Monday, September 7, 2015

Synchronicity and the Comet

The spring of 1997.
I was thirty.
I had just signed up for my first email account.
And people all around town were looking up into the twilight sky to see Hale-Bopp, the comet.

I was skeptical about the comet. In the past, I’d looked for Halley’s and I’d strained my eyes to see Swift-Tuttle with no luck. Friends and the host on NPR’s Star Date said this was different – you could really see this one. I still had doubts as I stepped out on my little front porch in North Lawrence and looked up into the southwest sky. No kidding. They were right. There it was, a fuzzy illuminated arrow pointing west toward the horizon.

After five years of minimum wage jobs post grad school, which included lithography slicker, framer, produce manager and bread mixer, I was desperate for a change or at least a sign to nudge me in a new direction. And so not finding other compelling guidance, I took the totally predictable passing of the comet as mine. Move on, it said, and I listened. I left my job as the mixer at the new bakery in town called Wheatfields and took a leap into the role of self-supporting full-time artist.

One of the first gigs I applied for, as a newly unemployed full-time artist, was the City’s % for art project at the East Lawrence Recreation Center – the first that planned to integrate art into the design of the building.

East Lawrence Recreation Center entryway

Inspired by the work of the Chicago Public Art Group at Navy Pier, ceramic artist Amy Carlson and I collaborated on a proposal that called for sculptural benches embellished with glass and ceramic tile in the plaza at the entryway to the center. It was a long shot, I thought. Neither of us had done mosaic on that scale before let alone create the kind of massive concrete sculpture that it would be adhered to. We would need a lot of help.

That was eighteen years ago.

Long story short, we got the job and the help, especially from East Heights, New York and Central Middle school students. The occasion for this retelling is that along with the original mason, Greg Frost, I just finished restoring the benches, which led me to thinking about the ways artists’ relationships to their work and the audiences they reach change over time.

Artists who make permanent or semi-permanent public work enter into a relationship with the places their work is situated - we learn the place's stories, meet the neighbors and are connected to the forces that shape them for better or worse.  And in the same way we maintain our homes, gardens, and neighborhoods, artists who choose to work in public are implicated in the care and upkeep of what they create. When we neglect what we have made, we are neglecting the place and people too. Public artists are also part of a long-term dialogue (whether we acknowledge it or not) with the stories and perceptions that work inspires over time. What was absolutely sparkling new to me when it was created on my drawing table eighteen years ago is now a visual landmark, woven into the narrative of East Lawrence for kids (now adults) who grew up with the work and never knew it not to exist.

Original color study for "Synchronicity," 1997

I know this especially well these days as I have been restoring some of the murals I made 15-20 years ago (I’ll be working on the Cordley Elementary School mural this month), and have been fascinated to hear what they have meant to people over the years. Listening to their stories has reaffirmed for me how art can have a deep and meaningful influence on the way we know a place, especially when the work is made with as opposed to just for a community.

Revisiting an artwork you made a long time ago can be humbling, especially when it’s in public. All your mistakes and inadequacies are there for everyone to see. It also can be a kind of reunion with who you were as an artist (and a person) at a certain point in time. Returning to the mosaic benches was a mixture of both for me. I wish I had used darker grout, while at the same time I recalled what a precarious position I was in back then with money and work, and what a risk I had taken giving up that $6.50/hour job at the bakery.

The Center’s mosaics had gotten beaten up a bit during the first year after Amy and I finished them. It was due to a combination of kids desire for the vitreous glass tiles that looked like candy and a few skateboarders. The damage wasn’t extensive but it was visible and troubled staff at the center. The tops of the benches were damaged the most. The solution was to fill in the tops with black concrete (an unfortunate sacrifice of some beautiful tile work) and then replace all of the tiles missing from the the sides of the benches. After some cajoling, the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission agreed to help fund the repairs and Greg and I went to work.

Dave in 1997

Dave in 2015
Greg in 1997

Greg in 2015

Working these last few weeks on the restoration reminded me of what an active place the center is, and how it's ruled by kids, some of them the kids of the kids who hung out there in 1997.  It also brought back recollections of the spring of ’97 and Hale-Bopp. Back then I knew I didn’t want to forget it. So to mark the time, I did what humans have done for millennia – I painted (or in this case tiled) it on a wall. Go and look for yourself. In the middle of the bench between the moon and the outstretched hand of a worker holding a level you’ll see it, a small fuzzy arrow pointing the way.

Restored 2015

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