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VOL. 121 | NO. 96 | Friday, May 5, 2006

Urban Art: Vital Element or Frivolous Decoration?

Vital, experts say, because it breaks up landscapes and stimulates imaginations

By Andrew Ashby

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UP IN LIGHTS: "Inside/Out," an outdoor interactive art exhibit at last Friday's South Main Trolley Tour, gauged activity in certain shops through ground floor motion sensors that sent electrical impulses to the lights above. The display is an example of a growing trend to incorporate urban art in many aspects of community life. -- Photograph By Andrew Ashby

Although Memphis might lag behind many large cities in the realm of public art, progress is being made one rooftop at a time. The latest example was "Inside/Out," an outdoor interactive piece exhibited at the South Main Trolley Tour last Friday night.

James Clar, the first artist in residence at the FedEx Institute of Technology, designed the project, said John Weeden, executive director of Lantana Projects, a nonprofit organization started in October 2004 to bring international artists to the city. Weeden also is Rhodes College's assistant director of the Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts.

Clar is the first visiting artist on the Lantana/FedEx Institute of Technology fellowship for artists working in new media, which primarily is technology-based. The fellowships provide studio space, materials and other needed items.

"What that allows (artists) to do is dream big," Weeden said. "If they need 1,000 LED (light-emitting diode) screens, they can get 1,000 LED screens."

Soaking up the cathode rays

Clar, who originally is from Wisconsin, has been in Memphis since January working on various projects. "Inside/Out" was the culmination of his time in the city.

Much of Clar's work is interactive, and the "Inside/Out" exhibit was created to make people aware of their own movement, Weeden said. Clar installed motion sensors on the ground floor of 10 buildings along the trolley tour route, attaching the sensors to light panels on the roofs so the activity inside the buildings would register outside.

"So if one gallery, boutique or coffee shop was busier than another place down the street, people could see that activity registering via the panels on top of the buildings," Weeden said.

While "Inside/Out" is the latest example of public art, one organization has been working on bringing more of it to Memphis for almost a decade.

- The UrbanArt Commission was founded in 1997 and helps bring public art to Memphis.
- The commission has been instrumental in adding art to the Cooper-Young trestle, the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.
- The nonprofit Lantana Projects formed in October 2004 with the goal of bringing international artists to Memphis.
- James Clar, the first artist-in-residence at the FedEx Institute of Technology, exhibited his "Inside/Out" lights display during the South Main Trolley tour recently - a prime example of urban art in action.

The UrbanArt Commission is a nonprofit organization formed in 1997 to, among other functions, facilitate public art projects in Shelby County. The commission works with various groups including the City of Memphis, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Area Transit Authority, Ballet Memphis and the Hope and Healing Center. It helps select artists for projects, then serves as a liaison between artists and clients throughout the application and installation processes.

Tapping the classics

The most visible projects the commission has helped bring about are the ones at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library at 3030 Poplar Ave. and the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts at 255 N. Main St.

In addition to several art pieces inside the Cannon Center, the commission helped bring a large metal sculpture by Brooklyn-based sculptor Vito Acconci to one corner of the building.

The commission also worked with the city in bringing nine art projects to the Central Library, including the outdoor walkway, a large glass installation in the lobby, the lobby's terrazzo floor and glass trees in the children's reading area. The outdoor walkway has quotes from various works of literature, everything from Karl Marx to Dr. Seuss.

The commission also works on smaller projects in police precincts, schools, community centers and other places.

"(The projects are in) places that aren't as highly visible, but certainly are heavily used by the communities surrounding them," said the commission's executive director, Carissa Hussong.

Breaking the mold

The commission usually works with permanent public art, such as the Cooper Young trestle, 12 steel structures that cover a 96-year-old train trestle at the Midtown neighborhood's entrance. The structures are based on buildings throughout the area. The Cooper Young Community Association, which commissioned the work, initially thought of painting "Welcome to Cooper Young" on the trestle.

"Instead they did something that really you couldn't lift up and put into another neighborhood," Hussong said. "You're able to take something that is an eyesore and turn it into an icon, a landmark that people remember."

Hussong said communities should have a variety of public art - from traditional sculptures to less traditional art like Clar's interactive piece - to make a place different from other parts of its community.

"I think we tend to build our environment so there is so much sameness now that you can go out into certain areas of town and you wouldn't know where you were, you could be anywhere in the country," Hussong said. "Public art brings back that sense of place and that sense of community."

When someone drives the same way to work everyday, he or she becomes accustomed to the scenery.

"If you break up that visual pattern, then you have people's attention," Weeden said. "What can start as a quick glance out the side window can really slow people down. Then the closer they get they get intrigued into who did this and what's going on."

'Possibilities in the mind'

Public art also involves the community. When the commission works on projects with the city of Memphis, neighborhood committee members and others help select the art.

"So we know we're creating something the community responds to and is incorporating the community's values," Hussong said.

Public art also supports local artists, giving them work and a reason to stay in a community. It also enlivens the landscape because people enjoy being in creative atmospheres, Weeden said.

"They like seeing variation," he said. "It stimulates the imagination, stimulates thought patterns. It creates possibilities in the mind. It makes people contemplate what else might be done and how the neighborhood could be even better."

When the UrbanArt Commission started, Hussong said she had to tell Memphians what public art was and why it was valuable. While the commission has helped complete more than 60 projects across the county, some of its best work might be in raising awareness. Hussong said she still thinks Memphis is behind many cities when it comes to public art.

"But I think it's nice to know we've gotten past the point to having to explain its value to people just wanting more," she said.

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