UrbanArt Commission Looks to Color Downtown

By Andy Meek

LIGHTING DOWNTOWN: Passersby interact with a new public art project, “Emerald Aura,” that has been installed at the corner of Peabody Place and Main Street. -- PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN HARRISON

Passersby stroll past the intersection of Main Street and Peabody Place in Downtown and a pulsating beam of green light appears under their feet. Caught off guard but amused, the pedestrians hold out their arms and move a little to see what the beam of light will do.

It dances on the ground like the emerald shadow of a hula-hoop.

“Get it off me!” one young man joked as he walked north on Main Street Sunday night.

Over at AutoZone Park, meanwhile, the nearly 100-year-old office building at 195 Madison Ave. next to the ballpark’s left field – and which is visible from the stands – is being studied by the same arts group responsible for the laser light display on Main.

That group is the UrbanArt Commission. With its involvement, an effort has begun to solicit ideas for and an artist to create a large mural on one side of the currently vacant building. A variety of school officials and Downtown stakeholders will have a say in choosing who gets to paint the building and what exactly that person will be painting.

Both projects are among the newest of the UrbanArt Commission’s efforts to add a colorful, creative and occasionally whimsical touch to the city’s public scenery. The group took its ideas for both projects before members of the Center City Commission’s Design Review Board last week for approval and for general feedback.

‘Emerald Aura’

The light display on Main Street, which emanates from a laser mounted on Peabody Place Tower, is the last in a group of 10 public art pieces to be installed this year as part of the UrbanArt Commission’s 10th anniversary.

“Dan Corson is an artist that specializes in lighting design and effects,” said John Weeden, executive director of the UrbanArt Commission. “And in his practice, one of the common tools that he employs is the use of laser-lighting technology. So what he is doing in the brickwork plaza right there at Main and Peabody Place is he’s mounted a laser on top of (Peabody Place Tower), the very top, and it’s aiming down.

“There’s a greenish hue to the light. And what it does is it’s triggered by a motion detector. What happens is, say someone rounds that corner and walks across the brickwork. Well, the light will surround their footsteps as they walk across the plaza.”

The beams of light are only visible after sunset. The project’s title is “Emerald Aura,” and it’s a temporary public art piece that will remain visible and operational through May 26.

Corson, a Seattle-based artist, said the artwork partly was inspired by the heightened surveillance and security measures in place at various public points of interest over the last few years.

“The piece was originally inspired by some video footage of surveillance detection software used for security purposes,” he said. “I saw this as a possibility and started thinking how since 9/11 we’re under a high level of scrutiny as far as everyone kind of being monitored. So I started kind of blending this idea of allowing that monitoring that’s normally invisible to become visible.

“And then I was thinking we could take this and translate it into a laser that becomes a way of acknowledging that we’re being observed and tracked. Not only does this (art piece) allow one person to engage in and interact with the art specifically, but it allows people who don’t know each other to engage with the art and have a conversation with each other about it.”

Still in the works

The mural project for the building at 195 Madison, meanwhile, is still in the planning stages. That building is owned by Wilton Hill, a trustee of Rhodes College. The idea for the mural project came out of a discussion between Hill and Rhodes president Bill Trout about the visible condition of the city and the ability of Rhodes students to pursue a variety of art-oriented beautification projects.

That project is being done in conjunction with the Rhodes College Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts (CODA), and Weeden said it could begin soon after a plan is nailed down.

“We hope to begin in July – if so, we could complete this by January,” Weeden told the DRB.