Public Art - a view from ground up
I've been working on a commission "Seed" for the last six weeks. The commission is in a extremely public space - a plaza that connects downtown Santa Rosa and a large shopping mall. Since I've been working on-site the whole time, usually kneeling or sitting on the floor in full view, it's been an interesting opportunity to see the art + public, and public + artist interaction. These are a few things I noticed.
People like art. There's already a piece of art in the plaza - a giant white marble hand entitled Agraria by Larry Kirkland, and people love The Hand. I see at least 30 people a day posing for photos in front of The Hand. Sometimes they pose in jokey ways to make visual puns out of The Hand, usually they just think it's cool and want to stand within its half cupped fingers. Teenagers sometimes sit right down inside its palm to wait in the shade for friends or to share a sneaky cigarette. Visitors seeing it for the first time stop to look at it, and I hear locals on cellphones asking friends to, "Meet me by The Hand". Everyone strokes its cool surface. I've heard that it may be an representation of Luther Burbank's hand posed as if casting seed, and the title bears this out, but I haven't heard anyone referring to it in this context. It doesn't seem like people are looking for or have need of an explanation - intuitively, they admire it's craft; they connect with its possible spiritual dimensions and its wit; they know that its un-ordinariness makes part of their town special. It's a beautiful enigma, a memorable landmark, and it matters that someone cared enough to make it and put it there. I think that's a pretty worthwhile piece of art.
In addition to that, the hand is surrounded by small tiles with philosophical quotes and, again, I was struck by just how many people, and how diverse a range of people, would stop, read, and discuss these - another bullseye Mr Kirkland!
You need to slow down to see the art. The plaza is surrounded by many offices and businesses and has the ubiquitous Starbucks making it popular with the early morning pre-shopping crowd. This crowd has a lot of office workers, construction workers remodeling the mall, and a lot of street-people. I don't know if that's considered a correct or acceptable term to use, but it's broadness makes it seem OK for now. Thirty and forty-somethings were generally too busy to really take in what was going on. Kids, teenagers, early twenties, fifty-somethings and older were all much more ready to take the time to see what was happening and to interact. This would range from them offering quick comments or words of encouragement, to full-blown conversations about what they were seeing. All this was very welcome and made my experience so much more interesting. Hopefully theirs too.
If it's visually interesting, you can sneak up on folks with a concept. Generally, people commented on the look of it, "Looks great", "Beautiful", "Now I can see how it's gonna be", etc. Lots of people wanted to know about the processes and techniques, and this chat about the practical or visual aspects sometimes lead to deeper talk about the ideas behind the piece. I could see that this turn in the conversation was often an unexpected one, but it seemed that it was usually greeted as a pleasant surprise.
I had a couple of, "Now, I don't suppose you tell me what this is all about can you?", questions too, and of course, those folks seemed the least interested in hearing the explanation.
Breaking the elitism of "the artist" is a relief for everyone. Since much of what I had to do on this project looks more like construction work than any work one might stereotypically picture an "artist" doing, people often assumed that I was a trades-person, artisan, or laborer, depending on what task I was doing. People were understandably surprised and then intrigued to find that I was actually the "artist", which made me wonder if they would have been as quick to approach me and chat if they'd known. I hope so. Maybe they were just surprised to see that an artist actually works really hard.
Art-making as social-lubricant. One question that frequently came up was how did I get to be doing what I was doing. Sometimes, especially with the daily-aquaintance street-people, histories were exchanged, and I heard about nuns and veterans, families, illnesses and travels, and the jobs that they'd previously done before the story reached the present day. Many had worked in construction, set tile, finished concrete, or been commercial painters, and in this were able to make a connection with what I was doing. Of course, this works both ways, and for me to be able to have these interactions made me and my little project seem to be a part of something much bigger and more connected.
Include people in the process and they become custodians. Especially with the street-people, I got a sense that since the making of the piece had been part of their world for a while they genuinely cared about it. They were actually more disgusted than I was when someone left a long bicycle tire skid-mark on one section. My response was, "Aah, it'll clean off OK". They insisted, "People should have more respect".
Conclusions? So often when we encounter a piece of art, especially public-art, we don't really think about how it got there or how it was made, we just see it as part of what is usually a commercially manufactured environment. The fact that people did see the process, and they did see the physical work involved, and they saw the piece take shape and develop layer by layer as they went about their daily business, became one of the most meaningful dimensions to the whole experience. Seeing an artist laboring for weeks to create something unique for their environment made people engage so much more with not only the piece, but with the whole idea of what their public space means, and with the practice of art-making.
All of this made the experience of this commission so much more interesting and thought provoking. It will take some time to digest it all, but I anticipate it really enhancing the way I approach future projects.