What does public art do for a community?
It’s beautiful, but that’s only the first part of the story. Following a piece of public art from planning to creation to maintenance, other aspects of the story emerge. It’s a story of passionate community members, creative advancement of social causes, and the journey that allows community members to express their identities through their environments.
Experts on healthy, happy communities contend that public art is an essential part of civic engagement and community improvement.
The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook makes the case that “cultural projects are not simply a luxury but play a fundamental role in reviving the fortunes and boosting the prospects of poor, minority, and other disadvantaged communities.”
This hypothesis is supported by years of research in the fields of sociology, public policy, and public health, some of which has been conducted right here in the Windy City.
Dr. Felton Earls, a Harvard professor of public health, conducted a fifteen-year study in neighborhoods across Chicago to study the environmental factors that affect the physical wellbeing of the inhabitants of different kinds of places.
His results showed that the most important influence on wellbeing from neighborhood to neighborhood was a factor he called “collective efficacy.” To Earls’s surprise, this factor topped wealth, access to healthcare, and crime levels in its power to determine quality of life.
Collective efficacy is “the capacity of people to act together on matters of common interest.” When collective efficacy is leveraged towards public art projects, the participants develop social capital by “cooperating, sharing, and seeking and finding shared goals, and by developing ties on a cultural level. These connections serve these communities well in their other endeavors - from economic development to civic participation to healthy living.”
Patricia Walsh is the public art programs manager for Americans for the Arts. In an article for the National Endowment for the Arts, she shared her most important lessons for a successful public art project. The first lesson was that the public comes first: “Community engagement is a key component to a successful public art project...it’s important to ensure that the community is providing input into the final outcome.”
During field work in San Jose, the importance of community input became clear for Walsh:
“… I remember cleaning graffiti from a beloved mosaic dog sculpture, and the outrage that the community felt from the damage done to the work. Typically, while working in the field few members of the public approached me, but during the time I spent cleaning that sculpture I had several community members come to me and express how upset they were about the damage. They told me about their experiences working with the artist and how they contributed pieces of porcelain and tile from their own homes for the mosaic.”
Walsh continues, “This type of dedication depicts the role that public art can play in the development of civic pride and care for one’s environment, and how the community’s engagement can help ensure the care of the artwork.”
The power of public art to reflect the identities of a community and draw attention to crucial matters of public interest is also clear here in Chicago, as well as the effects of the kind of public engagement Walsh experienced in San Jose.
Since the summer of 2020, Chicago artists have been creating increasing numbers of murals in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Near the Blue Line in Wicker Park, there’s an image of a Black man holding a sign that says “I AM A MAN.” This mural is based on a photograph from the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike from 1968. This strike, which sought fair labor practices and safety for Black sanitation workers, was the project with which Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his last days.
Today, as police brutality continues to endanger and dehumanize Black Americans, the message of this 1968 strike remains a rallying cry for basic safety and justice.
Artists like Darius Dennis, the leader of that mural project, are channeling the power of these iconic images into their art. In an interview with the Chicago Sun Times, Dennis said, “We’re having all of these heightened conversations about civil rights and humanitarian rights causes all over the world at the moment. It’s an opportunity to paint really big paintings - and maybe these are the things that should have been included in history books.”
Jared Diaz, who worked with Dennis on the “I AM A MAN” project, hopes that those who see the mural will be inspired to “own their role in fighting injustice.” Diaz told the Sun Times, “It feels very empowering and healing. To be able to replace some of that space with energy that says, ‘It doesn’t matter because we’re going to do something better,’ that’s healing.”
Walsh’s sentiments about the importance of community engagement with the art holds true for the inhabitants of the building where the mural is displayed.
The canvas for “I AM A MAN” is a condo building on Wicker Park Avenue. When Dennis asked the condo inhabitants if he could use the building for the mural, the answer was a unanimous “yes.”
Building resident Connor Kendall, who has been friends with Dennis since the two were in high school, told the Sun Times, “We hope the work serves as a reminder to the thousands of people taking the CTA every day of the problems still rampant today. As I turn the corner driving home each day, I have an immense amount of pride that we have some part of the messaging.”
When business owners boarded up windows to prevent looting, other artists took the opportunity to turn those boards into more art. At 79th Street and Cornell Avenue, South Loop street artist Rahmaan Statik collaborated on a “Black and Brown Unity” mural to celebrate the potential for collaboration and support between Black and Latinx communities.
One of Statik’s collaborators on the “Unity Mural,” Marquette Park artist Dred Ske, also made an artistic installation out of wooden boards at Ashland and Chicago in West Town, covering the boards with colorful fists and titled “Black Lives Matter.”
In order to preserve these more temporary examples of public art, Avondale resident Christina Brown co-founded Sounding Boards Chicago.
Brown’s goal was to collect these boards as businesses reopen and give them a long-term home in an exhibition. She wants to mobilize Chicagoans to preserve art and advance justice simultaneously.
She writes, “As creative people, it is our mission to use our resources and abilities in times such as these to promote justice, unity, and inspiration…. Sounding Boards are good listeners, they are constructive in their feedback, and, now, they are the plywood on your local storefronts!”
As she told the Sun Times, giving a more permanent home to this street art is all about “amplifying the voices of minorities… The message we’re really trying to send is just coming together and having this unification in Chicago, using this as a time for change and doing that through art.”
Sounding Boards Chicago is further proof of Patricia Walsh’s idea that continued community investment in a piece of public art is necessary for that art to stay powerful.
In fact, Christina Brown takes this precept one step further: she and Sounding Boards aren’t just maintaining public art in its original spaces, but dedicating separate yet still-accessible public spaces specifically to preserve that art and the legacy of its creators.
This trend of preserving and celebrating public art shows no signs of slowing down. Another Chicago organization has combined the push for more permanent public art with the benefits of bringing community members together for its creation: Green Star Movement.
Green Star Movement
Green Star Movement is dedicated to “changing the urban canvas” through mosaic mural projects that bring together students and community members to create public art together. These creations have a dual purpose: “This interactive process builds teamwork and self-esteem in participants and revitalizes urban neighborhoods.”
Since the organization was founded in 2005, they have provided more than 10,000 students with mural arts programming, and added their unique style to over 140 public spaces to date.
In an interview with Chicago Ideas, Erica Hawkinson, Green Star Movement’s Marketing and Operations Director, espoused the multiple community benefits of the program: “...participants of all ages benefit from the opportunity to be creative and build self-pride; community members are united through the collaborative process and develop a shared ownership of the space; and people from near and far can delight in seeing beautiful art cover the walls of schools, park buildings, underpasses, and more.”
Green Star Movement’s programming and methods are specifically designed to maximize collective efficacy.
According to the Creative Community Builder’s Handbook, there are five different ways that public art can harness and magnify a struggling community’s collective efficacy, and Green Star Movement embodies each one.
“Public space provides opportunity for people to meet and be exposed to a variety of neighbors… The art of promoting constructive interaction among people in public spaces has been nearly forgotten in many communities.”
William H. Whyte was a Princeton sociologist renowned for his pioneering studies of human behavior in urban settings. He concluded that “crowded, pedestrian-friendly, active public spaces are safer, more economically productive, and more conducive to healthy civic communities.” According to the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), 80% of the success of a public space is determined by its management, or “how the space is maintained and activities programmed.”
They also point out the power of artists to manage public spaces in ways that inspire their communities. As Hawkinson mentioned, Green Star Movement makes use of a variety of public spaces, and engages professional artists and volunteer community members to take common ownership of these spaces.
Green Star Movement offers the opportunity to learn about the creation of murals during private events and celebrations, but they also incorporate celebration into all of their public projects.
After the completion of each project, the community celebrates with a mural unveiling, giving each participant an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve accomplished, and involving the entire community in celebrating their new piece of public art.
According to PPS, “Including young people as meaningful contributors in the social and economic aspects of community building must not be overlooked and cannot be left to schools and parents alone.”
A focus on children also mobilizes more adult participants to improve their communities. Research in civic engagement conducted by the League of Women Voters found that “Issues related to children, including mentoring and coaching, and education are those most likely to mobilize the untapped reservoir of volunteers.”
In Green Star Movement’s school programs, teaching artists guide students through the entire process of creating the art project, from design and preparation to installation.
Their involvement of students extends beyond the artistic as well: the organization is passionate about the intersection between artistic projects and other educational opportunities, citing the link between engagement in art and success in STEM subjects: “Art can help rekindle the interest in STEM disciplines of students who are more art-oriented by providing occasions to connect learning with self-expressive pleasure and by providing opportunities for all students to feel successful.”
“When people become involved in the design, creation, and upkeep of places, they develop a vested interest in using and maintaining these places. When they have a true sense of ‘ownership’ or connection to the places they frequent, the community becomes a better place to live, work, and visit. The residents’ feelings of respect and responsibility to the place bonds them to that place and to each other.”
At the beginning of each project, youth and community members get to decide which themes are most meaningful to them: hope, justice, diversity. After deciding on their focus through group discussion, they learn the mechanics of creating the mural together, work together to bring their plans to fruition, and then celebrate together when it’s complete.
Because Green Star Movement involves the community in every aspect of the creation of the murals, the sense of ownership community members feel has multiple opportunities to grow and deepen.
“From community to community across the United States, professional arts organizations have grown up where voluntary groups once stood. This trend has severed the practice and experience of the arts from day-to-day life.
Participation in cultural activities (as opposed to spectatorship) connects people to each other and to their community institutions, providing pathways to other forms of participation. Thus, arts and culture can create opportunities for political expression, community dialogue, shared cultural experiences, and civic work.”
Although Green Star also teaches the fundamentals of painting, sculpture, and photography, their primary focus is on mosaic murals.
This encourages the broadest participation possible, and makes it easier for the community to maintain once the artwork is complete: “It is an art form that is accessible for all ages and abilities, meaning that participants can experience ‘success’ as an artist relatively quickly. It is durable and resistant to vandalization, making it a good choice for public art. And finally, the mix of texture, shapes, materials and colors produces a feast for the eyes.”
Through these strategic choices, Green Star Movement empowers its participants to be both creators and stewards of local art, allowing the communities they work with to yield all the benefits that public art can provide.
Anyone who sees a Green Star mosaic mural can be struck by its beauty. Anyone who had a hand in creating it will be able to see the collaboration and love that made it possible.
To find other Black Lives Matter murals and other examples of public art, check out the Chicago Mural Registry.
At Conquer Life, our goal is to build a community that celebrates those who work hard and follow their passion, to remind each of us that we have the power to do the same. To inspire, motivate, and empower.
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Image credit: Green Star Movement mosaic mural, photographed by Ji Sang Yun