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Art lends heart to public places

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2011 - In 1978, when Chuck Groth lived in Kansas City, he thought the idea of the artist Christo wrapping Loose Park in fabric was downright silly.

But after walking among the more than two miles of bright yellow ribbons flowing through the park, the graphic arts designer and educator was enchanted.

"It was incredibly magical," Groth said.

Now living in St. Louis, Groth has many favorite pieces of local "public art," a term defined as art that is generally accessible to the public, often but not always outdoors. His picks range from the city-defining Arch to Bob Cassilly's tucked-away-at-the-zoo, open-mouthed "Baboon" which also serves as a donation box.

"The space around us can enrich us or diminish us, but if we take the effort to engage those spaces with art, it encourages us to gather in a different way and gives us a different interpretation of the space," said Groth, an associate professor in graphic communications at St. Louis Community College at Meramec.

New Clayton Sculpture Signifies Community

At a time when spring flowers are emerging, a new piece of public art is set to surface in Clayton on Tuesday, May 3.

A crane will lift and place the nearly 1,000-pound, 12-foot long, bronze "Uzumaki Curve," the first sculpture by Seattle artist Gerard Tsutakawa to be installed in the Midwest. The design plays off a collection of curves in the Crescent Plaza area, which includes the Ritz Carlton Hotel. A sense of a neighborhood moved Tsutakawa to include the word "uzmaki," Japanese for "community" in the title.

Visiting the site during the building's construction provided not just ideas but also an assessment of practical considerations.

"A public artwork involves many design challenges, some of which are: interaction with the audience such as safety, durability, accessibility and placement in varied environments," Tsutakawa said in an email.

Art consultant Faith Berger, who oversaw the development of the piece, explained that public art serves to draw people, including customers, to a particular area.

"It's similar to when you go to a museum, and after you leave, you say, 'I really want to see that piece again,'" Berger said.

Who Pays For Public Art?

To fulfill a 10-year-old Clayton planning and zoning requirement, "Uzumaki Curve" was financed by MK&C Crescent LLC, the builder of The Crescent. The way it works is that developers of large projects contribute some sort of public project -- usually art -- in exchange for the waiver of certain zoning requirements, such as set-back distance or building height.

"It's added greatly to the city stock of public art pieces," said Jason Jaggi, senior planner for city of Clayton.

Often, though, out-in-the-open artwork is funded by other means, according to Roseann Weiss, director of community art programs with the Regional Arts Commission (RAC).

"It's usually cobbled together in some way, like most art projects, usually with some public funding, if there is any, and some private donations," Weiss said.

Last year, St. Louis city joined 225 cities and counties around the nation to approve a percent-for-art program, which sets aside a portion (1 percent in St. Louis) of qualified new building construction budgets for public art, effective July 2012.

"There's not a lot of building going on in St. Louis so there is not a lot of funds, but it's a start," Weiss said.

Commission and installation aren't the only expenses. Maintenance and restoration costs must also be built into the price tag.

Recently an art project paid for by Lambert Airport renovation funds came close to needing major repair just 24 hours after it was in place. Fortunately, a Thursday, April 21, installation date for the tryptic glass panels ("Slipstream" by William LaChance) between walkways and holding rooms was postponed. That spared the works from certain destruction when a tornado tore through the airport the next evening, according to Meridith McKinley of the Via Partnership, which advises the airport and other entities on matters of public art.

"I'm giving everyone at Lambert a little while to get things back to a semblance of normal before I start bugging them about installation plans," McKinley said in an email.

The work will be unveiled at Lambert at 9:45 a.m. May 6.

McKinley said a business doesn't have to be as large as the airport or as wealthy as Clayton to have a public art plan. She's currently working on a small scale with planners in the Grove area to develop a vision.

"Having strategy that says, 'This is what we want to do,' can make it easier for them to approach funders and foundations to get grants," McKinley said in an interview.

Students In The Picture

In the city of Chesterfield, low-cost public art is beautifying the area while giving young people and others a creative outlet. This year's Make Your Mark mural project involves 68 students in grades eight through 12 in painting a 550-foot flood wall at Baxter Road and Edison Boulevard.

It's a paint-by-numbers project created by the students and supervised by Chesterfield Arts, according to Nicole Dutton, the organization's associate director. Truly deepening the definition of public art, the public is invited to pitch in from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 4

"You may be handed a can of 'number three' paint, so you find all the number threes and you paint them," Dutton said. "We could have looked at it and said let's get an actual artist to paint on that, but we wanted to make it something more."

Teen artists are also responsible for a giant pair of downturned baby blues eyeing the area on Olive Street near Vandeventer Avenue in St. Louis. The 2010 mural was created graffiti-style, using stencils, by a select group of 20 students involved in the Contemporary Art Museum's New Art in the Neighborhood program on a boarded-up building.

CAM's museum educator Tuan Nguyen secured permission from building owner Grand Center arts and entertainment district and asked local street artist Peat Wollager to work with the students on the project. Wollager suggested that they create their vision of the future to which he would add his trademark eyes.

"Some students did patterns based upon mathematics, some chose visions of city, some were doing sort of random absurd images to signify the randomness of the future," Nguyen said.

That kind of artwork that graces public buildings was a source of inspiration for Ericka Evans as a young child. Growing up in University City and St. Louis, Evans was riveted to such public displays of creativity.

"I think it's extremely important," Evans said. "I remember being amazed by a mural of a sunny sky at Page and Hamilton. You look at the art and you know that other people are worried about you and thinking about you."

To find out more about what goes into the process of selecting and paying for public art, view the RAC's list of frequently asked questions, available at www.art-stl.com/assets/pdfs/PublicArtGuide.PDF .

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.