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VOL. 125 | NO. 184 | Wednesday, September 22, 2010

City Beautiful

Three public art projects set to launch

STACEY WIEDOWER | Special to The Daily News

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A pedestrian crosses the new bridge between the law school and Confederate Park just after dark. The lighting on the bridge shifts and changes colors.
Photo: Lance Murphey

Art is more than something pretty to look at.

In the context of an urban environment, art can give communities identity, provide spaces to gather and literally brighten the landscape of entire neighborhoods.

“We fervently believe that public art makes Memphis a better place to live because it feels better being here,” said John Weeden, executive director of the Memphis UrbanArt Commission, a nonprofit organization founded, in Weeden’s words, “to enhance the cultural vibrancy of the community through the development of public art.”

And right now is a busy time in the realm of public art in Memphis. At least three major projects are set to launch around the city in coming weeks.

The first new project to open is an interactive lighting feature built into the new Court Avenue Pedestrian Bridge. The bridge, which crosses Court Avenue near its intersection with Riverside Drive, connects the University of Memphis’ new law school with Confederate Park.

The lighting design – created and installed by California-based Electroland, selected for the project through a national call to artists – uses an interactive, motion-sensitive computer program to project an infinite sequence of pattern and color. The project is complete and fully functional. A formal grand opening is planned for mid-October.

“This is the city’s first permanent new media technology lighting project,” Weeden said. “Only recently, within the past few years, has this technology bled into the public art and architectural engineering realms. This is the first project in Memphis to embrace that technology and make it a public asset to the built environment.”

Birmingham artist Chris Fennell recently completed this decorative archway that will serve as an entry for the Levitt Shell.

Another newly completed project is interactive in a different way. Construction just wrapped on a “book maze” at Cordova’s Bert Ferguson Park. The project, designed and installed by Memphis artist and recent U of M grad Brooke Foy, is a larger-than-life sculpture that is “walkable, climbable and fall-offable,” Weeden said. The book maze, built in the form of giant, colorful concrete books with classic titles, rests atop a surface called Vitriturf that’s made from shredded, recycled tires.

“As opposed to concrete or asphalt paving, which could crack open a noggin or two, if kids fall off a 4-foot book, they won’t hurt themselves,” Weeden said.

It is near a community center, school and library, so the intent was to create something functional and family-friendly.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for families to come together in the area,” said Eumecca Long, director of Bert Ferguson Community Center. “They’ll be able to sit in and around the maze, and the children can learn book titles, so I think it’s both educational and recreational.”

Foy said her goal was to create an interactive piece for the families who would be enjoying it.

“If I can interact with a piece of art, I feel more engaged by it as a viewer,” she said.

Weeden said it was fitting that a young artist won the commission for this piece.

“(Foy) jumped in with an enthusiasm that I have a lack of words to describe,” he said. “She has seemingly relished every aspect of it because she was a first-time public artist, at least in this scale.”

Yet another large-scale project is set to install in coming months, this one in Midtown. Birmingham artist Chris Fennell recently completed a decorative archway that will serve as an entry for the Levitt Shell.

The archway was designed with two objectives: to fit into its natural surroundings and to reflect the distinctive character and history of the shell.

“The shell is hallowed ground for so many musicians and so many fans and so many Memphians,” Weeden said.

The circular archway, which will be installed overlooking the amphitheater, has extensions that resemble branches meant to blend into the surrounding canopy of trees. Looking toward the arch from the shell, however, the form of the piece will resemble the contours of an acoustic guitar.

The archway is set to be installed in November, following the close of Levitt Shell’s performance season.

Weeden said projects such as these – all of which have received funding through the city’s Percent for Art program, adopted in 2002 to allocate a percentage of city funds each year to the development of public artwork – are tools for community engagement.

“They’re about building bonds across neighborhoods and generations and demographics to tell our community story,” he said.

Along that line, a new round of projects proposed for fiscal year 2011 includes a dedicated mural program that will involve selecting, training and funding local artists to complete large-scale murals in each of the city’s seven districts.

“Our belief is not only that (public art) sparks the imagination of possibility, but that it communicates our history, our ideals, our heroes and our imaginations to generations younger than ourselves in our own community and to the outside world,” Weeden said.

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