8/8/2013 - The structure at Field’s Grove in Nashua looks like the playground version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” — the steps are painted with swirling blue and purple winds and the blue climbing net is splashed with bright yellow to make a star-kissed sky.
Positive Street Art’s original intention in painting the playground was to cover the vandalistic “tags” that cluttered the equipment while inviting the community to create something beautiful. The nonprofit did similar work in Nashua last summer, painting the blue, yellow and purple mural behind Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street and the mural of a young girl on Ash Street this spring.
But, as PSA founders Manny Ramirez and Cecilia Ulibarri, and really, any public art advocate will tell you, it’s not just about covering up the ugliness.
“Public art personalizes a city. It brings the community together, not only in creating it, but its effect makes people smile,” said Barbara Pressly, Nashua alderman at large.
Its effect can also create positive change; Lance Quenneville, a street artist in Manchester, used to be what you’d call a “tagger,” or as Eagle Eyes advocate Anthony Williams put it, “an under-the-bridge kid.” But once he became involved with Eagle Eyes, he opted instead to create commission-driven mural art.
Arts have long been linked with economic growth of a city, but lots of advocates argue that public art, specifically, can make a city a more desirable place to visit, to start a business — and to live. Ramirez says that whenever he’s painting a mural in Nashua, he’s constantly stopping to talk with curious and interested passersby.
So if public art is good for a community, why isn’t there more of it here?
Good for the city, good for the soul
Public art can take many different forms, but for the purposes of this story, we’re looking at visual art that the community is involved in making, is funded by the community and/or is in a public place.
As a firm believer that public art builds communities, Monica Leap, owner of Studio 550 in Manchester, wants to see more of it in Manchester. She wrote an entire graduate thesis based on this premise (specifically, how art and transportation can augment one another).
“It does a lot for a city,” Leap said in an interview at her studio. “For one, it builds community pride … especially if you get the people who are living in the neighborhood community involved in either making it, designing it or painting it.”
Then there’s the idea of beautifying a city and giving it character. Many American cities bigger than Manchester or Nashua have gone to great lengths in doing this; Philadelphia, specifically, was mentioned by multiple people in multiple interviews as a forerunner in the vandalism-to-art movement, and is one of the prime examples of what public art can look like when the community rallies behind it. (The murals are breathtaking; check out explorer.muralarts.org or muralarts.org to see images of the art and the stories behind them.)
“Public art can also be a way for the city to embrace its culture or history,” Leap said.
A couple of upcoming projects will do just that. The West Pearl Street Mural Project, a 40-foot by 35-foot full-color historic mural on the side of 83 W. Pearl St., will picture a view of Nashua in 1909. The 2013 Nashua Sculpture Symposium’s three sculptures by South American sculptors will be placed in Latino neighborhoods near the Ledge Street School, on Pine Street and at the corner of Ledge and Pine streets.
Leap said public art can also be a method of “way-finding,” she said, a device to brand a neighborhood or a city. The Currier, for instance, is the building with the large red sculpture in front of it. To find the place where the Piscataquog Trail meets the Riverwalk Trail, look for the big bull sculpture.
Carol Eyman, outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library, says that public sculptures are especially memorable for children. The Nashua Public Library’s grounds contain six sculptures, and more than the building itself or its surrounding topography, kids will remember that the library is the “building with the turtle sculpture out front.”
“Often, that’s the type of thing that sticks in their mind. … Those things are so much larger than life from a child’s perspective and can be really memorable for them,” Eyman said in a phone interview.
Open invitation to paint
In New Hampshire right now, there seem to be two categories of public visual art. One train of thought is to commission professional artists to create original works to be displayed around the city. This is in the form of sculptures, murals or, in Concord’s case, a city’s architecture. These installations usually mean big bucks, which might involve private donations, fundraising or state money.
The other is less expensive but controversial in its own sense: mural and graffiti art that invites community member participation, particularly youth.
When Ulibarri and Ramirez formed Positive Street Art in 2011, they said, Nashua did have a decent public art scene, but it was more traditional.
“We wanted to bring something different,” Ulibarri said. “Bigger cities have more of that urban art feel to it. That was more of our style.”
The bigger question for Ulibarri and Ramirez was this: how could they do this while having community members embrace them? For Ulibarri, the answer came from her son, Anthony. He’d regularly ask if, while she was painting, he might paint with her.
“I thought, if he’s interested and inspired by painting, other kids might want to do the same thing,” Ulibarri said. So, they started by reaching out to different youth groups in the city.
Their first mural was on the Dunkin’ Donuts building in downtown Nashua.
“We were really excited to do that. It was our first main mural, and it’s highly visible in the city. … We got a huge hit of responses, all positive,” Ulibarri said.
People began asking if PSA would paint their doors, their buildings and their playgrounds. This spring, PSA finished a mural along Nashua’s Heritage Trail that depicted a young girl squatting to pick tomatoes and blueberries, and this summer, the group decorated the playground at Field’s Grove Park. That project was also put together on request, this time by Sarah Roy, who partnered with PSA upon frustration at seeing spray-painted tags and vulgar messages written in Sharpie pens over the playground structure.
Most of the murals PSA creates include a community-devoted section, though in some murals, artists Ramirez and Ulibarri will outline the image for volunteers to fill in, almost like a coloring book.
“It’s about the experience of being part of the mural. … I think it’s great that people want to be a part of this,” Ramirez said in a phone interview.
PSA has also hosted programs and workshops with young artists that focus in developing artistic skills.
The other public art organization is Eagle Eyes, which is based in Manchester. Eagle Eyes was formed as a community watch group in 2006 after the murder of Officer Michael Briggs, but it soon turned into an organization to use art to cover vandalistic “tags” that cluttered downtown, specifically Litchfield Lane. If you’ve been down there recently, you’ve seen the result in the form of jungle, underwater animal and collage murals.
Though both groups have found good feedback, in some senses, they both are working to dispel the idea that street art and vandalism go hand in hand. Many artists might call what these groups do “graffiti art,” but the art itself is not graffiti in the traditional sense. The artists gain permission to paint, draw or design on a public surface. (And what’s more, they’re encouraged, even requested to do so.) The term “graffiti” in “graffiti art” simply relates to the style or street-side location of the art.
The term can be a bit confusing.
“When you say ‘graffiti,’ what comes to people’s mind is destruction. Sometimes the image is not what people respect. It’s not like saying that graffiti isn’t a legitimate form of artwork, because it is,” said Anthony Williams.
Williams has been heavily involved in promoting public art in downtown Manchester, having played a role in the organizing and painting of Cat Alley (it’s on Dean Avenue, right off Elm Street, created before the Palace Theatre’s rendition of CATS), and in a new group called Friends of Art Manchester, whose most recent project was a collaboration with New Horizons for New Hampshire and InTown Manchester that involved six artist-painted parking meters scattered around the city.
Founders of both Nashua and Manchester groups believe in and have seen the effects of involving community members in the work, particularly at-risk youth. In fact, they argue that involving these kids is key in preventing vandalism.
“People who don’t understand, they see the words ‘street art,’ and they see the word ‘positive,’ and they think, ‘How can you put those things together?’ Our goal is to show people that you can deter future vandals and also change the perception of urban art with youth and adults alike,” Ulibarri said.
The idea, which is echoed by Eagle Eyes founder Cheryl Mitchell and art project director Anthony Williams, is that getting kids involved early, kids who want to make their mark with art, can prevent these same kids from creating their art, instead, on private or city property.
“When you involve children on mural projects like this, they get to sign their names. It’s a totally different perspective,” Williams said.
There’s also a train of respect; on Litchfield Lane, anyway, taggers will deface around a mural, but they usually don’t touch the art itself. (Some murals and art projects — such as the one on the Field’s Grove Playground, specifically — also make certain surfaces more difficult to deface due to their design.)
Ulibarri is looking to expand PSA into a community service initiative, to have kids who get in trouble with vandalism, specifically, offer their time and artistic abilities to PSA.
“We want to work with courts in the future, to have kids work with us so that they might experience it [graffiti art] in a different way, to hopefully divert them from vandalizing again,” Ulibarri said. “Sometimes the community service they’re [troubled or at-risk kids] doing have nothing to do with what they got in trouble for. But if their punishment caters to why they got in trouble, it can change their perception of it.”
We want public art in our city
If only it were that simple!
Right now, there are many, many arts organizations in the state that are working to put public art in their downtowns. (And by that, we mean too many to name here.) Some have been more successful than others, in part because of the type of art (art installations, sculptures or murals done by commissioned, professional artists can be more expensive) and in part because of a town or city’s population and perception of art.
So how do you make it happen?
“I think you need a few different things,” Leap said. “First, you need the city to care. … Then there’s the policy aspect. You also need people to champion the effort. And, of course, you need the artists, and you need the community to buy in.”
PSA and Eagle Eyes haven’t had to deal with many policy issues just yet. They’d received requests or oral permission before they began working on most of their work. The only big projects that required formal permission were the Field’s Grove and Heritage Trail projects.
“Most of them [the murals] are on or through privately owned businesses, but if they are part-owned by the city, the city has to give some of their approval,” Ulibarri said.
The tricky part comes in when you’re commissioning (and paying) professional artists to build permanent art to be installed within the city. The Manchester Arts Commission has installed five sculptures in the city (“Crosswalk” at the intersection of Granite and Old Depot streets, and “Vivace” in front of the Verizon are two) and commissioned at least one mural (Cat Alley). MAC pays for sculptures through the art fund that comes from the proceeds of the “Art on the Wall at City Hall” gallery exhibition (artists show their work here every two months for a small fee) and from private donations. Their meetings are public, and occur on the second Monday of every month from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at City Hall.
“Anyone can come to us with ideas,” said Becky O’Neil, chair of the Manchester Arts Commission. Once a project is settled upon (or at least brainstormed upon), MAC’s job is to secure a piece of property for the work, which can be quite tricky if you’re working with sculptures or really large murals.
“Then we put out a call for artists, and then we jury it,” O’Neil said. “It sounds simple, but it’s a long process. … And it’s not cheap.”
MAC often has to work through the Parks Department, the Economic Development Department and the City of Manchester during this process.
Besides finding permission, space and artists, there might be costs you don’t think of. Judith Carlson says that it’s going to cost about $35,000 to paint the West Pearl Street Mural. Part of this goes toward the artist’s pay, part for the paint (the mural is going to be huge), but in addition, there are costs you might not even think about, like liability insurance. City Arts Nashua is also installing a drip edge along the roof line so that water won’t drip on the art and a protection base near the bottom so that drivers don’t park too close (and thus crack the mason area of the wall).
That’s not to say that there aren’t inexpensive ways to do it. For paint jobs, anyway, creating public art can be inexpensive. Leap sees the city of Manchester brimming with new possibilities for public art: vacant storefronts, electrical boxes, Public Service of New Hampshire boxes and storm drains are all artistic opportunities, she said. Businesses are often interested in sponsoring projects like this (Dunkin’ Donuts helped PSA with its mural).
“I think it’s way more cost-effective to paint things like that. … It’s just a couple of gallons of paint and artists’ time. … It’s just a matter of getting everyone on the table. You can make it not as expensive,” she said.
Those who pay attention to art trends in New Hampshire might know that the arts play a significant role in our economy; not for the first time, the state participated in a national study of the economic impact the arts has, as prepared by Americans for the Arts. The findings show that the arts produce millions of dollars in economic activity ($115.1 in 2011) and full-time jobs (3,493, also in 2011; more informationn available at nh.gov/nharts).
Though those interviewed knew of no official studies relating to public art in New Hampshire, specifically, many indicated that public art made a town or city a more desirable place to live.
“The Manchester arts scene is certainly a considerable economic drive,” said Will Stewart, vice president of Economic Development and Advocacy in the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. “I think it [public art] has a very positive impact on a city for residents and visitors. You go to any world-class city, and what do you see? You see public art, whether in the form of statues, sculptures or other media … I think that public art is a signal that a city is cultured and sophisticated.”
An attractive city filled with arts and culture is also, traditionally, a place where businesses will want to start up or move to, Stewart said. They want art outside their business (check out the new mural by NHIA students outside of Firefly) and they want art inside their business (Dyn also commissioned NHIA students to paint New Hampshire golf course-inspired murals, which you can read about in our “Local Color” section).
It’s why Concord is looking to incorporate this in its “Complete Streets” project, said Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce and member of Creative Concord. The project aims to widen sidewalks and improve pedestrian friendliness, which, in return, he says can contribute to more visitor spending.
“One of the components [in the “Complete Streets” project] is incorporating more public art in the downtown area,” Sink said. “The intention is to make downtown more of a destination, not just a place where people are making quick errands, but a place where people want to spend more time. By including more public art, you’re accomplishing that goal. It just makes for a more pleasant place to be.”
Judith Carlson, who’s organizing the West Pearl Street Mural Project in Nashua, says that public art shows that residents care about the city.
“When people see public art, they relate not only to the art, but to the fact that the place where the art ‘lives’ is cared for by its residents, and therefore looks and feels like a safe place to be. … People want to live in an environment that has a heart and soul,” Carlson said.
The future of public visual art
At last weekend’s PSA gathering to celebrate the Field’s Grove artistically painted playground, neighborhood kids climbed, slid down and jumped on the colorful equipment. Kids like 7-year-old Kaden Sund, were happy with the design — he liked the colors and the bumpy steps. The kids who helped paint, like Anthony Ulibarri, were proud.
Parent Joy Bennett was also pleased; Bennett decided at the event she was going to take her daughter Bridgette to the park more often, now that the structure isn’t covered in graffiti. (Three-year-old Bridgette likes the park because it’s purple.)
Manny Ramirez is thrilled and sort of surprised at how well PSA has been received over the past year and a half.
“[Residents] love the work we’ve created,” Ramirez said. “The city has been very embracing to this kind of art, and to us. … It’s a good feeling when you know you’ve done something that changes the way people think about something.”
What Nashua will look like in three, five years, Ulibarri and Ramirez aren’t sure; Ramirez says he’d be happy painting the whole town, while Ulibarri is hoping that, more than anything, Nashua will continue to embrace art.
Leap is hopeful for Manchester and other New Hampshire cities, too.
“I think that interest in it is growing. Public art in the community and being excited about the arts, I think, is this natural part of urban revitalization or any kind of urban renaissance,” Leap said.