Monday, December 05, 2016

Bookended by art: or putting life into cities, one wall, one frame at a time

This morning I found on my Facebook wall a post by a friend, a photograph of a public art project along one of my hometown’s most popular promenades, Tank Bund: a large “Love Hyd” written in a combination of Devanagiri and English script. Earlier this year, some parts of Hyderabad city came alive with paint as artists from around the world reimagined broad swathes of street-facing walls and leaving passers-by a legacy of vivid images.

Picture courtesy: Sadhana Ramchander
I was sorry to have missed all that, but am looking forward to catching up with the new colour as I get back to my daily commute.

The past few years have seen a renewed interest in public art, an acknowledgement that cities are spaces of life and experience, not just places for commerce. From locations as far apart as Taipei in Taiwan and Kobe in Japan and Long Beach in Hawaii, there have been attempts to revitalize city centers particularly in regions where a post-industrial economy has led to slow economic death and loss of manufacturing jobs, with gentrification becoming an almost inevitable option.

The city of Worcester in central Massachusetts is one of New England’s oldest settlements, and lays claim to many historic firsts, including the first valentine. Residents will also tell you that the monkey wrench was invented here, as was the smiley (no, it wasn’t Forest Gump!). In the first half of the 20th century, the city grew into a major manufacturing hub, supplying parts to the aerospace and other heavy industries and providing jobs to a large immigrant population. After the second world war, however, the city began losing its competitive edge to less expensive factories elsewhere in the country and overseas, and gradually fell into decline, hollowing out its once-vibrant downtown area and sending its population out in search of livelihoods.

Worcester emerges from a gently rolling landscape as you drive east from Boston, as an innocuous clutch of brick buildings and an inevitable sprinkling of church spires and weathervane-topped towers that characterize almost every New England town. But then you turn into the streets of the quiet downtown, and the colour on the walls hits you. A many-times-larger-than-life bird of paradise, the luminous face of a pony-tailed toddler, a bursting-off-the-wall golden yellow smiley, a totem of female faces reminiscent of Mayan folklore…and many more.

“It was all about inclusive revitalization,” explains Joshua Croke, a young art graduate who is now Executive Director of Action!Worcestor, an NGO that aims to “connect people and create community” through a variety of urban revival projects. The murals were an outcome of Pow Wow Worcester, a week-long street art festival that brought together 12 artists from around the world to use the walls as their canvas. “We wanted to bring user-experience design to urban redevelopment,” continues Joshua, “and to see how we could create an urban environment that people would want to use, not just go through on the way to somewhere else.”

Joshua and his colleague Kyla Pacheco walk us (the group of Fulbright scholars visiting the USA from many countries) through some of the city streets to experience the murals for ourselves, telling us stories about the artists and their approach as we take in one large painting after another. One of the side streets has a fifty-foot horizontal mural that spells “Love You, Marry Me” in a psychedelic rush reminiscent of the 1960s. “This has become a really popular spot for marriage proposals,” says Kyla. “And the business around here have really benefitted, as the couples then plan to have their weddings in the area, too!” The mural, painted by Berlin artist Tavar Zawacki (known as Above), was done in under 3 days.

We walk a few blocks down past a preschool playground bordered by a chainlink fence through which another portrait can be glimpsed. A little girl, all bundled up against the cold, waits with her carer. Kyla points up at the portrait; it is the luminous face of a little girl, her curly hair parted into two bouncing ponytails. This one was done by a self-taught artist from New Zealand, Elliot (known as Askew1) whose approach, Kyla tells us, is to have long conversations with the members of the community before he settles on a subject. “And that’s his subject,” she says, as the little girl (seen walking away in this picture) waves to us and returns to the playschool. 

Pow Wow Worcester was just the beginning of a much longer urban renewal effort, acknowledges Joshua. “The idea is to remake the downtown area into a space that hosts activities for families and children, a space where people can come together as a community.” “During the mural painting, the community really contributed with accommodation for the artists and meals—and the artists themselves did it for free…it was the people of Worcester saying we want a new city!”

Kyla and Joshua seem to represent something of that new spirit of an old city; talking about it with an earnestness and passion that express their commitment to the revitalization project and to the community.

Worcester is no stranger to art, however, as it is also home to one of the state’s—and the country’s—oldest art museums, having been established in 1989. Benefiting from a major endowment from a local philanthropist, the museum not only acquired a number of paintings of European and American masters, but also funded a major archaeological dig at Antioch (in collaboration with Princeton University) that brought it one of the largest collections of Roman murals in North America. We had the privilege of being introduced to the Museum by its former director and one of its most celebrated and beloved curators, Jim Welu now in his mid-seventies.

Jim is a storyteller in the old mold. As he took us through the rooms, he told us the stories behind the acquisitions, the paintings, and the painters. He shows us how, from a certain angle, you can see the ghost of an earlier image that was painted over by the artist, and what the X-rays of the painting can tell us not only about the image but the contexts in which they were created. We stop in front of a 16th century oil on canvas by Piero di Cosimo, “The discovery of honey by Bacchus” and he proceeds to explain the painting to us. It’s not just the stories that hold you, it is his obvious passion for the subject. “I could talk about this all day,” he confesses, smiling.

He’s patient with our questions, which border on the philistine. “Why is it that women in these 17th century European paintings never smile?” asks one of our group. “Maybe they didn’t have great teeth!” he ventures, drawing a ripple of laughter. “Or maybe they were wearing painful corsets.” He pauses, and then says, ruminating: “It’s amazing what we are willing to do for beauty.”

You glimpse the possibility of many good conversations with this man.

After gawping at the Gaugin (which was owned by Degas before it came to this collection) and two of Monet’s works (Water Lilies and Waterloo Bridge), and several others, we wind up at Jim’s elegant home where we have the opportunity to chat with him some more and hear some more stories—about art, about American politics and baseball, and about growing up with a father who made ice-cream and sold it at 5 cents a scoop. “He realized he was making no money, and so he decided to raise it to 10 cents a scoop,” recalls Jim. “My brother and I were horrified, protesting that the other kids were just like us, that they couldn’t pay that much!”

Having spent these past four months in Boston, Worcester had seemed to me a small town, and I confess, one that had held no particular fascination for me. But between the art on the streets and the art in the museum, and of course the delightful company of Joshua, Kyla and Jim Welu, I realized that every place has a charm that is waiting to be discovered. And all it takes is for you to meet the right people—who can show you its heart, because it occupies a special place in their hearts.

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