Three Memphis neighborhoods — Frayser, Uptown and Orange Mound — are set to be the recipients of art installations that will add vibrancy and livability to the communities, as well as inform and unite residents around solutions to lingering environmental issues, like dumping and littering.
Frayser and Uptown’s installations are through the Urban Art Commission’s Art & Environment Initiative. The initiative is part of an 18-month, $100,000 capacity-building grant from Mural Arts Philadelphia via its Mural Arts Institute. The initiative sponsors three U.S. cities with public art projects that approach sustainability and environmental concerns.
The Mural Arts Institute is a pilot consultancy program to train organizations in community-based public art projects. UAC will partner with Clean Memphis and Memphis Medical District Collaborative on the local projects to put public art installations in Frayser and Uptown.
“The two neighborhoods are connected. Frayser is just minutes from Uptown. The idea is bringing both projects to sister neighborhoods that can both complement each other,” said Charia Jackson of the Frayser Community Development Corporation.
Meanwhile, the UAC and the City of Memphis have commissioned artist Desmond Lewis to create a public art project at Dunbar Elementary. The sculpture will be designed to honor the historic African-American community of Orange Mound. It will feature the handprints of students at the school, as well as have seating incorporated into the structure.
“It has two components to it. There is a set of stainless steel benches. You’ll have handprints of each student that attends Dunbar on them. It’s kind of like a permanent memory in the community. They can always come back to that,” said Desmond Lewis, who applied for the project about a year ago. “The other part of the project is kind of like a monument to the community. It’s four columns.”
Each column, made out of stainless steel with wood accents, will represent an age group; children, teens, adults and elders.
The artists are engaging residents of the three neighborhoods through public forums, surveys and face-to-face conversations. While the artists are ultimately in control of the creative outcome, they all want members of the community to have buy-in to the public art pieces.
“If I couldn’t engage the community in this project, I wasn’t going to do it. I am asking residents who live in the vicinity for feedback about the project. I am going door-to-door to talk to people,” said Lewis.
On Thanksgiving Day, he set out in the neighborhood conducting a three-question survey.
In exchange, he gave those who participated some sort of baked good; an apple pie or honey bun, for example.
“That way it was worth their time,” said Lewis.
For the Frayser Community Development Corporation, the community engagement process began in the spring after UAC approached the organization about the Art & Environment program.
“I definitely expressed at that time that we here at the Frayser CDC would be interested,” said Cassandra Webster, who later joined the UAC's selection committee.
The committee chose local artist Jamond Bullock to not only create a mural in line with the project’s parameters, but to first engage the community — much like the Orange Mound project — to develop an overall vision.
“I grew up in Frayser. This was really important for me to apply. It’s where I got my roots. That’s where I started drawing — drawing in class, drawing in high school,” said Bullock.
A sample of Jamond Bullock's painting work. (Submitted)
The painter is currently working with UAC to implement his community engagement plan and will conduct public forums throughout Frayser into the spring.
“I do a lot of public art. I work with communities. I have volunteers from the community come out and be a part of the workshop process where we are sharing stories. That’s one of my approaches instead of printing out a questionnaire,” said Bullock, who is still working with Frayser community members to flesh out ideas for the concept of the mural.
“It’s more like a get-together and sharing stories about the community — what it’s about. What are some of the issues that are going on in that community,” he added.
For Frayser, the most prominent environmental issue is the dumping of large items — furniture and tires are of a particular nuisance. For years, volunteers have tried to wrangle the problem in the north Memphis community.
“As the artist, he has the creative control. But, he has to create something that the community will accept,” said Webster, who also said that UAC wanted to feed off the same engaged energy that fueled publicity around a proposed landfill site in Frayser that was defeated earlier this year.
The Uptown concept is still in development, too. Khara Woods, the artist for the Uptown project, is handing out questionnaires and meeting one-on-one with residents in the neighborhood situated between Downtown and Frayser.
Artist Khara Woods
“Our initial proposal is due in early March, so my focus is just making connections in Uptown, engaging folks around this issue and promoting the project,” said Woods.
Although Uptown has seen improvements in recent years, like the Habitat for Humanity Bearwater Creek development and public art projects like Treedom, work still remains to be done. One of its most pressing problems is littering, although like in Frayser, dumping is also an issue.
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“From the conversations I’ve had so far, it’s clear to me Uptown residents and those who work in the neighborhood really care about their community and its upkeep. Starting this conversation and creating awareness around litter is important to me because it can help to identify areas that may need a little more care and attention, and, in the process, I hope we can discover ways to reduce litter,” said Woods, who is a graphic designer and public artist.
In the fall, Webster, along with Bullock and Woods, traveled to Philadelphia to attend a symposium held by Philadelphia Mural Arts.
The nonprofit has sponsored numerous programs to beautify and advocate for environmental awareness in Pennsylvania’s largest city. This year, it chose three cities to address environmental issues through the installation of art projects — Memphis, Akron, Ohio and Detroit, Mich.
Speakers talked to attendees about ways to gain the attention of those in power to affect change on the local level — even in the most impoverished neighborhoods.
“How to get the attention of power holders. Let them know the importance of the work we do. How art and the different kinds of art projects can seed neighborhoods ... Economically and socially, it is showing people what’s your return on investment for a program like this,” said Webster.
Participants watched presentations given on the impact of public art projects on their communities and how problems, like dumping, can be remedied by creative solutions.
“You can turn objects, like tires, into beautiful landscape pieces or facilities that the community could use. You can reuse unoccupied spaces in creative ways,” said Webster.
The Frayser and Uptown art installations are expected to be completed in the summer of 2019, with Bullock and Woods planning to present their works at the next Mural Arts Philadelphia symposium in October.
Lewis hopes to complete the Orange Mound sculpture, a separately funded project from the other two, in time for the Southern Heritage Classic in the fall.