The Fine Art of Street Art
There was a time, not long ago, when street art was believed to be the work of derelicts, unruly hooligans with a clear disrespect for the city in which they lived. This is an unfair generalization.
The works of these artisans are breathtaking in their own right. But they also often bring communities together and shine a light on larger issues that stretch beyond their city’s borders. Below, two organizations offer an inside look into their investment in street art, the impact they have and the legacy they will leave.
Investing in a Creative Community | ArtWorks
ArtWorks, a nonprofit organization in Cincinnati, Ohio, invests in creativity. Founded in 1996, it employs and trains local artists to create art and impact the community through three programming areas: public art, art therapy and entrepreneurships.
It contributes more than $800,000 in wages to youth and professional artists annually. “We accomplish this through murals, sculptural installations, vinyl applications, photography and film, light-based art, performative work, entrepreneurship, and superhero capes for children experiencing emotional and physical challenges,” says Cori Wolff, the director of programs at ArtWorks.
The mural program, established in 2007, is arguably the activity for which the organization is best known. ArtWorks employs and trains 120 young artists (“apprentices”) between the ages of 14 and 21 each summer. They work with professional artists in creating murals throughout the Greater Cincinnati area. There is scarcely a district in that territory untouched by this initiative.
Julie Ustick, a teaching artist with ArtWorks since 2003, became a project manager on one of these murals in 2008. “I’m particularly keen on supporting young and emerging artists as they gain experience and take on ambitious projects,” she says. “Working with apprentices is one of the most incredible facets of these projects. There’s nothing like completing a large mural and then standing back to look at your work, knowing that it will be in your community for decades to come.”
The murals are initiated in a variety of ways. A popular method is for the public to submit ideas on the ArtWorks website. “On average, we receive two to five submissions per week,” says Wolff.
The ArtWorks team reviews submissions and conducts preliminary conversations about scope, employment impact, budget, timeline, artistic vision and location. The nonprofit also invests in strategic initiatives and year-over-year partnerships that celebrate and reflect Cincinnati’s vibrant communities. Their aim is to address social issues and provide innovative opportunities for bold, contemporary and artist-driven work.
Once a decision is made based on a submission, the mural’s style, theme and color palette are determined through discussions and hands-on sessions with partners, neighborhood representatives and artists. “ArtWorks recruits youth apprentices (including more than 51 percent from low-income homes) from diverse communities to partake in enrichment from and implementation of the art under the guidance and mentorship of professional teaching artists,” explains Wolff. “Once the project is complete, the general public is invited to a celebratory dedication event.”
Josie Masset has been an apprentice for ArtWorks for four years. Her experience working with the organization has given her an even greater artistic purpose than she’d expected.
“I knew I wanted to work in the arts, but I felt like what I was producing lacked substance or meaning,” she says. “I never really expressed traditional emotions through my art. Working for ArtWorks, meeting professional artists both local and visiting, I’ve learned that art can be used to convey valuable messages, such as the value of human rights.”
The nonprofit’s murals, notes Wolff, have helped to cultivate “civic pride; reduce crime, vandalism and littering; develop an increased sense of safety; attract and retain talent; connect communities and encourage dialogue to build cultural understanding.” She adds, “The economic impact has been profound. ArtWorks remains the largest employer of artists in the region.”
And when reflecting on what ArtWorks has done for her career, Ustick says, “ArtWorks has put so much faith in me. And I have nothing but gratitude, pride and admiration for the work that we’ve done together in our community.”
That community outreach is expressed with sincerity by Masset, who speaks fondly about a project she worked on this past summer. “I worked on the Faces of Homelessness mural (above) on Vine Street. We met and spoke with people who had experienced or are experiencing homelessness in the area. It really changed my outlook on how I treat people. It taught me how kindness and openness is valued by everyone and how important it is to see people for who they are, not the issues they may be facing. I’ve never been so proud to work on a project, and nothing has ever been so meaningful to me as both an artist and a person.”
Promoting Art Interventions | The Portland Street Art Alliance
The Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA) is a nonprofit organization that promotes creative interventions in public spaces. “We engage the public by creating street art, documenting and promoting the history of street art and providing educational forums for community-building,” says PSAA’s president Tiffany Conklin. “We do murals, art installations, digital art design, guerrilla marketing campaigns, live painting, events and more.”
One of the newer projects is in the field of graffiti art. “In 2016 we started a rotating graffiti production called ‘The Alexis Walls,’” states Conklin. “We were approached by property owners who were tired of constantly buffing graffiti. They didn’t have a specific artist or any mural content in mind and seemed pretty open. So we proposed a deal with them.”
That deal was for the property owners to make a flat donation to PSAA in support of their mission. In return, the organization would adopt the wall and curate it — managing it for the next five years or until the building was sold. With a mural permit given to them by the city, they were ready and raring to go.
“It is a pretty unique and dynamic project because it showcases some of the finest Pacific Northwest artistic talents from the traditional graffiti world and the railroad/folk scene,” notes Conklin. “It is one of the first walls of its kind in the city. [And] it took us about two weeks to prep the walls (with community volunteers), paint the base coat and paint all the murals. This project is visible in the Central Eastside business community. And, we are now working with a larger team to enact an official mural district there.”
Community in Art
Like ArtWorks in Cincinnati, PSAA has a deep belief that art not only has the ability to beautify a city, but it can also bring the city together. “We’re a network of artists, academics and professionals who believe vibrant street art is an essential ingredient in building a unique, dynamic and playful city,” explains Conklin.
One way PSAA engages the city is by offering public and private street art tours. People can view the street art created by PSAA, visit active painting sites and have the opportunity to talk with artists.
Muralist Mado Hues became involved with PSAA after meeting the founders at an art show and helped out on their Sunnyside mural project. “The experience has definitely expanded my style by challenging me to create images that are out of my comfort zone,” says the artist. “It’s given me the opportunity to make my artistic expression a less personal process by collaborating with not only other artists but all sorts of people in the Portland community.”
In the last few years, Portland has received widespread acclaim for its artistic atmosphere. Conklin’s response to its increased popularity is that it’s long overdue.
“Portland is known for its quirky DIY mentality, progressive urban planning, bicycle-friendliness and livable neighborhoods,” she says. “Some of Portland’s best street art can be found in its major cultural centers like Alberta, Belmont, Hawthorne, Central Eastside and Mississippi. It could be argued that some of the allure of these neighborhoods and main streets is all the art! In Portland’s neighborhoods you can find art by internationally renowned artists, local legends and anonymous citizens. Portland is finally getting on the world map for having an amazing mural collection.”
Hues hopes people feel waves of optimism and joy when seeing the work PSAA delivers. “I hope it triggers their curiosity to learn about the history and existing communities in a neighborhood they may not be familiar with,” he says.
And he’s quick to express his thanks to those who help beautify local communities. “Public art is a way for any community to express their ideas to the world,” notes Hues. “And we need to keep those voices alive.”
This article first appeared in Artists Magazine. Want to subscribe? Learn more here.
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