North Memphis

UrbanArt Commission sponsors first public art project focused on written storytelling

UrbanArt Commission is expanding traditional ideas of public art with its first ever literary-based project. 

High Ground News’ proposal for public art that pairs neighborhood-based journalists with visual artists to tell their communities’ stories of environment justice and injustice was one of two winning ideas chosen for UAC’s Art & Environment project expansion. 

A team of four High Ground Community Correspondents representing Orange Mound, North Memphis, and The Heights will engage their neighbors in conversations around environmental issues then produce a story from their findings. They’ll then partner with a visual artist—a graphic novelist, painter, photographer, or graphic designer perhaps—to create a unique work in digital and print formats.

The end product has yet to be determined because community engagement and the writers' experiences will shape its form.

UAC Executive Director Lauren Kennedy said allowing space for the community to have a voice in its public art is critical to the process. 

“I think you have the best laid plans and intentions for something when you're responding to a project call or applying for something," said Kennedy. "Then you get into it and it's gonna look different and it needs to look different for very real reasons that are ultimately important for the spirit of work.”

UAC chose High Ground’s proposal from a field of six contenders. They also selected Tony Girder’s plan for a mural in the Westwood area of South Memphis, which he will design and install alongside his middle school students at Freedom Preparatory Academy during the upcoming school year. 

Westwood and neighboring Boxtown were the communities centered in the recent fight against the now-defeated Byhalia Pipeline expansion. 

Both Girder and High Ground will receive $15,000 for their projects, and UAC expects they’ll both be completed within a year.

These newest projects are an extension of a UAC partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia that has focused on the intersection of art, environment, and environmental justice. The partnership began in 2018 with a round of funding to install a mural in Uptown by artist Khara Woods and one in Frayser by artist Jamond Bullock. The projects included extensive community and artist engagement around environmental topics impacting those neighborhoods.

Related: “Litter, Landfills, and Illegal Dumping: New murals tell the story in Uptown and Frayser”

Those murals were completed by October 2019. 

UAC received a second round of funding to support a fall 2020 virtual speaker series in that paired environmental activists with visual artists as panelists. Round two funding will also support the High Ground and Freedom Prep projects. 

“The second round of funding was meant to help us continue the conversations that we started with the first round,” said Kennedy. 

Kennedy said their collaboration began when Mural Arts received national funding for environment-centered art collaborations and invited organizations in three cities—Memphis; Akron, Ohio; and Detroit, Michigan—to work with them.

“Mural Arts are some of the best folks in the game, and when you're as good as they are at what they do for as long as they have been, you get asked [to let] other people learn how you do it or to share resources and materials you've developed,” she said.

Kennedy said the work around art and environment has also included other partners and friends like Memphis Medical District Collaborative, Clean Memphis, Crosstown Arts, and Arts Memphis.

Kennedy attributes much of the UAC Art & Environment project’s success and its environmental justice perspective to Brett Hanover, program manager for UAC. Kennedy called Hanover the heart behind the work and said he curated the virtual speaker series, managed the mural projects with Woods and Bullock, drafted the call for proposals for the second round of projects, and has helped maintain a strong connection to Mural Arts throughout the work.

“A lot of this is his brainchild for sure,” she said. 

Kennedy said she’s excited to see how these new projects and artists will help drive conversations around environmental justice. Too often, she said, people see artists as separate from critical community issues, but artists are impacted by these issues too and great art can act as a catalyst to inspire new solutions. 

“Public art is weird. It's complicated. It's layered. Everybody's got an opinion about it. You want everybody to be happy, and on some level, that's an unattainable goal,” said Kennedy. “It's a beast, but I think it’s a very rewarding beast once you get into it. It requires a lot of openness, and hopefully, we're able to provide a lot of support through that process for the folks that we're working with because we know firsthand how wild it can be.”

The Move to New Mediums
Kennedy said UAC developed a new strategic plan in 2018 that prioritized expanding their definition of public art and its scope in Memphis beyond traditional mural and sculpture arts.

The pandemic also forced them to get creative and push their thinking. While the High Ground project is their first literary venture, they’ve recently expanded into the digital and video arts. 

In addition to the virtual speaker series, artist Paige Ellen curated an online exhibition to accompany an existing physical mural in downtown Memphis by artist Anthony Lee titled “Modern Hieroglyphs.” The mural features contemporary symbols like the “@.” Ellen worked with video artists to create a response to each symbol and curated the videos into a digital exhibition.

In another nontraditional project inspired by the pandemic’s early safer-at-home orders, artist William Lescheck crafted ceramic mugs that he distributed to his neighbors before hosting a virtual happy hour where they drank from their new cups.

“We're actively trying to play more in these kinds of spaces that don't look like a lot of what you've seen from us in the past,” said Kennedy.
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.