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What is Public Art?

There are generally two forms of public art: graffiti and murals   

  art is… wall, Covington, KY

art is… wall, Covington, KY

Graffiti is anonymous and often unsanctioned. Graffiti is a personal creative expression. It is a generous (unpaid) act by the artist. It is at the same time democratic - personal freedom of expression - and not democratic - not sanctioned or approved by an authoritative majority.Graffiti is anonymous and often unsanctioned. Graffiti is a personal creative expression. It is a generous (unpaid) act by the artist. It is at the same time democratic - personal freedom of expression - and not democratic - not sanctioned or approved by an authoritative majority.

  FAILE mural, 6th & Madison Streets

FAILE mural, 6th & Madison Streets

Murals are a distant relative of graffiti. They are often commissioned and sometimes approved.  Sometimes they are a privately curated work of art.  Thanks to BLDG and others, Covington has an impressive body of mural art by internationally know artists such as Faile, London Police, vhills, Shepard Fairey, Faring Purth and others.

But Who Owns it?

It’s all public art in the sense that it occurs within the public realm and is accessible to everyone. But there is an interesting question of ownership, balancing public and private rights. The rights of the property owners to install art. The rights of the public to protect communities through process, design guidelines and review boards. How can you legislate art without making it the least common denominator? Acceptable, but not unique?

If you think about the city as a museum, do we have to like all the works within it?  Are there any museums or galleries held to this standard? There is a parallel to architecture and the built environment. We have design review boards that ensure that architecture matches the aesthetic of the surrounding area, blending in with the buildings around it. There are historic overlays carefully curated to keep the status quo, keeping out cutting edge, modern design. The members of these review boards are the arbiters of architecture, but what about art? Does the process create outstanding architecture or an architecture that appeals to most? It protects us, but does it enlighten us?

What about a Process?

art is … ” started in response to graffiti tagging that was occurring along the Licking River Greenway Trails.  Jim Guthrie noticed that artists were quick to tag the LRGT signage and brand murals along the trail.  This made sense.  The signs were in a sense a tag of the trail developers.  His response was to channel that artistic energy into specific locations along the trails by providing a canvas for graffiti artists to freely and legally express themselves.  Several locations along the trail were identified with the moniker “art is…” and artist were challenged finish the sentence in this public gallery.  Jim maintains the “gallery” by painting over artwork occurring on structures not approved for art and documenting works on approved structures through the art Is… Facebook page.

Matt Hebermehl is an artist that developed a mural approval process in Savannah, GA. Jim brought Matt to town through a Creative Communites Grant from the Center for Great Neighborhoods.  There were two objectives: To learn about Matt’s experience in Savannah (and share it with Covington) and to create a mural with the students at Glenn O. Swing Elementary. 

Matt faced some hurdles in Savannah.  After having property owners cited for murals on their property or having the works painted over by public works, Matt worked to create a process by which murals could legally be created.  It was embraced by the city and largely successful.

  Before I Die… in Savannah, GA

Before I Die… in Savannah, GA

But a funny thing happened.  The fluidity and immediacy of the creative process by which murals and graffiti art was created was stifled.  The approval process which could take more than a month hampered the creative energy of the artists.  And Matt, the instigator of the process, immediately sought ways to circumvent the very process he created.  He turned to light and projection and the installation of murals within storefronts as a means of creating temporary art that were not required to undergo the lengthy approval process.  It was a return to the underground, the unsanctioned.  And you get the sense from talking to Matt, energizing.

Positive Effect on Community

Matt also talked about the importance of the community in his murals.  Public Art that is truly community based and generated can galvanize a sense of place and bring a community together to celebrate its diversity, unique character, and story. Public Art can bring a human presence to a neglected space. He gave a few examples: One project in particular, 34th and Habersham became the first legal public mural in Savannah. It featured an abstract marsh space as well as portraits of people in the neighborhood. Years later, when the building was torn down, community members gathered to claim a piece of the crumbling wall, some seeking out their own portraits. Matt also worked to bring Candy Chang’s “before I die” project to Savannah.

Matt worked on the mural at Glenn O. Swing for a week.  Over that week, he met with the art classes and engaged the students and teachers during recess and after school when kids came to the playground to play.  

  Try Together, Fly Together by Matt Hebermehl

Try Together, Fly Together by Matt Hebermehl

There were poignant moments, like when one student commented that he didn’t feel safe, that there was too much fighting.  Matt was able to use the message of the mural “Try Together Fly Together” to illustrate the strength of community. Matt had many stories of the kids and teachers and parents he met, and we believe he got as much out of it in that respect as the mark he left on the wall.

The mural was celebrated in a cookout, where Jim cooked hamburgers and hotdogs, teachers contributed other snacks and desserts, an artist painted birds on the faces of a hundred kids, and Matt painted from the top of a scissor lift.  It was the perfect culmination and illustration of everything the mural was meant to do. Create a place that the community could come together to enjoy and appreciate art.