Completion and Destruction
A Look into the Life of Public Art
Imagine pouring months into a passion project just to have some meth-head pee on your work.
This is a reality for anyone who ever put a piece of their art out in the community.
Next time you are stopped at a red light, or are walking through a city park, pause for a moment and appreciate the art around you. Public art is generally created for everyone in the community to enjoy. It is not uncommon for these pieces to become placemakers in the city.
Meet up points can be tied to a visual mural or sculpture. Memories of playing on unique structures bind us to our past. Art is everywhere. It’s one of those valuable tools that are typically unique to a location and become part of its identity.
Public art is also one of those things that we don’t really notice or think about until they are destroyed or missing from our communities all together.
If you follow street art the way I do, then you never pass a wall or odd flaws in a building without wondering how it could be made magical through art.
This program is a chance for emerging artists to get professional development from those working in the field. Like a lot of things, it’s hard to land your first big public art piece without a resume of past work. This program offers help through a series of workshops. Roughly 12 artists are selected every year to participate in this competitive process. The city in turn has an opportunity to guide emerging artists while seeking out new talent. Training the next generation on does and don’t when getting involved.
I was lucky enough to be selected for this boot camp in 2016. The wealth of knowledge learned lands only second to the experience of working onsite on your first real public piece of art.
One of the things I remember most about this weekend was a gentleman from public works who came to speak to us about his experience maintaining and cleaning public art.
He gave us wise words…
When you create public art you are inviting the community to pee on your dreams.
We all laughed, but we knew it was true.
In the four years since this boot camp, I have had the amazing opportunity to work on many pieces of public art. Sometimes it already smells like pee before we begin and it’s a reminder that more pee is coming.
Graffiti, smeared ketchup, dirt, water stains, tagging, and destruction are all possibilities when you work with the public.
And public artists know this.
But let’s break it down. Jump into the process.
If you are a creator in this realm it’s not like a typical 9–5. Sure there are jobs where creatives work throughout the city. Westen Neon or Fabrication Specialties are two examples of creative industries artists are working in. But teachers and service workers, even engineers are side hustling for the next public art piece.
We all know cities are slow-moving ships, and the art program (if a city has an arts program) is no different. When significant public art projects come up and many eager artists will apply. It’s very competitive.
Think of it like applying for a job over and over again. Every application is going to look and feel a little different, and your past work is going to speak volumes about your capability and execution. You also need to have an outline and sketch (if applicable) of what you’re planning. This can take weeks! Sometimes ideas fly around in your head for years before the right project comes up.
After scrutinizing over your application you hit the send button and wait.
You are also used to getting a rejection letter. Not that this discourages the artist. (Umm… FYI, this is totally discouraging)
Finally, you land a project! You have the design roughly done and then the meetings start. You are getting direction, learning the do’s and don’t on top of can’s and can’ts from what feels like every department in the city. Public works are okay with this but not that, Parks requires this and doesn’t want the liability for that. So on and so forth.
Still, you struggle to keep true to your image, design, and story.
Then you hurry up and wait as projects get delayed then pushed through. Trying your best to schedule a time to do the actual work, or meet with the fabricator, ironsmith, or architect. Sometimes your work is flexible and other times it may not be, but you have to be flexible at all times.
You are being pushed in many directions, however, your heart remains true. This is more than an art project. This is an opportunity to share your work on a grandiose scale with your community. Creating space for generations to enjoy. An inspiration to fade into its glory as part of the town’s image and feel. You are excited to be involved and anxious to see how all the pieces will fall together.
It’s been almost a year since the application for this project first went live and finally you are ready to get started.
Materials have all been accounted for, permits have been set up, lifts have been rented. Neon vests are being worn and you get to work.
Watching it all unfold like a beautiful dream right before your eyes.
People walking by stop to take your picture or tell you great job! A Mom asks how she can get her daughter into this kind of work. A painter stops by with a business card. A nice old lady from the neighborhood brings you cookies. Cars honk as they roll by giving you a thumbs up.
You take a moment and pause. This is happening. This is reality. I am doing something for the betterment of my community and it feels incredible. Your art is being validated and that’s all an artist wants, to know that they are making a difference.
Heck, that’s all anyone wants.
At last, you can stand back and gaze at your 30foot creation. You did that. And after seven days of hard work, it’s over. A year of your life, and now you walk away and release it to the community to enjoy.
Finishing can be the hardest part. In fact, you drive by every day for the next month just to see it. Check on any missed detail, or identify trash you can pick up.
By now you have shared all the glory on social media and are beginning to seek out your next great piece.
During this experience you have grown and discovered new things about yourself and the community.
Community rallies around these beautification projects. They love watching a once dirty space be transformed into art. With this you also get the inevitable, “what about graffiti?”, “Aren’t you worried someone will deface it?”, “It’s going to get tagged.”
FYI- Street artists know this. Is part of the game. And statistics have shown that it’s empty space that seems to take on more destruction than a wall hosting art.
I Like to remind people that 50% of marriages end in divorce, but that doesn’t stop people from getting married, and it’s certainly not what they want to hear as they are tying the knot.
I have been fortunate in my life to have had the opportunity to work on many projects with many talented individuals.
We have had slight tagging on a mural, and one sculpture went completely M.I.A. but nothing too bad.
That is until last night. I got the call. A fence I had spent two weeks weaving into a beautiful design paired with huge diamonds featuring art from the community was destroyed. It was heartbreaking walking along the 800-foot fence to clean up the aftermath.
Whoever did this took time and attention into breaking each one of the 23 diamonds. It took strength and dedication.
The outcry from the community has already been overwhelming. And I am left only with these thoughts.
People are not bad. People are not destructive. People are looking for community and a place to belong. People are lost. People are scared. People are angry and don’t know how to properly let their rage loose. People want power. People want to divide us and make us feel hopeless. People are on drugs, and people are mentally ill.
But I’m describing one while many have shown us love. The community has pulled together to take ownership of the space. One person, one night, cannot take that away.
I love bringing joy to my community through art. It is my happy place. I am not done nor am I discouraged. My trust hasn’t been lost.
If art is meant to stir emotion, I guess I did it.
Those of us who work in public art cannot stop. So to you, my reader, pee on our work if you must, but know it will never stop us from bringing creation to life.
As one of my childhood hero’s Roald Dahl said in his masterpiece Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,