Julia Montag: The value of public art

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 4:39pm

“You’re supposed to make more of what you wish you saw — what’s missing from the visual art conversation in this moment,” Pat Perry, the artist of the new mural on the North side of Grizzly Peak on South Ashley Street, said in an interview with the Daily. The painting adds value to downtown Ann Arbor, a value that is explained better with walls than words.

Public art is anything that enhances our environment by breaking the pattern of blandness and is a resource that is freely accessible. Public art is a sign of the times, reflecting neighborhoods’ histories and cultures while simultaneously recording them. Most simply, public art adorns blank community spaces with colorful conversation starters.

“We can’t wonder why people feel gray when gray is all people see,” Perry argued. Public art makes us unconsciously conscious of beauty.

The Ann Arbor Art Center, on behalf of local real estate development company 3 Missioncommissioned Perry to promote public art experiences as part of their new Art in Public initiative. The downtown space, previously overwhelmed with faded brick and chipped paint, now depicts a scenic Michigan landscape as a backdrop for a man watching an incoming storm. Perry rejects a didactic narrative—I asked and it is not a self-portrait—and intentionally leaves the message open for us to interpret using our own perspectives.

“Part of the idea is that (the Ann Arbor Art Center) wanted something accessible, universal and something that encourages more public art; something for people that aren’t proactively consuming contemporary art on a regular basis”  Perry said.

This is how art in a public space differs from art on canvas; it’s seen by everyone, not just by those with a pre-existing interest in the arts

“People that are taking the bus, driving by to work, in the bank across the street. Making something accessible to them means a lot to me," Perry reflected. 

A mural’s design warrants careful consideration. With no way of ensuring that his message will resonate positively with everybody, Perry reflected extensively on how his experiences varied from those of the Ann Arbor folk who would eventually view his work. He had been wanting to paint his home state’s scenery for quite a while and decided on a meditative landscape to see how something outside of political topics would be received.

In Ann Arbor, one can spend a whole day and, without spending a dollar, enjoy the countless displays of art in the public realm. On East Liberty Street, a there’s an alley of graffiti that lets artists leave their mark. At the end of October, international art movement “Literature vs. Traffic” paved part of East Liberty street with thousands of discarded books and light displays. On Saturdays, Western Michigan student Ahmid plays classical saxophone on the corner of East Liberty and Maynard streets. He will continue to play until his fingers can no longer stand the winter weather.

Perry hopes the new painting will encourage an art trend in Ann Arbor and recognized Detroit has already caught wind of the creative movement. Through community programs like Summer in the City Detroit, art is being skillfully sowed in the community’s roots. Established in 2002, the volunteer program gathers locals and assembles activities — themed play, plant or paint — where volunteers run daycares, plant gardens or paint murals.

Alexandra Isabel, a returning volunteer in the paint division, painted flowers on a shipping container, repurposing the eyesore into a shed for the local garden. She talks about her summers in Detroit with pride and sports her Converse that got covered in paint drips just as boldly as the brick walls in Detroit flaunt their murals. According to Isabel, buildings volunteer their space and sponsors provide the paint.

“(The murals) are for everyone. Yes, the ones at schools are mostly for kids, but if walls are painted, they won’t get graffitied. A blank wall is going to get tagged," Isabel said.

Alexandra’s energy in Detroit is manifesting across the country, as reflected by efforts in St. Louis and Charleston, W.Va., to keep the growing cities vibrant and dynamic and make them more unique places to live.

Public displays of art are often symbols that represent inarticuable messages. Art has a fundamental grip that holds us all together, allowing movements to unfold across countries and languages. Love is in the Bin, better known as Banksy’s shredded Balloon Girl  epitomizes the artist’s intended satire in London. Meanwhile, in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, our very own Pat Perry worked with refugees to paint flags of peace and tolerance. He’ll be returning to the Middle East this spring.

Throughout our entire conversation about his mural, Perry only mentioned one complaint about the project: “It was very cold when I was painting.”

Daylight savings gave us an extra hour. Use it wisely, appreciate art. As a friendly reminder, you do need permission to paint in a public space.

Julia Montag can be reached at jtmon@umich.edu.