One of the rewarding aspects of public art is how it sneaks up on you. You’ll be passively registering the usual urban landscape, the signs and buildings, when suddenly – Hey! A giant fluorescent spider!
“Sculpture Visions,” the town of Chapel Hill’s outdoor art exhibit, is in its eighth year of rotating in new annual surprises around town. It’s typical of other local public art programs. Raleigh, Durham and Cary all have similar initiatives, as do many smaller communities in the Triangle area.
But just where do these abstract wonders come from? And how do they get on Main Street or next to the swing sets at the park?
People and places
“It’s a lot of different people working together,” said public art coordinator Steve Wright, who oversees the hands-on logistics of a program that has grown from seven installations in 2004 to 10 this year. Each sculpture is displayed for 11 months, from October to the following September.
“Each year we get around 50 to 60 artists applying to exhibit their pieces,” Wright said. About three-quarters of participating artists are from North Carolina, with a focus on Triangle artists.
“But that other 25 percent can be from anywhere,” Wright said. “We’ve got artists this year from Florida and Connecticut.”
Once a committee of town officials, local artists and site representatives sets the lineup, planning and installation begin. Mounting the sculptures is another team effort involving administrators, public works crews and the artists themselves. “Often we’ll need to pour a cement pad that the piece will then be bolted to,” Wright said. “Or we have to plan around utility lines or underwater pipes.”
A site might have potential safety issues, too, Wright said. For instance, artist Adam Walls’ sculpture “Creepy Crawley” – that’s the fluorescent spider – is sited at Chapel Hill’s Community Center Park. “You basically have to assume that kids are going to be climbing on it,” Wright said.
“We take that into consideration in other places, too. When I say kids, sometimes we’re talking about UNC students.”
Art and context
One of this year’s most prominent sculptures raises issues about both the practical and the artistic concerns of placement. “Blind Faith,” by Julia Burr, is in the heart of Franklin Street district, across from the UNC campus. It depicts an elongated human figure astride a giant question mark.
Burr, who works from her home studio in Black Mountain, said the location – next to the courthouse building in Chapel Hill’s Peace & Justice Plaza – transformed the meaning of her work.
“When I made the piece, it was much more personal,” she said. “It was questioning this endeavor of making art for a living, and having blind faith in that. But installing it there in front of the courthouse, it turned from something personal to political.”
Claudia Jane Klein, a Florida-based artist and the only sculptor to have two pieces in this year’s exhibit, said that for artists like herself, making a living means displaying your work in as many public art programs as possible. Klein also has pieces on display in five other Southeastern cities.
Klein’s Chapel Hill sculptures – “Shanti” at the Seymour Center and “Bharata” at Estes Office Park – reflect her interest in yoga and athletics. In fact, “Bharata” is an abstract of a person assuming the “scorpion” yoga position.
“Having my work in public allows me to share and communicate what I feel is important,” she said.
“I want to bring to the viewer something new, exciting and thought-provoking. Without communities committing to art in public places, none of this is possible.”
The town of Chapel Hill budgets about $13,500 annually for the Sculpture Visions program, with additional costs picked up by private site owners such as office parks. Each artist receives an honorarium of $1,500 for an 11-month lease of the work.
Wright said the program has been a great success, judging on the feedback his office gets. “Some businesses and neighborhoods like ‘their’ pieces so much that they make arrangements to buy the piece outright,” Wright said.
For artists and administrators alike, the consensus is that public art has an intrinsic value beyond commercial concerns or municipal utility.
“We think a lot about this,” said Dan Sternof Beyer, part of the New American Public Art collective, whose interactive sculpture “Thought Before Action” stands outside the Homestead Park Aquatic Center. The piece contains two nested spheres that visitors can spin and rotate.
Beyer said the sculpture deliberately lacks any text or instructions so observers can interact with the object however they please.
“Hopefully, public art brings people together. So you’re not just walking from Point A to Point B and looking at the advertisements that have been put up.”
Burr said she also likes the idea that, with public art, you don’t have to walk through the doors of a gallery or museum.
“You’re going to class, or getting coffee or riding by on a bus – and there it is,” Burr said. “That’s a beautiful thing in itself.”