Public Art Matters
Slumped on my couch with a remote in my hand, I stared blankly at the television, mindlessly clicking through Netflix for something to watch. It felt like an eternity that I sat there scrolling and scrolling, searching for something that would catch my interest as a faint reflection of my sluggish disposition on that brown sofa gazed back at me from the screen. Finally giving up, I rose from the sunken cushion my limp body had created to look out the window. The sun was shining, so I decided maybe some fresh air and a ride would be the best remedy for that meh mood I had fallen into.
I grabbed my keys, jumped in the car and 20 minutes later found myself cruising around downtown Rochester, New York. On that Sunday afternoon in 2018, after turning onto Scio Street in the East End of town, I stopped cold at City Blue Imaging. Just under their awning was a Shawn Dunwoody mural. The vivid and multi-colored letters stood out against the baby blue backdrop, accentuated by the red brick facade. Along with Black and White hands joining in the shape of a heart, the mural simply said, “I Heart Rochester, How ‘Bout You?”
That was the day I fell in love with public art in Rochester.
Rochester has been home for 14 years. After a stint in DC, I left Connecticut, the place I called home from elementary school until my late twenties, to move to upstate New York. I’m now living closer to Canada than where I grew up in Waterbury.
I still have a very strong connection to Waterbury — my mother and siblings live just north of the city. I’m in the state a few times a year visiting them, as well as cousins, nieces, nephews and friends. And while I’ve been gone for a while, it’s still home.
It would be in Rochester that I would discover that public art had a way of influencing, inspiring, and lifting a community.
“Public art hits you when you don’t expect it,” said Aprille Roelle, a Rochester resident and admirer of public art. “It also has the capability of striking a deeper chord because it can be unexpected.”
The true beauty in public art is the accessibility. It’s outdoors, and essentially once completed by an artist, it belongs to everyone. There’s no admission fee, you don’t have to have a membership and in so many cases it’s always open.
“So much of what we consider prized and sacred is behind closed doors with what can amount to restricted access,” said Karen Faris, an artist and writer in Rochester. “Art in museums and galleries can have a certain amount of elitism to it, but public art is on the outside, and for all, and speaks to our need to engage with our surroundings.”
Dennis O’Brien, a lifelong Rochesterian, agrees that without what can often be perceived as intimidating spaces to enter, and restricted hours of viewing in indoor spaces, it makes public art for everyone.
“It is out for all to enjoy, discover, and share with others,” O’Brien said. “Public art can teach and inspire us at greater rates.”
Because the art is in public doesn’t mean it should be taken for granted. It deserves a great deal of respect. With my camera in hand, I’ve spent the last three years trekking around the city documenting these colorful, inspiring, thought provoking and absolutely stunning pieces that fill so much space in our community. Whether you call it graffiti, street or public art, one thing is for sure, it’s not something exclusive or unique to Rochester — many cities across the country have a dynamic art scene with incredibly talented artists creating year-round, some with very robust infrastructures to ensure the longevity of the art in their area. Boldly creating in these public spaces, it can be the heart and spirit of their communities.
Waterbury does have a 15-member Public Art Committee and they have had some success in the past decade with Cool Waters (on South Main Street), Greetings From Waterbury (on Field Street), Origami (in front of the Silas Bronson Library) and the Calder-inspired sculptures donated by Italian artists that are in Library Park, in front of the Health Department on South Main Street and in front of the YMCA. The committee is appointed by Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and has made steps forward, but there is a lot more work that could be done. There are blank canvases all across the city waiting for color and life and art.
Here is the mission statement of the Waterbury Public Art Committee; to enhance the economic and community revitalization of Waterbury through integrated arts and performing arts projects that compliment the city’s long-range plan for beautification and development. WPAC provides opportunities for artists to be represented in local public art and the performing arts and for community residents to have access to and participate in the process of implementing public art in their community and neighborhoods.
Bravo. Now let’s fully embrace that mission statement and liven up the city.
I don’t recall really seeing any public art when I was growing up in Waterbury. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention during those formative years, but in Rochester it seems endless, and there are so many reasons why it’s so important to the public.
“It adds beauty, meaning, and individuality to a city. Public art reinvents public spaces and encourages creativity,” said Tate DeCaro, a Rochester resident and long-time supporter of public art. “It opens lines of communication between people that wouldn’t otherwise interact.”
For DeCaro, she believes that it gives voices to artists and subject matter that can prompt important conversations in a community. There’s also the sense of place and pride it may bring to your hometown.
“Whenever my niece is visiting from Alabama she says, ‘I always know I’m in Rochester when I see beautiful murals everywhere,’” DeCaro added.
I know what it’s like to want to show off Rochester when someone is visiting. When my 86-year-old grandmother, Lois, visited in December 2019, I drove her around to some of my favorite murals, crisscrossing the city along the way. Her eyes lit up as we approached the Eastman Theater and she could see Composer Crossing, the painted four-way-crosswalk of piano keys with the city seal in the middle of the intersection that had been completed a few months before. She recognized it from the national attention the crosswalk had received.
Composers Crossing is an example of public art bringing a community together. Dunwoody, who is known for his large-scale community art projects, led a small army of volunteers, many novices, on a weekend afternoon during the yearly Rochester Jazz Festival. Those volunteers — whose ages ranged from 3 to 80 years old — would paint the keys under his direction in just a few hours.
“I don’t care if the lines are straight, it’s about the community coming together,” Dunwoody said at the time. “There’s no pressure, and it lets people have fun.”
There’s a great deal of power and joy that comes from being a part of the public art created in your community. Every time I share a photograph of art from Rochester, I get a message or a comment on the post from someone sharing a story about what that piece means to them personally. They’ll recall meeting the artist, grabbing lunch for them, taking a photograph themselves, going to get some extra paint from the store or some other personal anecdote that makes the work deeply personal to those in the community. That personal connection also creates pride and protection of the work.
“For me, great public art has the potential to spark unexpected moments of joy, contemplation, empathy, curiosity, intrigue, and more,” said Kate Meyers Emery, a Digital Engagement Manager in Rochester. “It adds to an understanding of community values and history.”
In Rochester, the entire city serves as a canvas. Beneath parts of downtown in the long-abandoned subway you’ll find vivid and brilliant work in those dark tunnels. Then tucked away at the highest point in Cobbs Hill Park are the abandoned water towers that many street artists use as a personal playground to share their craft. There are many other hidden areas, and along with the very public spaces, they’re all important and make up the fabric of public art in Rochester.
But how does a community do it? How does a community create space and opportunities for public art to blossom in their parks, the streets, and walls? Rochester doesn’t have a central group or public art commission, but it does have chutzpah.
For Rochester, it’s all been grassroots. It starts with having or inviting world class artists to your community to create. Rochester is lucky to have artists like Sarah C. Rutherford, Dellarious, Justin Suarez, Brittany Williams, Olivia Kim, and Dunwoody, among others, who call Greater Rochester home. There’s also a few City-run programs like Roc Paint Division and Peculiar Asphalt, that work with young artists.
In Rochester, you can’t talk about street and public art without recognizing the contribution of the graffiti crew FUA (From Up Above), and their long-standing legacy in the city. Over the last 30 years, their art has filled the streets and their reach has spread well beyond home base as members have created work all over the world.
Then there’s WALL\THERAPY, responsible for roughly 140 murals over the course of their 10-year history. WALL\THERAPY, the brainchild of Dr. Ian Wilson, uses public murals as a means to transform the urban landscape, inspire and build community. Ian, along with Erich Lehman (co-curator), and a crew of volunteers, have been bringing art to the streets through a yearly festival and other programs.
In WALL\THERAPY there are lessons for how to navigate and bring art to a community.
“We’ve been fortunate,” said Lehman, who admits there can be challenges to putting artwork out into the public sphere when it’s not part of a city-sanctioned program.
How do they make it happen? The answer is simple yet complex — permission (and sheer will).
“As long as the artwork we’re installing and facilitating in the Rochester area isn’t expressly advertising, we’ve been able to proceed with the permission of the building owners,” Lehman said.
“We obviously want any businesses located in the buildings to buy in as well, but typically they can’t grant permission to paint on a building; it’s always the best for our work if the final okay comes from the building owner,” added Lehman, who has often had to navigate and negotiate getting those permissions as the lead organizer for the group.
Getting that buy-in from the owner and the resident businesses or at least most of the residents in the building is important.
“They’ll be living with that artwork on a day-to-day basis,” Lehman said. “We want them to be excited to talk about the artwork and be champions for both the mural and the work we’re doing.”
In moving forward for any community, figuring out the zoning regulations that would apply is an important step. This could regulate what can or can’t go into an area more explicitly Lehman said.
“Where strict zoning regulations are in place this could then move a mural more into a “design by committee” scenario,” Lehman said. “There’s a risk in diluting the artist’s intentions for the work and can often result in something a bit less impactful than what might have been possible.”
Lehman said it’s also important to note that there are two types of mural interactions. The first is when an artist has a very specific message or vision for their mural. The other is a more interactive approach driven by the community and guided by the artist. For the latter, he said those projects often take much longer, and are often best suited for resident artists.
“Be it those who live in the city they are working or those who have a residency opportunity to be able to do more workshops with the community,” Lehman said. “Both are wonderful additions to a community and the visual environment, but both are very different workflows.”
Then there’s the funding, because public art does cost money. It would be unfair to put a dollar amount here, because there’s a lot of factors that go into the costs associated. Sure, there are people who paint to paint, but the benchmarks are all over the place. Supplies, lifts, scaffolding, ladders, travel, lodging and food are all things to consider. Then there’s the prep work that goes into the process, sketches, etc.
“You can even get into the cost of marketing, promotion, documentation of the process too, not to mention production managers and other staffing if it’s a bigger project “ Lehman added. “It all adds up if you were to actually pay for everything.”
And obviously, most importantly, there’s artist compensation.
Make no mistake, public art in Rochester has been successful because of the scrappy can-do attitudes and shoestring budgeting of the artists, and organizations like WALL\THERAPY.
You’d be surprised what a community is willing to do for public art. Last Fall when Darius Dennis, Jared Diaz, Ephraim Gebre and Daniel Harrington wanted to paint a 3,000-square-foot photo-realistic mural in Rochester of the late Rep. John Lewis, based on a 1963 photograph by civil rights chronicler Danny Lyon, they turned to the community to help raise funds. Through crowdfunding, they were able to raise over $20,000 for the project. Community members even signed up to bring the crew lunch daily, and on cold days people would show up with coffee, tea or hot cocoa. Many came out to just stand in the parking lot in awe of the work they were creating.
“We feel so privileged to receive these opportunities to create engaging work for all to interact with,” Dennis said about the mural located on State Street in Rochester. It’s the third installment of the I AM Series — with a mural in Chicago and one in Louisville by the group.
“When the museums are closed, the streets will always be open,” Dennis added.
That’s the power of public art. It adds to the aesthetic and culture of a community, and has the ability to brighten a neighborhood, inspire its residents, educate, raise awareness, and can ultimately bring communities together.
Connecticut was home for a long time, and there will always be a special place in my heart for Waterbury. During the most recent visit, I stood under the ‘Greetings from Waterbury’ mural and remember thinking to myself, this city needs more of this. More bright walls. More vivid art. More public pieces. More opportunities to embrace public art.
So, what do you think Waterbury? Are you up for the challenge? Are you willing to look beyond the bricks and blank walls and transform those canvases, giving space for creatives to create? Are you willing to further engage the community through the wonders and power of public art?
I believe every fully functioning and healthy community needs space for public art, because it’s about quality of life.
Well Waterbury, are you ready? I think it’s time for my hometown to fully join the party.
This feature appears in the 2021 issue of The Waterbury Observer’s City Guide, Waterbury, Connecticut. Quajay Donnell is a Rochester, New York based photographer with a passion for public art. Follow him on twitter @ quajay