public art

Finding Respite (and Civic Inspiration) in Colorado

Environmental graphics for Denver's Civic Center Cultural Complex

A piece of heaven. Enjoying the first several days back in my old Colorado stomping grounds, I’m camped out at the Hershbergers’ house this particular afternoon, listening to a live string quartet rehearse for an upcoming wedding and drinking a fresh cup of coffee while I write. I'm grateful to have this place to escape to for refuge/sanctuary. I’ve returned to people, sunshine and mountains where my days start with a run (at altitude!) in Boulder, the foothills—located within miles of my brother and sister-in-law’s house—to the west and the sunrise to the east. Yes, heavenly.

Colorado is typically associated with the Rocky Mountains, which are undoubtedly breathtaking. As I’ve been revisiting my favorite places, however, I’ve been appreciating more than just the magnificent views. Unabashedly drawn to anything and everything that is beautifully conceived or created, I am happy to see signs, both large and small, of continuing redevelopment in Denver.

Public art, Denver, Colo.

The main branch of the public library, the Civic Center Park and the Denver Art Museum, along with the recently renovated space that makes up the History Colorado Center, all located adjacent to one another, now comprise the Civic Center Cultural Complex. New businesses, including a Design District, populate the south end of Broadway. And yes, the light-rail train is finally being extended to Denver International Airport.

We undoubtedly expect larger cities to provide these types of amenities. Of course Denver and Boulder are flush with farmers markets, bike trails, art galleries, libraries, beer and wine tastings, food tours and outdoor movies. Of course Denver and Boulder have super public transportation systems. Of course Denver and Boulder have cultural centers. Of course Denver and Boulder have public art programs.

Public art, Denver, Colo.

It would be impossible to spend any amount of time in either place and not come away with the impression that beyond investing in the kinds of facilities or activities that are meant to draw tourists, these cities embrace the arts for the intrinsic community enrichment they provide.

So, why not hold smaller cities and towns to similar standards? Goshen may not have the same resources as Boulder or Denver—unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done as far as mountains are concerned-—but as I’ve been arguing since my early blog posts, we have made ourselves competitive.

Mt. Quandary, one of Colorado's famous "14ers." (I hiked it before moving back to the Midwest.)

The question becomes, then, what more can we do? How can we build on the expectations that visitors might have about the kind of experience a Midwestern town can provide? Rather than cut back on the Goshen Public Library hours, why not find ways to make it more of a cultural center worth preserving?

(I went to a cooking demo at the Denver Public Library on Saturday titled, “United States of Food: Better Living Through Ignoring Chemistry." If anyone wants an amazing rubbed kale salad with quinoa and feta dressing recipe, consequently, let me know.)

What can we do about improving the public transportation system we have? What about public art programs? Gallery and open studio tours are not a new concept to us but how to ensure that these types of ventures are both supported and sustainable?

I’ve made no secret about the fact that there are specific things I’ve come to Colorado for -- that is, things that Indiana can’t provide, in an effort to recover my creative mojo and re-energize in preparation for the fall semester. That is no reason, however, that Goshen can’t become someone else's piece of heaven while simultaneously enriching the lives of its residents.

Trying to See a Familiar City With Fresh Eyes

Through the course of writing about design, public art, placemaking and environmental graphics, I’ve come to an awkward realization. Namely, that there is a great deal that I don’t actually know about my hometown. I was born at Goshen General Hospital and spent my formative years here, attending a mix of public and private schools from kindergarten all the way up through college. And yet, aside from the people and places that have more or less remained the same, the city has changed; I have been humbled by the knowledge that I must learn to look at this familiar place with newer—and perhaps more acute--eyes.

The intellectual in me would like to think that I’ve already done so. After all, many of the changes that have taken place, at least in terms of infrastructure and local businesses, are difficult to ignore. But still. I have done a fair amount of research about Goshen as of late and have been both frustrated and motivated by the fact that I don’t know quite as much as I thought I did.

There are subtle, more nuanced—or perhaps just less pronounced?—shifts that I have been somewhat oblivious to, that have taken place over time. Taken together, these overt and understated transformations have subsequently altered the general ethos and demographic makeup of the city.

I have plenty of opinions about the role of art/design in helping to define a sense of place for Goshen. In looking back over previous posts, however, I have struggled when confronted with questions about how sense of place could or should manifest itself more visually. And there’s a temptation to rely too heavily on my own perspectives and assumptions about the Goshen that I grew up with rather than the Goshen that exists.

I am only one person, so am inevitably limited when it comes to understanding the extent to which local residents feel a sense of pride or the degree to which people living in our area make conscious efforts to support local farms and businesses. I’m not necessarily aware of the neighborhood relationships that are growing into distinct, identifiable communities within a larger community or the ways in which changes in infrastructure will affect these neighborhoods. Or, if I see changes happening, I may only be able to appreciate them from a certain amount of detached distance.

In a recent Goshen Commons post, Adam Scharf stated the following:

“The 'North Connector Route' will leave this railroad corridor almost unrecognizable from what it is today. And with other crossings of the tracks – those cultural and those constructed – further closed and cut off by columns and concrete, Cottage Avenue will become a central collector and a carrier across a divide. Might those whom it hosts for a crossing still feel … at ease, welcome and at home.”

This excerpt struck me for a number of reasons, in part because it draws a connection between the structural foundation of the city and the part of the city that lives and breathes -- that is, the people, within that structure. Development can have an enormous impact on how we function in communal spaces, influencing how well we can or cannot maintain relationships and a sense of belonging. It also reflects the reality of change.

Art and design can provide us with a means for helping to preserve the aforementioned idea of “home,” and creative expression can be a thread that keeps us linked in the midst of transitions. Lastly, though we should not ignore the past, we must appreciate what is actually in front of us, learning to know who we are now in order to imagine who we will be in the future.

On Martin Luther King Day, a Call to Imagine What's Next

There are times when the struggles and challenges we face, whether individually or collectively, dominate our outlook and limit our ability to see beyond where we are. But the work of Martin Luther King Jr. is a potent reminder of how powerful imagination becomes in a world that sometimes overwhelms. When I have a week like this past one, which had me second-guessing myself at every turn and mentally preoccupied with my perceived shortcomings, I manage to remember that I live a privileged life and operate from a position of at least some degree of power and authority. This would not have been possible had our civil rights forebears not dreamed big dreams about what might be possible some day.

So while we tend to focus on the legacy of MLK during the national holiday dedicated to his memory, we are also confronted with a clear call to action to continue imagining and dreaming and planning and doing.

For myself, this means looking beyond my own circumstances, acknowledging that I come from a long line of folks who never could have comprehended teaching at a university let alone attending one, thanking my lucky stars for the numerous sacrifices made on my behalf before I ever came into existence and rolling up my sleeves.

Yes, creativity has its place when it comes to addressing peace and justice issues, and I have a responsibility to use my own imagination toward conceiving of the kind of culture and society I want to help shape beyond the here and now.

Case in point: I work in a field that cannot, unfortunately, boast much in the way of ethnic diversity. Rather than fall into the trap of simply complaining or lamenting that fact, however, it’s incumbent upon me to do what I can to change those circumstances for the budding designers of color in my wake. And while I’m in the midst of figuring out specific ways to help pave the way for those coming up behind me, I am inspired by the people and organizations that are already fostering opportunities for young people who might not otherwise have access to the same kind of support and resources that I’ve had.

One such organization, Moving the Lives of Kids (MLK) Community Mural Project, is a testament to the power of both collaboration and creative vision. Based out of Pittsburgh, the group boasts numerous mural sites that are scattered throughout the United States as well as in Haiti and Brazil. The Broken Windows Project specifically, which was implemented in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, involved collaborative efforts between professional artists and hundreds of students from the district “using paintbrushes to fight neighborhood blight.”

A truly incredible example of the contribution art and design can make within a community, providing both educational and artistic opportunities for students, and transforming what was once a collection of vacant buildings into a beautified space, complete with imagery reflecting the history of the area. Right on.

I certainly admire MLK as a historical figure. But more than that, I honor his imaginative ability and subsequent determination to build and create something better—not just for himself but for countless others whom he would never meet or know.

Bringing the Power of Tithing to Public Art

Now that the holiday season is drawing to a close and the overcast skies and cold weather highlight the hard edges of Goshen's architectural landscape, I’m thinking again about the places where creativity and the built environment meet. And after soliciting ideas and suggestions about ways to emphasize Goshen’s uniqueness—my favorite, which was conveyed to me in person, was spoken in just one word: “Trees”—I thought it might be helpful to point out that as much as art and design get neglected in favor of more “practical” concerns, there is precedent for including funding for art in tandem with new development and redevelopment.

"Percent for Art," which is the practice of setting aside a percentage of construction or renovation costs specifically for art, is not a new concept; it dates back to the New Deal and was instituted to help generate appreciation for the arts while enhancing the look of public buildings.

Predictably, the idea has grown over time. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, there are currently 27 states with active Percent for Art programs, which doesn’t account for similar programs instituted on local levels by city governments. (Needless to say, Indiana is not among those that do.) I'm not sure there could be a clearer sign of the value many communities throughout the country (and world) place on art.

The aforementioned being said, I will be the first to admit that I tend to talk about public art in idealistic terms, belying the challenges it presents. Namely, that art created for everyone is rarely, if ever, reflective of a completely shared aesthetic. Nor is it equally appreciated by all. Just as I eagerly heap praise on "Cloud Gate," there are also works that cause me to scratch my head.

Case in point: My former home of Denver, Colo., boasts the gigantic "Blue Bear" by Lawrence Argent, which is located right outside of the downtown convention center. Given my mixed feelings about it, I am reminded that genuine collaboration, particularly when it comes to installations that reside in public spaces, can be a difficult and tricky business. Love it or hate it, however, "Blue Bear" has become a Denver landmark, making a bold—if not large—statement that will eventually, like other local landmarks and public art, weave itself into the narrative that makes Denver distinct.

Larger cities undoubtedly have more resources to employ and sustain these types of programs. Regardless, the results are impressive, serving as additional evidence of the important role art has played historically, though not anecdotally in some quaint, outdated way. Whether permanent or temporary, public art initiatives have persisted, making history and bringing people together in the process.

So again, while Goshen may not be a Chicago, Philadelphia or Cincinnati, it’s worth imagining future possibilities that could reflect common (though perhaps not unanimous) values, ideals and appreciation for both art and design. Might Goshen have the support, structure and interest to implement our own version of a public art program? We have an alley downtown for the display of public artwork, but what else can we accommodate?

Perhaps part of the answer is more trees. Perhaps part of the answer is neighborhood murals. Perhaps part of the answer involves creating more public spaces that become a destination for people to just hang out, setting up pop-up galleries or developing a more comprehensive wayfinding system. The possibilities, at least when dreaming, are endless.

Public Art as a 'Collective Heartbeat'

The memory of my first encounter with Chicago’s famous “bean” sculpture is a little bit fuzzy but the experience definitely made an impression. I recall having a certain amount of skepticism with regard to the amount of attention it had been getting—I suppose I was defaulting to “critical artist” mode, not easily impressed simply because it was new and popular. However, I wasn’t prepared to find myself immediately captivated by, among other things, the odd shape and sheer size of the thing. Anish Kapoor’s "Cloud Gate," as the "bean" is officially titled, turned out to be much more engaging and interactive than I expected; I walked right up to touch it, giggling like a little kid as I looked at my warped reflection from a variety of angles. And yet it wasn’t just my own reaction that had me smiling; the similarly amused responses of the people around me was infectious.

My experience with the “bean” was vastly different than seeing the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial for the first time. In that particular case, I couldn’t help but be awed by the historical significance of the space as I gazed at the likeness of the sixteenthpresident and tried to comprehend the fact that he was at one time a living, breathing man. (We do share a birthday, after all, though there is well over a century between us.)

The Lincoln Memorial is, I would hazard to guess, more highly valued by the average person than "Cloud Gate." Regardless, these two examples of public art have more than a few important things in common.

When public art is in our midst it is there for everyone; all of us, whether we appreciate the works or not, have some ownership in them. The same holds true for public roads, public libraries, etc., although art does not necessarily profess to have the same kind of functional use.

I’m certain this is why, at least in part, art is often perceived as dispensable window-dressing. I never cease to be amazed then, when against practical considerations--and regardless of what the works communicate or how they cause us to respond--art becomes a focal point for creating greater connectivity.

That a sculpture can teach us a thing or two about the importance of history or instill pride in us for our shared spaces is not something we should take for granted. Public art may not wield the same immediate power as a legislative body but it can make persuasive statements about the value we place on supporting the local economy or emphasize that despite our differences, we are the kind of community that supports its own, especially during difficult times.

If we think of wayfinding as a kind of skeletal structure—a system that orients us as we navigate the spaces we inhabit--then public art serves as our collective heartbeat, capturing the essence of our identity through visual expression.

When we think about our own landmarks in the Goshen/Elkhart area, what do they say about us? Where are the gaps in the stories we convey about ourselves? And how can we fully appreciate the significant role these works play in keeping us grounded?