Friday, August 5, 2011

Vital Signs

Vital Signs
By Tom Wachunas

Over the last several years I’ve had lots to say about the state of public art works in our fair town. It’s no secret that I’ve waxed both hot and cold as to the unevenly- mixed (in content, craftsmanship, and purpose) group of downtown “monuments” to local creativity. All told, downtown Canton’s public art ethos is itself still very much a work in progress. I care about it so much because the re-vitalization of downtown Canton has so often been equated (and understandably so) with the much-touted ‘renaissance’ of artistic presence. Along with that is the concern about the qualities of the congratulatory face – civic, social, aesthetic - we present not just to ourselves in the arts community, but to our local citizenry AND out-of-town visitors.

Let’s remember that public art is not intended solely for heavily trafficked commerce areas or locales regularly designated for large public gatherings. The operative term here is, after all, ‘public’ – something visible and accessible for unrestricted viewing by ‘the people’ at large, be they shopping in a mall, walking past City Hall, or passing through (and living in) an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood.

Case in point: The recently completed Great Wall of Summit mural project. Measuring 150’ x 7’, the painting, designed by artist Michele Waalkes, is on a concrete wall that runs along a sidewalk at the NE corner of 10th Street NW and Fulton Road NW, very near the Arts Academy at Summit School. As acknowledged in Waalkes’ blog (, the project was done in collaboration with Community Building Partnership (CBP), with contributions from JP Morgan Chase Foundation and ArtsinStark. Neighborhood residents, along with CBP board members, City Council members, and ArtsinStark representatives, helped with the actual painting.

With child-like simplicity, crisp linearity, and vivid colors, Waalkes’ design is an inspired and inspiring testament to urban transformation. The painting tells a story of sorts that reads from left to right, and in the process celebrates a community embracing the arts. On the far left is a grid pattern – a map of neighborhood streets that morphs into angled and upright lines which in turn become houses, then animated stick figures that emerge dancing, playing music, making paintings, taking pictures, filling the air with outward-moving waves of energy. The choice to place these rainbow-colored configurations on a black ground is in itself a telling one, it seems to me – a symbolic beacon of tangible relief from the dark sameness of neighborhoods spotted with lifeless, abandoned homes.

This vivacious, thoughtful public work is a stunning witness to the power of the arts to unite people right where they live, in a spirit of affirmation and hope. Speaking of which, we can smile and hope that those colored waves of artful energy, emanating from the last figure on the right, will travel far beyond the confines of neighborhood.

Photo by Michele Waalkes.

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