Paint the Street by ArtsWave

Paint the Street by ArtsWave

Much has already been said about Paint the Street, the art project on 12th St. in Over-the-Rhine that was recently completed by artists Pam Kravetz, Carla Lamb, Karen Saunders, Matthew Dayler, and Danny Babcock, along with 1,500 volunteers, and executed under the direction of ArtsWave [formerly the Fine Arts Fund]. I didn’t participate in the painting, but I’ve been watching this project from the initial call for participants through the state of the painted street now.

Here’s the kind of photo you may have seen of the volunteers working on the painting; this is from the ArtsWave Facebook page:

Paint the Street by ArtsWave

Or, you may have seen a dramatic bird’s eye view of a large section of 12th St.; this photo is by Scott Beseler, published on Wooster Collective:

Paint the Street by ArtsWave

But, what does it look like from the day-to-day point of view of a neighborhood resident? Here’s a pedestrian’s view of the intersection of 12th and Race:

Paint the Street by ArtsWave

The view driving west on 12th St.:

Paint the Street by ArtsWave

I took these photos less than a week after the painting spectacle took place. In fact, last Monday morning, just over 12 hours after the end of the event, the paint had started to seriously erode in parts. A week later, the painting already has the faded, degraded patina of an old ghost sign. The primitive figures and scattered words are becoming less recognizable. From my vantage point as a pedestrian on 12th St., this painting has the visual impact of the messy aftermath of a kid’s birthday party, with the clutter of shredded streamers and deflated balloons that still need to be picked up.

Paint the Street by ArtsWave

Just to back up a bit, if you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I’m biased toward visual expression. In my book, art is always better than no art, and I try to find and document interesting examples of visual inspiration wherever I find it, whether they be murals, ghost signs, architectural ornament or, sometimes, street art. Since I currently live here, I’m always especially curious about anything artistic that happens in Cincinnati.

So, Paint the Street is a kind of paint-by-numbers large-scale painting spanning 12th St. from Main to Central Parkway. There was community input into the design, which features a saturated palette, happy faces, balloons, and inspiring phrases.

Based on everyone I’ve talked to, and all the online accounts I’ve read of the day-long painting experience, that was definitely a success. People had fun painting with their kids, friends, and neighbors, and enjoyed being part of this community-wide activity. The project has been covered in the local press and beyond, and its timing dovetailed perfectly with the Fine Arts Fund’s change of name and mission. So, as a large-scale art “prank,” it was enjoyable and got a lot of media attention for ArtsWave, for Cincinnati, and hopefully for OTR and the many other cultural entities within it. It seems to have achieved those goals.

But as a semi-permanent art project that now lives a life within a community? Not so much. What do these candy-colored forms really communicate? What is the purpose of figurative elements that can really only be understood from a high vantage point? How is this to be experienced? Who is the audience for this project?

Since I’m a designer and always concerned with user experience and context, here are a few examples of the ways in which I assess public art. Salud! by Dan Fontes on the facade of the Bethany Center in San Francisco is a fairly straightforward but visually impactful depiction of the sorts of activities that take place inside this senior center:

Bethany Center in San Francisco

Located in a busy part of Covington, An Epic Tale of Time and Town by Christian Schmit has almost no impact at a distance. In a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, this is highly effective, as the mural invites you to examine it closely to discover depictions of local landmarks interwoven with a multi-layered narrative that is part truth, part fiction:

Covington mural by Christian Schmit

Art in the public realm doesn’t have to be deeply meaningful or conceptually layered to be effective in its context. Rubber Duck by Florentijn Hofman, seen here installed in Rotterdam, is unabashedly silly. It does make clever use of its site, and it’s highly visible in its installation context:

Rubber Duck by Florentijn Hofman

But Paint the Street? If the goals were the community-wide painting experience and the press exposure, then I wish this had been a temporary artwork, made with chalk or something comparable. The documentation is already out there, and that’s what will be referenced in the ArtsWave’s next annual campaign. Ostensibly, the documentation is the only way in which a lot of people outside Cincinnati are seeing the painting. What’s gained by leaving the community with this?

Paint the Street by ArtsWave

19 thoughts on “Paint the Street by ArtsWave

  1. I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I wonder how they intended this to age?
    & speaking of communication – why the heck did they change their name from The Fine Arts Fund to ArtsWave ?

  2. I think it was a great project and great way to get folks involved in art and the community. However, the fading started at 12th and vine just a couple of days later– which really made me sad. I’m surprised more research wasn’t done into paint that would stand up to traffic. The immediate fading takes something away from the project.

  3. I agree that the lifespan of the project is questionable. One news report said they expected the paint to last a year, which is obviously quite suspect at the current rate of degradation. I don’t think the rain the following day helped at all.

    As a community project, and as a way to bring people in OTR together I think it was a great success. Could the medium, message and execution have been better? Certainly, but for a first try at such a big project I think they did the best they could and when you are trying to involve people of all ages there are some real limitations in what you can and cannot do.

    OTR is really overflowing with art these days, whether it’s the murals, the various sculptures and community art in the parks/gardens or even just random acts of art throughout the streets. I think ArtsWave was trying to do something a bit different and they succeeded and also got a lot of good press doing it. I hope they take that success and build upon it, and also learn from the various things that aren’t quite successful with this project and come back next year with something even better.

  4. Quimbob, name and mission changes are just part of the organizational lifecycle. It’s a healthy thing to revisit every once in a while. This particular name, though, really doesn’t explain the organization’s mission [the “wave” metaphor is a conceptual reference, but I don’t think that’s really obvious]. The fact that ArtsWave and ArtWorks are housed in the same building seems like a recipe for confusion.

    Dan, this wasn’t the first of such events — last year’s Splash Dance followed the same model of a large-scale group event followed by media attention. It didn’t leave any detritus afterward, though.

    I actually think that the forms of the painting could have been simpler and more visually concise, which would have had the two-fold benefit of a more executable design and something that could be understood from a common vantage point, not just bird’s eye view.

  5. As someone who actually participated in “Paint the Street”, as opposed to critiqued it afterward, I would say it was a HUGE success. It brought together diverse members of the community in the spirit of art and contribution to the city. The spirit of the people contributing to the effort was soaring, much as the balloons depicted in parts of the mural. People worked side by side with former strangers from completely different walks of life, different ages, different socioeconomic groups and participated in something positive for the community. We knew that the artwork would be ephemeral, but i have to agree I am disappointed at how fast it is fading. However, much like the flash dance events FAF has sponsored, is the value of “Paint the Street” in the combined experience or in its durability. I think the former. I personally thank ArtWave for sponsoring this event and I look forward to participating in future similar events that use Art to draw the community together.

  6. I participated in Paint the Street and had a blast doing it and as you said the community aspect of it was incredible. That said, I was disappointed to see that the next day paint was already lifting.
    I think you bring up many valid points, and one I’d like to add that I think you touched on is it may have brought way more value to the participants than the people who populate 12th St on a daily basis.
    It was a learning process and I hope ArtsWave can build on it and grow.

  7. As one of those people that does populate 12th street daily, I’ll give my $.02:

    Aesthetically, it is not so good. Not only is the degrading pretty acute, but some the broader composition isn’t really visible (if there is one; I can’t see it from street level).

    Conceptually, I think its a cool idea. Active, intentional community participation in defining the landscape – good stuff. I’d also say that this really had to be tried, didn’t it? You can test and guess all you want, but to explore a unique or new medium, you just have to do it.

    And any way, even if the paint does fade, and we’re left with a ‘ghost sign’ on the street, it still provides some character.

    So I’d say the project offers new challenges, both for the technical execution, and for composition. What do you paint on a street? Interesting question.

  8. Thanks, everyone, for chiming in with your thoughts. Andrew, I completely agree about the “active, intentional community participation” aspect of this project, although I still think this would have had the same impact if it were clearly temporary, or if the design were vastly different.

    What to paint on a street? I don’t really know, but I have some ideas for how you might approach such a design problem — by studying the various vantage points and viewing conditions of the site in question. That’s why my photos simply show what you might see while waiting on the corner for the light to change, or while driving down the street.

    One example of working with the viewing context of the street is anamorphosis. Or, consider the Stanczak parking garage installation — it’s not figurative, there is not a single “correct” vantage point, and the composition works while the viewer is static or in motion.

    Both of those are simply examples of strategy and, while you never fully know the outcome until you try it out, you can definitely conduct some preliminary studies and tests before embarking on something that’s so large-scale.

  9. I hope you’re right, John. I hope we’ll continue to see more art in the public realm — large projects like this one, but also smaller ones. More art is always better!

  10. My thoughts after reading,

    In terms of “Art”, it’s much more of a performance than visual. All of the discussions regarding the footprint that’s been left behind are great, positive or negative. It shows that people are engaged and interested.

    The erosion is simply because of the lack of properly de-greasing the street surface. Which was a monetary issue. There was more concern to simply get enough paint to put into 1500 peoples hands and executing a half mile painting in 8 hours. Secondly, the painting is on the street car route (Nov. ’10?), and designers understood that from day one. As well, I like the erosion, the same way I enjoy layers of graffiti, multiple textures throughout a single building facade, cobblestone-asphalt streets… all showing how surroundings change and all we have is our involvement with them.

    In terms of content. Key phrases were pulled from the community meeting, as well as images chosen to reflect concepts the group expressed on an individual, yet reoccurring, basis. As well the “primitive figures” are direct inspirations of multicultural folk art, to reflect the widespread demographics involved from concept to completion.

    Community involvement, obviously the overwhelming theme.

    In terms of “Scope” or the perspective of a pedestrian/driver.
    Quite simply, community is larger than 1. To grasp the image, the viewer(same as painter/participant) must embrace the “big picture”. Each individual may have been painting an area, that they themselves didn’t understand, but when the image/concept is complete you can see it takes more than an individual as well as separating ones self from the ground level to comprehend what they have a hand in. Not everything needs to be understood from where someone stands. Sometimes you just have to change your state to a Higher Level, thinks outside the views of everyone else.

    Lastly, the other examples are all vertical surfaces, with plenty of time for comfort and endless hours of predictable logistics.

  11. Danny, thank you so much for sharing your insights. The examples I’ve used are intended to show strategy and to explain how I evaluate these kinds of artworks. I haven’t come across anything that’s really similar to what you’ve done — your project is really unusual, and I’m sure that’s one reason why it was exciting for you.

    I have to respectfully disagree with your comments about experiencing the artwork. I don’t have a problem with offering the viewer something different from a different vantage point, and designing with these different vantage points in mind.

    In the case of this piece, though, the over all composition seems designed for viewing from above. If I were an Art Academy student or if I owned a condo at 12th and Vine, that would be great. Every work of art in the public realm needs to have access points, and viewing your project from the ground level is by far the way most people in the community will experience it. I think the work needs to make some kind of sense from that vantage point.

    The other way of thinking about this, though, and maybe this is what you’re getting at is that the work is also being experienced through photo documentation, and that’s really where the “big picture” you mentioned becomes apparent. In other words, maybe it’s not so much a community artwork per se, as it is artwork in a community that has tremendous impact when photographed. Maybe it becomes a new way to tell a story about Over-the-Rhine and the arts?

  12. Its great to see a dialog surrounding this piece. If there weren’t then the success would be limited to the 8 hours it took 1500 people to paint it. In the debate over its value there are lessons.

    Participation is good, but not necessarily at the expense of a costly project with an outcome that doesn’t last as long as was intended.

    You can’t expect everyone to be involved, so what are those who do not participate left with? Is it beautiful, meaningful, or understandable enough that they may participate next time? Can they take away meaning from the images?

    I get the whole higher level thing. It’s conveniently poetic, but the imagery was described as having meaning and significance. Words are meant to convey an idea, thought or message, at least when they are drawn to be more legible than expressive. Figures convey emotion and more, but only when they can be interpreted. The difficultly in viewing angles and erosion make this a challenge. This challenge might be okay in a fine art context where you have an audience who wants to learn, but accessibility in public art is important. If I can’t see it from the street, or my car, or I have to imagine what it looked like before it faded, then you lost me as a potential audience member and that connection with the community was not made. Your wave died before I got to ride it.

    I don’t know the budget of this project, but there have got to be cheaper ways to bring 1500 people together around the ideas of art and community. Despite the cost, if the intention was for this to last as an intact piece of art then the proper preparation should have been taken. Investing in this type of cleaning may have been prohibitive, but that should have been the first indicator that someone was biting off more than they could chew.

    I don’t think that, in terms of a community/public art project, that this was successful on the multiple levels, higher indeed, that it was aiming for. But there are no doubt lessons to be learned and applied as the community out grows this one.

  13. Pingback: Paint the Streets « our backyard

  14. I talked to two kids working on 12th, and they both said the paint was expected to last a year. They told me they got their information from “the paint guy,” as if everyone knew who that was. I am so uncool. I don’t even know the paint guy.

    Next morning it began raining, and rained for several hours. The one year, 12K miles warranty did not cover natural disasters like rain.

    I agree with M that there is a sort of generic look to the
    figures. They are designed to offend nobody, therefore they must have nothing to say. As a resident watching the neighborhood change, not necessarily for the better, I can’t help interpreting this pavement painting as an exercise in territorial marking.

    Also, I have paint chips stuck to my shoes. Damn those kids. Damn the paint guy.

  15. I think you can see this project as being about the community, not so much for or of the community.

    On a different topic, David, I really wish that you would continue with your excellent blog. Really.

  16. “On a different topic, David, I really wish that you would continue with your excellent blog. Really.”


  17. Pingback: You Are Here Mural by Ellie Balk « Visualingual

  18. Pingback: Cincinnati Art Snob » Blog Archive » Is Cincinnati’s Public Art Only Temporary?

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