place,” says Eric Crosby, curator at the Walker Art Center, for which the Garden is an integral part. “With the social and political aspects of our lives undergoing transformation, public art invites people to stop, think and create memories.”
Case in point: Artist Fritz Haeg planted a circle of wild, edible plants earlier this year as a demonstration garden for school groups and community gardeners. The artist also felt it important that people in Minneapolis come to the sculpture garden and find a bit of the wild in order to learn about the landscape that had been here earlier. On a more whimsical note, a collective of Minneapolis and area artists worked on “Artist Designed Mini Golf,” a 2013 installation alongside the garden featuring 15 off-the-wall holes that were as much eye candy as participatory experience.
The Walker's Crosby is attuned to the juxtaposition of forms in the sculpture garden but sees a certain symmetry. “The quality of iconic pieces in public art is not going anywhere. However, it's a space that has to be constantly fed with more ephemeral, participatory and collaborative forms. It's how artists are working today.”
Elaine Labalme is a columnist for sister publication Pop City in Pittsburgh. She writes on food, travel and pop culture for local and national publications. BmoreMedia Editor Julekha Dash contributed to this story.
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