When I recently moved to Oklahoma, I was anxious to get out and around the state to experience the collection I would be adding to and managing. Oklahoma is a diverse state with unique communities—each with their own flavor of art, often with bronze sculptures and dynamic murals. Both of these media can define the identity of a neighborhood, but what is a town to do if it can’t afford a large sculpture, or it doesn’t have a great space for a mural—or maybe it just needs to break out beyond into something else?
Sometimes, we can forget that public art isn’t just about the visual experience, but that public art is about the engagement of people in public spaces.
In other words, as an innovative, originative state, we can push the boundaries and the definition of public art. Let’s make it temporary, let’s make it interactive, let’s make it surprising.
Outdoor sculpture and murals are logical and great ways for communities to break into public art, but as a public art program grows what is the next step for local artists and their towns?
On some level, can we see the investment of people interacting with a public space, even if the art isn’t forever or permanent? Is there value in what the people take away from the space over a period of time? Public art can take a wide range of forms, sizes, and scales, and be temporary or permanent. Public art can include integrated architectural or landscape architectural work, community art, digital new media, or even performances and festivals. Working together on projects could establish (or re-establish) a neighborhood or region’s sense of community.
In 2015 in Boston, artist Amy Archambualt spent a ten-week residency creating inMotion: Memories of Invented Play. It was a large-scale, interactive structure that invited participants to uncommonly explore one of the most ubiquitous learned activities—riding a bicycle. It featured a four-section interactive structure fabricated from construction materials, athletic equipment, bicycles and additional accessories. inMotion fused together the ideas and visual dialogues rooted in childhood play, group exercise, constructed place/landscape. This installation fostered a relationship between the form of the artwork and the function of the user. It was constantly working to build upon personal experiences of childhood fun, the endorphin release of exercise, and the community engagement.
The artist used tennis balls, outdoor cushions, polycord climbing rope, astro-turf, lumber, decking, lattice, color wheels, and bicycles that vibrated with color, activity and sound. Each section was designed to offer a diverse activities and experiences: pedaling apparatus, cycling stations, resting areas, wheel turning mechanisms that generated nostalgic sounds reminiscent of the playing cards laced into rear wheels and spoke.
Molly Gochman is an artist, who is bringing life and community to previously lifeless public spaces—cracked sidewalks. Red Sand Project is a participatory artwork that uses inexpensive dyed sand dropped into sidewalk cracks, as an opportunity for people to question, to connect and to take local action against vulnerabilities that can lead to human trafficking and exploitation. She is empowering any town to bring awareness on this global issue.
The contrast of something visually pleasing to highlight an issue so ugly is engaging. The metaphor of cracks in society and the people who fall through is a powerful one. Cracks in our sidewalk paths are visually unsightly and easily ignored. According to a Department of Justice reports from 2003, Oklahoma ranked fourth in the nation for the largest number of trafficking survivors in the United States. The intersection of major interstate highways like I-35, I-40 and I-44 means human traffickers move sex slaves and others involved in forced labor through Oklahoma City.
What issues does your community have? Maybe human trafficking isn’t a local issue in your area, but hungry children are. What social issue or vulnerability could your town highlight through a project that made people stop on the street and asked them to participate for only a few moments—could public art give people a moment to pause and educate its participants on an important social issue? The Red Sand project says yes: interventions have taken place in all 50 United States and in more than 70 countries around the world—by schools, campuses, hotels, businesses, private residences, in city centers and in other public places.
A great example of inexpensive, but unique community works are the bike racks in Norman, OK. Twenty seven artists were paid $200 to create designs to be fabricated by McPherson Machine Shop for a cost of about $2,000 each. Every rack is created by an artist, and used by the community around it. And, by connecting artists with a fabricator, they were able to help local artists break into the public art realm.
By installing large vibrant bike racks, Norman is asking that its citizens consider riding. It is using a creative, artistic idea to support the local arts community, encourage a healthy lifestyle and incentivize green living.
How could public art invite your community to interact with both the work itself and with their community at large? Could you create artistic moments and observe how art brings people together, inspires participation and engenders meaningful connections between individuals? With thoughtful awareness of the art happenings and working together, we can use art to create meaningful connections to the people around us and build better communities.
Heather Lunsford graduated from the University of the Incarnate Word with an MA in administration and Oklahoma State University with a BFA in painting and a BA in art history. She can be reached at email@example.com