Featured image for “What’s it for? What’s it about?”

What’s it for? What’s it about?

November 22, 2013
Those were the two most pressing and demanding questions that passers-by asked me as I was painting a large outdoor mural in Danville, Kentucky recently. The mural covers a length of about 60 feet of windows facing the sidewalk of the city’s beautiful, historic Main Street. Did you notice that I said the mural is on windows? I have painted three murals on windows – these particular windows, in fact. It’s a strange kind of public art that the Community Arts Center has started in Danville.When people start talking about public art (especially in a smaller town), you get a wide range of reactions – welcoming approval, general disinterest, and cries of “You can’t put that here!” are all acceptable responses. We’ve found at the Community Arts Center (where I serve as Program Director), that you can disarm almost all concerned citizens if you remove the concept of permanence from public art. Once you mention that the piece is only for a limited duration, people usually settle down, enjoy the show, and actually find that they fall in love with the finished product along the way.

The Gift Community Arts Center Danville

By painting murals on glass, we can simply scrape them off once they have fulfilled their term and replace them later with something else. I often get asked if it bothers me that the artwork doesn’t last longer than it does, and truthfully – I don’t mind it. I’ve built stage sets for theatre and it’s basically the same concept: the art lasts as long as it needs to. Part of what makes the process of creating a temporary work of art so interesting for artists and viewers alike is that fact that it is ephemeral – like the Tibetan monks that spend great amounts of time and concentration to create drypaintings from sand only to have them swept away later.

The Community Arts Center started painting the murals on glass just before the Vice Presidential Debate of 2012 arrived at Danville’s Centre College as a means of covering up the unfinished and empty interior of a long stretch of downtown real estate – to beautify the community and distract from the emptiness of the façade. Everyone loved the design of opposing political mascots which we appropriated with permission of designer Joel Anderson. This year we designed another mural in late May, based on Danville’s Great American Brass Band Festival, featuring brass instrumentalists against a patriotic backdrop.  The people of Danville (and beyond) loved the murals and photographs of them wound up in the Chicago Sun Times and were picked up by the Associated Press.

Our latest painting was a bit different. For one, it didn’t center around a major in-town event like the debate or music festival. Secondly, it seemed to have somewhat of a narrative associated with it rather than being self-explanatory, leading viewers to ask the aforementioned questions of “What’s it for?” and “What’s it mean?” The interesting thing about working on a public art piece in the middle of town is that you get to interact with people that might never set foot in an actual gallery, allowing the artist to see how everyday people react to their work. I suppose I could view their curiosity in a couple of ways – either they truly appreciate the art and wish to know more or they believe that all art must be “about” something to be of merit. Neither of these scenarios are bad in this context because people are interacting with the art, asking questions and engaging the artists in ways that they wouldn’t if we’d stayed in the gallery all day.

The painting is meant to be a symbolic representation of the power of giving to transform our world. The background on the left-hand side starts with a dense and imposing forest which grows to be a brighter, more lively spring field as it progresses to the right. I chose to represent the gift as a monarch butterfly being released from a hand, because showing an actual gift-wrapped present being handed off would be a bit trite and one-dimensional. Butterflies undergo metamorphosis from a lowly caterpillar to a beautiful creature and I thought that might be a fitting representation of the transforming power of giving.

There were a lot of people that asked why we were painting butterflies and spring fields in October, as if they thought that we were decorating for a seasonal event. Although I tried to explain that winter is dreary enough and that painting the promise of spring represented a certain kind of hope – I’m still not sure everybody “got it.” If I told people it was an advertisement for Allegra (which it wasn’t), I feel like they might have left slightly more satisfied.

In the end, we’d tell people that their interpretation was just as important as ours and we hoped that they enjoyed the open-ended nature of our invitation to analyze the artwork for themselves. Perhaps most importantly, people saw art that they might not have otherwise. Although I got a bit winded answering the same two questions, I could only appreciate that people were curious enough to ask.

Brandon Long
Programming Director

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 Artists ONLY! enewsletter. Subscribe now to Artists ONLY! or other enewsletters from the Community Arts Center.