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Illustration battle at SCAD deFINE Art 2019.
SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace.
SCAD commissioned the iconic "Atlanta Falcon" sculpture by artist Gábor Miklós Szőke outside of Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Artist and activist Carrie Mae Weems "RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!" in SCAD Museum of Art’s Jewel Boxes.
Raphaël Barontini’s "The Golden March" in downtown Savannah.
SCAD Sidewalk Arts 2019.
Artist Paola Pivi’s exhibition "I did it again" at SCAD Museum of Art.
Founder and President Paula Wallace imagined a university fully intertwined with its community.
Nick Cave’s public art performance at SCAD deFINE Art.

Episode 7

The Power of Public Art

By Whitewall

October 7, 2020

Open Gallery

Illustration battle at SCAD deFINE Art 2019.

From its beginning—when the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) was just an idea—SCAD Founder and President Paula Wallace imagined a university fully intertwined with its community. That meant creating a space that not only fostered a love and engagement of the arts among its students, but for the public, as well.

In those early years, on their own, students created works in chalk on the campus’s sidewalks. Noticing the positive response from the city’s residents, in 1981, SCAD decided to make it official, hosting the first annual Sidewalk Arts Festival that continues, with a recent digital edition, to this day.

SCAD students and faculty engage with public work on a daily basis—from murals to sculpture. It’s part of the fabric of the university’s locations, as well as the cites they inhabit, Savannah, Atlanta, and Lacoste. Yearly events, like deFINE Art, bring public performances, immersive outdoor installations, and ephemeral exhibitions to SCAD and beyond.

And now, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that keeps many of us from gathering indoors in large numbers, public art has become not just important but vital. It has the ability to expand our ideas of the world around us and the possibility of creativity, as well as educate and inform—like the current Carrie Mae Weems “RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!” project, that’s part public art and a public health initiative.

Open Gallery

SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace.

To learn more about the university’s colorful history of commissioning artwork to benefit its community, as well as its plans for the future, Whitewall asked a few questions of President Wallace.

WHITEWALL: Do you have an early memory of a public artwork that left an impression on you?

PAULA WALLACE: The Cyclorama in Atlanta—one of two 360-degree paintings still on display in the U.S.—wrapped me in a bellicose ballet when I first visited. The work time-travels viewers smack into the middle of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta and remains a popular destination for school groups. You are in the midst of melodrama—truly, immersive virtual reality! The nature of art that grand—longer than a football field and almost 50 feet tall—coupled with the intellectual aspect, how content mirrors form, makes a lasting impression. And now, thanks to diligent research and careful restoration by the Atlanta History Center, the Cyclorama has evolved to reclaim historical accuracy and express complex truths.

WW: What makes for a successful public work?

PW: First and foremost, compelling public works embody conscience and engage the surrounding environment, built and otherwise. Consider Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial—initially misunderstood by so many—which we regard today as an exemplar of remembrance, subtlety, and compassion. I’ll never forget visiting the memorial with a veteran of Viet Nam who gently passed his fingers over names of soldiers he had known. Lin’s work is not only a monument to the fallen, but a formidable facade that flickers with change from dawn to dusk: The Wall shimmers with light then dissolves into distance, illustrating the mutable presence of large-scale public art.

Durability, persistence, and distinction—The Wall’s contrast to Washington D.C.’s traditional white marble, for example—are the very layers of complexity and meaning that SCAD alumnus Masud Olufani explores through his notable works. Olufani’s 2016 Blocked, a video and performance work, transformed into “Blocked: A Global Healing Project”—proposed as a permanent installation at Atlanta’s Five Points MARTA Station—which chronicles the history of the slave trade at familiar sites.

WW: SCAD has a rich history of public art programming. What impact do you believe that kind of programming has on students?

PW: When our SCAD Bees—and the thousands of elementary and high school students who tour our locations each year—engage with SCAD public art, they reflect on and examine scale. Consider how Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man helps us understand proportion—how our own bodies become yardsticks for the works we experience. In a similar fashion, public art challenges us to elevate our senses to envision the scope of works we imagine but have yet to create. Public art composes an overture of limitless perspectives—works sing from every angle, often grounded yet boasting the sky above. Freed from interiors, artworks transcend confines to transform public spaces into shared galleries that beckon from afar.

Open Gallery

SCAD commissioned the iconic "Atlanta Falcon" sculpture by artist Gábor Miklós Szőke outside of Mercedes Benz Stadium.

WW: And public art’s impact on the greater communities of SCAD in Savannah and Atlanta?

PW: Public art is a cornerstone of SCAD’s community outreach—and, today, cooperation, collaboration, and connection are more important than ever. Works in communal spaces brighten life in unexpected ways, simply by virtue of where we experience them. I’m reminded of SCAD artist and educator Darrell Naylor-Johnson’s mural projects—more than a dozen large-scale works—which our students helped bring to life in public spaces that included elementary schools and hospitals.

In partnership with the late Dr. Abigail Jordan, SCAD funded and installed Savannah’s African American Monument, which SCAD professor Dorothy Spradley designed. SCAD revitalized the Esther F. Garrison School for the Visual and Performing Arts by transforming the grounds and interiors into enlightening environs for arts education. And what passionate public-art enthusiast—not to mention football fan—hasn’t marveled at the Atlanta Falcon, the largest free-standing avian sculpture in the world and one of over 100 works curated by SCAD for Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

These are a few examples of SCAD’s enduring commitment to public engagement, to building meaningful creations throughout our communities, beyond the courtyards of museums and arts centers where we expect to see them.

WW: Speaking of the greater communities of Savannah and Atlanta—can you tell us about how SCAD partnered with legendary artist Carrie Mae Weems to realize the public art campaign “RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!”?

PW: At SCAD, we activate public artworks that inform, engage, and serve—particularly those that uplift underserved communities and neighbors in need. Carrie Mae Weems and her creative collaborator Pierre Loving conceived a multi-location project—”RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!”—that highlights the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. For the duo’s Savannah and Atlanta interventions, SCAD employed strategies from street art and advertising—paste-up posters, billboards, storefront signs, and more—to amplify their vision and life-affirming message. Truly, “RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!” continues SCAD’s long lineage of artistic reimaginations of familiar spaces. Through site-specific installations, temporary exhibitions, and beyond, SCAD infuses hope into public spaces, where beauty, community, and dialogue flourish.

Open Gallery

Artist and activist Carrie Mae Weems "RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!" in SCAD Museum of Art’s Jewel Boxes.

WW: SCAD’s annual deFINE Art events in Savannah and Atlanta include a variety of public programming, engagements, and performances. What have been some of the highlights for you over the past few years?

PW: Where to start? Every year, we welcome provocative artists, from emerging visionaries to established luminaries, to Atlanta and Savannah—and every exhibition, event, and performance is a revelation! Take Nick Cave’s Soundsuit performance in 2009, for example, which blended spectacular imagery with original compositions and dances created and realized by Nick and a cadre of SCAD students.

In another memorable lecture and performance in SCAD Museum of Art‘s theater, “An Analog but Very Important Conversation,” Theaster Gates shared his philosophy for radical urban revitalization as an impetus for social and societal change.

SCAD hosts compelling performances and displays year-round. I still find myself reflecting on Derrick Adams’ 2017 live-performance interpretation of Jacob Lawrence’s series, “The Builders.” Derrick’s ability to bring to life the imagery from Lawrence’s poignant work was truly evocative. In Atlanta, at SCADshow, Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth Carter was insightful and delightful, mesmerizing us with heartrending stories, both personal and professional.

WW: Public projects offer a chance for artists—from students to emerging or established—to develop their practice in new ways. What is that like to see firsthand?

PW: I love the energy of the unanticipated—to witness an artist’s reinvention of creative vision is the ne plus ultra of working in the arts. History teems with artists who travel between media, some as well-known for one as they are for another. At SCAD, we encourage students to experiment with diverse media, whether within their major or minor, or through a SCADpro assignment. These explorations and innovations are key to vibrant arts practice. Just as powerfully, preeminent institutions facilitate unprecedented connections.

Consider how SCAD Museum of Art helped foster collaboration between visiting artist Raphaël Barontini and the Savannah High School Marching Band, who provided a spirited soundtrack for The Golden March—Barontini’s performance that opened the exhibition “Frederick Douglass: Embers of Freedom.”

Open Gallery

Raphaël Barontini’s "The Golden March" in downtown Savannah.

WW: It’s also, we imagine, an opportunity for SCAD students to see the possibility of public art and collaboration. How do you think that transforms students’ ideas of what art can do?

PW: Wonderful question! I’m impressed by Dime Store Red, a 2019 installation developed by Juliana Lupacchino and William Kesling—both are recent SCAD alums!—that delighted viewers in Savannah and beyond. Collaborations like Dime Store Red reflect the esprit de corps and sense of community ingrained within the SCAD curriculum, just as large-scale commissions—like SCAD’s 1999 “Functional Follies: 20 Architectural Objects of Delight,” a celebration of SCAD’s 20th anniversary—motivate current students to assemble inventive partnerships and produce their own works.

These works and others also teach students that site situates context: where art is defines what it means, a tenet all SCAD Bees learn through engaged instruction and firsthand exploration. On a daily basis, our students encounter public art—from Jed Novatt‘s sculptures in SCAD’s Alex Townsend Memorial Courtyard and on the lawn at SCAD’s 1600 Peachtree Street building to the university’s extraordinary jewel boxes and lightboxes. Public art suffuses the SCAD built environment, itself a display of student and alumni elevation and exploration.

WW: Can you tell us about the SCAD annual Sidewalk Arts Festival—how that began and how it has evolved over the years to become a yearly highlight for so many?

PW: From day one—even before my parents and I began to renovate the former Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory (now Poetter Hall)—I envisioned a university that was truly part of the community. When SCAD first opened, our students often sketched chalk creations on the sidewalks of Bull Street. Their work wowed passersby, and I quickly noticed how their cement squares complemented the city’s communal squares—works of art in their own right. So, in 1981, we held the first SCAD Sidewalk Arts Festival on Madison Square. Fast forward a few decades to 2019, when the 38th edition of the festival—now held at Forsyth Park—featured during SCAD40 WKND and attracted more than 10,000 guests. This year, when we encountered the unexpected (the pandemic), Sidewalk Arts Festival marched on; for the first time ever, we reimagined the event virtually, and more 650 artists shared their digital sidewalk squares with the world.

Open Gallery

SCAD Sidewalk Arts 2019.

WW: Built into SCAD MOA are public-facing spaces, like the Jewel Boxes. For you, what have been some of the most engaging uses of those spaces?

PW: The SCAD Museum of Art jewel boxes frame works like film stills—arresting artistic revelations that are anything but static. Whenever I walked past Paola Pivi‘s 2018 series I did it again, I laughed and smiled—everyone laughed and smiled! And who could blame us? Who wouldn’t wonder at Pivi’s phantasmagorical, candy-colored, life-sized, foam bears reveling in human mundanity—sitting at desks or surrounded by mops, brooms, dusters, and other trappings of domestication? Pivi urged us to consider how we interact with animals and the environment, in part by asking us to imagine trading places. Hank Willis Thomas also elevated our perspective in 2017, when SCAD jewel boxes featured his works—tobacco, rice, cotton, and other crops produced by slaves and combined with documents and symbols—to remind viewers of the history of the region, including the site where the museum now stands. And who could forget the great Guillermo Mora, whose large-scale, torn-paper, painting-style works in his exhibition, “Now, Soon, Then, Tomorrow,” were windows to a timeless world. Each work invited viewers into the space through many-layered openings, and his delicate use of colors created subtle shifts in tone and scale—at a glance his works were a bit deceiving, and intentionally so.

WW: SCAD is at the cutting edge of new technologies in so many fields. How are you seeing students, alum, and collaborating artists embrace the possibility of public engagement through things like AR and VR in public spaces?

PW: Look no further than SCADstory, our immersive, 4D experience that tells the university’s history through a dreamer’s journey imagined by more than a dozen SCAD alumni and brought to life through 25 SCAD disciplines. With expertise ranging from animation to themed entertainment design, our alumni mentored students and partnered with faculty and staff to realize SCADstory—a celebration of SCAD’s 40th anniversary, an invitation to the public to witness the magic and magnitude of creative collaboration. SCADstory is temporarily closed during the pandemic, but we have reopened SCAD Museum of Art and SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film for in-person viewing, and we continue to offer virtual tours of the museums’ collections—now available for viewing in the palm of your hand.

Open Gallery

Artist Paola Pivi’s exhibition "I did it again" at SCAD Museum of Art.

WW: Art outside, and accessible to the public, has taken on whole new importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. What role do you see public art taking on in this new era?

PW: Today, we are partners in a reenergized connection between artist and viewer. Public art has always been, and will continue to be, a feast for the senses—provocative, evocative, and spellbinding. Art, in our current climate, takes on new meaning: “captivating” and “socially conscious” are synonymous. Artists welcome opportunities for creative dialogues with audiences who are supremely aware. I’m thinking of Hank Willis Thomas—I mentioned him earlier—and his For Freedoms platform for civic engagement, which continues to promote contemporary art and community collaboration throughout the U.S. Organizations like New York’s Creative Time also partner to produce engaged public works, like Jenny Holzer‘s Vigil, her series of projection artworks on New York’s Rockefeller Center. Whatever its form, public art remains the heartbeat of urban oases, centering citizens and proving that the ethereal and monumental live within each one of us. Now, as other aspects of daily life seem uncertain, art encourages and emboldens us—art endures. Ars longa!

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