While we long for the time when we can gather to experience the arts together, at Salina Arts & Humanities we found a solution for the month of October while celebrating National Arts & Humanities Month: pop-up art installations. As we returned to work from stay-at-home orders and furlough, we discussed new ways of changing lives and building community. We asked: How can we follow public health guidelines, encourage engagement in the arts, hire local visual artists and writers, and inspire creativity in our newly reconstructed downtown? The staff at Salina Arts & Humanities (who wrapped trees and poles in cotton fabric to kick off the downtown project) in collaboration with three poets, three yarn artists, and three chalk artists pulled off an active recognition of National Arts & Humanities month in Salina, Kansas, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Temporary and site-specific art installations were a great fit because they could take place in the public right of way, no permits or permissions needed, and costs could be kept low partly because of the temporary nature. Nine artists agreed to work on proposals that related to their creative practices and Americans for the Arts’ national Arts Create Hope campaign. We intentionally programmed an element of surprise through our marketing strategy. Social media was our primary announcement platform and we only announced after the installations were complete, encouraging the community to engage. After all the art was installed, we issued a press release that listed each artist and information about their commissioned piece.

Each medium and installation was unique and came with its own set of challenges and professional development opportunities for the commissioned artists. Most of the artists we hired had never been asked to do work like this. Not only were they excited for the opportunity; they all approached the work with a fresh vantage point and proposed ideas that were different than we initially imagined.

Arts Create a Reason to Get Out of Bed   

Right away all three poets pushed us to think outside the box about their literary installations. Writer Lori Brack came to us with her idea for “Poet-Tree”—where each day of the week she left ten copies of two poems in the branches of a different tree. Then, we posted to social media a photo of the tree with visual cues to guide the “hope hunter” to the Poet-Tree. Brack selected poems by American poets such as Terrance Hayes and Li-Young Lee, as well as famous voices like Langston Hughes and the current poet laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo. The project took place in an environment where words we encounter are often public advertising and signage. Reading a poem excerpt offered a personal moment of quiet. Lori’s intention was for people to discover words among the leaves, and to take away a glimpse of hope in their daily rounds.

Lori Brack places poems of hope in a downtown tree for her installation “Poet-Tree.”

 

Demand for the poems quickly rose after the first Poet-Tree was installed. In particular, one community member ended up distributing poems of hope to friends and family everywhere she went that day. She described the tree as “fruit-bearing” as she returned multiple times to collect poetry to share. As the week progressed, we heard about a young student who was struggling with depression. After hearing how the student was excited to get out of bed to find the Poet-Tree, Brack began texting the mother with additional clues to where the new poems could be found each day. The student’s mother reported that her daughter would get out of bed so they could find the Poet-Tree and collect poems.

Cori North’s yarn installation, “Waiting for the Green New Deal.”

Arts Create Inspiration

Artist Cori North wove a giant yarn vine and an autumnal spectrum of leaves through an awning framework of a downtown building for her work entitled “Waiting for the Green New Deal.” North’s concept was a commentary on seasons passing while she waits for concerted action on the climate crisis. As one of the most visually impactful pieces of this project, it prompted conversation and inspiration among local creatives about how their work could address social issues. This example struck a chord for a number of artists who are exploring work that involves individuals in health care environments and promoting social-emotional growth.

Leaves caught in Marideth Highsmith’s yarn installation “Labyrinth for a Feast.”

After the press release was published in local media, we heard about a family who took a walk to view the installations. When they came to the yarn spiderweb by Marideth Highsmith, their four-year-old had many questions about the spider and how it caught its food. The public installation sparked conversation led by this child, naturally and deeply relating the artwork to knowledge about the animal kingdom.

Arts Create Curiosity

While artist Darren Morawitz was releasing the Kraken through large chalk drawings on the sidewalk during a cold Saturday morning, most passers-by looked around in confusion. That was, until a young family walked up and started asking questions. The two children were ecstatic to discover that Morawitz was an artist. The children quickly claimed that they were also artists and the conversation grew to describing the art that everyone enjoyed making most. The children’s uninhibited identification as artists and the excitement to relate to a professional artist was the start of curiosity that chalk art spurred around downtown.

Darren Morawitz working on his chalk installation, “Kraken.”

Arts Create a Moment to Reflect

In our project debriefing, the team expressed overall excitement for the success of the project and the awareness that built around our agency and National Arts & Humanities month at a local level. Looking beyond public performance or large multidisciplinary events, Salina Arts & Humanities was motivated to engage with artists and community outside the comfort of our standard procedures. Supporting artists through new processes is not an easy task. As agency staff, we learned through experience about defining project boundaries, communicating guidelines, and supporting artistic vision. These lessons are invaluable as we move forward in new ways to engage with local creatives and build community through the arts.

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Author: Anna Pauscher Morawitz