The City of New Westminster’s Public Art Program has sent out another call for artists to contribute to the growing collection of public art, this time with photography-based installations. Teaming up with the Capture Photography Festival, the City will install in two locations, the first in the downtown area of New Westminster on the side of 350 Columbia Street and the second on the West wall of the Telus Mobility Store at 610 Sixth Street.
Artists and artist teams are invited to respond to the theme Traffic. Like we have nothing to say about Traffic in New Westminster, right? Artists are encouraged to submit a proposal that considers the concept of traffic and its different interpretations.
Biliana Velkova, the Arts Coordinator for the City of New Westminster says, “The theme explores the concept of traffic in a more abstract and intangible way. It could speak to vehicular traffic, yes, but it is open to ideas around digital traffic, movement of communication, internet traffic, etc.” The Public Art Advisory Committee generated this theme because of the location and purpose of the buildings where the art will be installed. The building on 6th Street belongs to TELUS, which is a signifier of communication and digital traffic, while the building on 350 Columbia looks over the Fraser River and Columbia Street, which signifies traffic of goods and people.
Two artists or artist teams will be selected for this opportunity. Each artist or artist team will receive an artist fee of $3000.00 CAD to produce one or more print-ready digital artwork files. Each will take the form of a temporary (at least a year), large-scale photo installation. This project will provide a point of access to art and photography for all members of the public—from nearby residents and commuters, to those drawn from outside the area by the local arts and culture scene.
Velkova says she is getting a great response from potential applicants – as far away as Toronto and many local artists, as well. The deadline is December 2, so there is still time. (For the full guidelines, see here. City of New Westminster staff, members of the City of New Westminster Public Art Advisory Committee and jury panel members are not eligible to apply.) The jury will be comprised of a curator from Capture, a local arts professional, a member of the Public Art Advisory Committee, a member of each the Downtown BIA and the Uptown BIA, and a public art artist.
“Public art brings an identity to a place and animates the public realm in a creative and critical way,” says Velkova. “It is a fantastic way to start to get people to pay attention to otherwise ignored spaces. It creates placemaking, makes people slow down, encourages tourism and increase of foot traffic.”
“My dream is to be able to take a bicycle tour of public art.”
~Biliana Velkova, Arts Coordinator for Cultural Services at Anvil Centre
Biliana Velkova’s excitement about public art is infectious. We are on the phone talking about public art initiatives and she is so keen to tell me about everything the City has going on that she can’t get the words out fast enough and I’m jotting notes down in probably the worst chicken scratch possible. We both hit a wall, laugh as we realize it, and pause to catch up.
Velkova explains that the city is about to embark on an arts renaissance, if you will. “There’s so many great things going on, it is a very exciting time right now.” Funding for public art comes from the Public Art Reserve Fund, a fund guided by a Public Art Policy developed and adopted in 2012 and through the guidance of the Public Arts Advisory Committee, chaired by local architect and public art fan, Eric Pattison.
Over the summer I have seen underappreciated spaces in New Westminster become increasingly more exciting, personalized and playful. Three new artworks that are contributing to what I last called the placemaking of our city’s public sites include the “Stop and Stare” portraits in the New West Skytrain station, the Eco-Art works in Moody Park, and the Columbia Street mural.
What ties these three works together is the involvement of members of our community in the initiation and process of creation. Each project allows residents and people who populate the space to gain a new perspective on our environment and how we might activate it in a positive and creative way. They teach us how derelict or underused spaces and materials around us can be given new life and interest.
Stop and Stare
In October 2012, Neal Michael called out to New Westies to help create a space of identity and playfulness by encouraging the creation of more Public Art in the unused spaces around us (read his blog here). Neal’s inspiration from the global InsideOut Project has brought about a series of pasted portraits that are now installed in the New Westminster Skytrain Station.
These portraits are not glamorous, colourful or glossy like the faces seen on nearby advertisements. These are akin to small concert posters or personal ads sloshed up along the temporary plywood walls. This immediate use of materials does not take anything away from the Public Art Project: if anything it only separates it further from something that might sell to our desires. It confronts us with its jarring difference. Taking a walk on the concourse level, you might come face to face with a black and white blow up of a familiar face: there are no models here, only community members. This is a series that maps New West as a place built by people, and it presses these very human faces (some passport deadpan, some silly) toward us as an exclamation of tangible civic identity.
Eco Art in Moody Park
Before I came to New Westminster, I was involved in community art in Vancouver with a few projects and initiatives. I have always felt the power of open participation and the importance of engaging everyone in some form of the creative process. It was in one of these initiatives that I first experienced the work of Sharon Kallis, an environmentally responsible Vancouver artist who utilizes many techniques in weaving unwanted plant materials into ephemeral art installations. I remember the revelation I had in seeing the results of her facilitation in the expert weaving of the terribly invasive English Ivy and Yellow Flag Iris that plagues natural spaces in the GVRD. Her work with the Urban Weaver Project in 2012 allowed community members, First Nations and artists to learn traditional methods of weaving plant materials through the Vancouver Park Board’s Fieldhouse Residency. Kallis and her peers had pulled invasives from a site, processed them by hand and shaped them into something beautiful and temporary: from bowls, to walls, to fluid forms. This functioned as a remediation of an environment on several levels: an opportunity to allow space for native plant species to root, and an opportunity for people in that space to see the creative potential of waste.
After a public presentation in June, Kallis and organizers Corbin Murdoch (Public Arts Coordinator) and Shelly Schnee (Recreation Programmer at Century House) delicately steered and guided five groups of New Westminster community members over two months in the creation of their own Eco-Art installations. Kallis has commented on her work as a facilitating artist to this group: “I have to say how impressed I was at the quality of work and level of professionalism everyone brought to both the pitch session and the final works created. One of the participants referred to another in her group as being the ‘real artist’ and I gently corrected her, reminding her that she was now working as an artist, with perhaps a more senior artist as collaborator… [what an] incredible opportunity for someone to have as their first steps into the art world!” Her description of this collaborative creative process as a learning opportunity for any person, regardless of their skill level or professionalism is a major component of this type of work where process is as critical as the end result. The people who create the work are shaped by this process, just as they manipulate their materials that are in turn re-shaped by the natural process of decay. After the public reception for the project last weekend on the south side of Moody Park, the artist-facilitator congratulated our city on this exciting step further into the realm of community-based Eco Art: “I hope this is just the beginning to what could become a strong tradition for New Westminster parks and community members! What a treat to get to play a part in it all.”
Columbia Street Mural
On the weekend of the New West Culture Crawl, the dull grey wall to the east of the Army and Navy on Columbia Street received some special treatment. Members of the community were invited out to help paint a mural designed by local artist Gillian Wright. While at a barbecue a man showed me photographs he had taken of his wife and one-and-a-half year old daughter leaving their mark, and it felt like a glimpse of a special heirloom. This project, funded by a Vancouver Foundation neighbourhood small grant, is an example of what community members like Councillor Mary Trentadue and Nadine Nakagawa can do to with a sense of playfulness, some sleuthing into property ownership and a vision of how we might make our city into something more inclusive, creative, and enjoyable to walk through. So many New Westies will have stories to share about the day they left a painterly stamp on the prominent wall.
I know in my walks past these spaces that they are getting some notice. I know from colourful Instagram feeds that participants in community art are having fun. My hope is that these works are only the beginning and that they inspire others to start a project or think of other creative ways to utilize our public space. Small neighbourhood grants are a great way to execute ideas for improving spaces that need love. Even ideas can be shared with the city: If you see a space that looks like it might be ripe for some artistic interference you can always recommend them to the city or send them my way to share with the Public Art Advisory Committee.
If you’ve ever heard the term “place-making”, you’ll recognize that this is a process that is in full swing in New Westminster. The careful redesigning of public space in our little city offers opportunities to actively participate in a dynamic growing culture and history, simply by getting out and walking the streets and riverfront.
Art is a funny beast. Viewed in defined “art-appropriate” spaces – think hotels, building lobbies, hospitals, cafés and galleries, there are few styles, works or mediums that we don’t appreciate. From contemporary painting, large-scale black and white photography, avant-garde sculptures and mixed-media work, to hard to interpret audio pieces, we accept it as art, as something that is inherently good for us to be surrounded by – even when we don’t understand it.
As artist Martyn Reed of Stavanger, Norway said in an interview about public art with Juxtapoz magazine, “Art, on a philosophical level, even academically, is good for people; it improves the quality of people’s lives, which is why we put art classes in prisons; we have art in hospitals because it makes people’s lives better, it’s present in pre-op and in every ward, there are pictures. Everyone believes this, you don’t get people saying, ‘It doesn’t improve the quality of people’s lives.’”
Yet despite the positive and emotional connection many of us have towards art, we neglect how important the context in which we perceive it truly is. Viewed outside the confines of its regular context, we lose that same openness and acceptance of the quirky, hard to understand or strange. The vibrant club poster stapled to a telephone pole is no longer an ink print, but a nuisance. The series of wheat paste concert posters is no longer pop-art, but vandalism. The large-scale photographs stuck to a blank wall, they too cease to be considered art.
Public art or art created in and for the public sphere gets a bad rap. It can polarize a cohesive community into those who are up for a bit of whimsy in the public domain and those who are vehemently opposed to it. Of the diverse forms of public art, few are as vilified as graffiti. For many, the mere mention of the word invokes images of hastily spray-painted train cars, or sprawling script along vacant walls. Graffiti is akin to neighborhood blight.
And while in some cases graffiti does represent a lack of respect for a place, there is the flipside of the graffiti spectrum. Street artists and residents collaborating painstakingly over a period of hours or days, to create art for the betterment, interest and enjoyment of the community in which they reside.
This role of community generated public art or graffiti as social and economic tool is not often talked about, but can have a huge impact on a city. In an open letter to the mayor of Stockton, California – a fledgling city on the verge of bankruptcy, M. Revelli the editor of art magazine Juxtapoz, cites examples of Stavanger, Norway, Bristol, United Kingdom and New Orleans as examples of cities that have embraced an attitude of tolerance and openness to public art and are reaping the benefits of dollars spent in their cities. The influx of money to the city comes in the name of tourism as curious locals, art enthusiasts, bloggers and others in the art world travel to experience the works in these cities.
Another such city that has embraced graffiti and public art as civic tools is the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In that city, well-known street artist Steve Powers, completed Love Letter, a series of murals along the elevated subway line to help give a sense of pride to residents from the different neighborhoods in which the murals were installed.
Discussing his experience in Philadelphia to Juxtapoz magazine, Powers explains, “Nobody saw any benefit of the project for their neighborhood. Once we got to painting and people saw the results, they got excited about their neighborhood again. Everything has been great ever since. And when they see people coming by daily to take pictures, the equation becomes very apparent. More people coming to the area translated to more foot traffic, which translates to more businesses.”
In addition to the economic benefit to the local economy of embracing public art, the social benefit of a community creating, appreciating and discussing art is invaluable. In a unique public art project, French artist JR – winner of the prestigious TED Prize, had the idea to empower people and strengthen communities around the world by encouraging widespread participation in a global art project, The InsideOut Project.
Sourcing co-creators from around the world, individuals or groups upload black and white portraits of themselves that subsequently get turned into large-format posters (they’re big, very big) and returned to the individuals to be posted in their own community. Using only their face to share a message, JR’s wish is to inspire people from all over the world to indulge their inner artist, taking pride in their communities ultimately making them better more interesting places to live.
Closer to home, New West is in the midst of a civic renaissance of sorts. After years of slow growth, the city is adding a more diverse and interesting culinary component to its reputation as an affordable city with great quality of life, good transportation, loads of amenities and a strong sense of community. While the depth of offerings is still developing, people are now moving to, coming to and staying in New West because of its food offering. What would the impact be if New West added a dynamic public art component to its urban fabric – reclaiming vacant spaces and knitting a sense of surprise into our public spaces?
Imagine a collaborative series of murals along the back of the buildings that face the Skytrain, short-run sculpture installations in parks or other public spaces, art installations in vacant commercial storefronts or our own chapter of the InsideOut Project. If only our city had disused wall space, vacant lots, empty storefronts or large unused areas along the waterfront … hmmm.
While I’m no artist, I appreciate the arts –no matter where on the brow they may fall, and would like to see a greater sense of playfulness and surprise in our public spaces. I am interested in helping push New West towards being a city that embraces the economic and social potential of public art through an open attitude towards it. We need not strive to be an art capital, just a community of engaged citizens who embrace the potential of the arts and aren’t afraid of a more dynamic and whimsical public sphere.
As for those black and white portraits through the InsideOut Project, mine arrived in the mail a few weeks back and all I need to do now is paste it up. Group exhibitions are always better than solo efforts. Get in touch with me if you’re interested in a group effort or check out http://www.insideoutproject.net
At the foot of the staircase leading the Quay, there has long been a lonely brick-paved square that always seemed to attract ne’er-do-wells. This gap between the new Sally Ann and The Keg has been simply a place one passes through.
If you’ve been through the area more recently, you’ve probably noticed construction in the square, and a big sign announcing a pending ‘Hyack Square’ revitalization in the space. I always wondered just what was coming there, and today I found out (PDF link): it’s not just beautification but building the community focal point that the area has lacked for so long. The once-lonely square will become a summertime gathering place for families, with a children’s water feature and an amphitheatre for music and other outdoor performance.
Also included in the revitalization:
New decorative paving
Street furniture & lighting
Ornamental plantings & lawn areas
Parks & Rec is coordinating a summer performance series in the amphitheatre through July and August, and we’ll be sure to add the details to our event calendar when we know more.
The project is supposed to be completed by the end of May. The grand opening is set for June 20.