Know Your Place: How public art teaches us about where we live

by tara on September 7, 2012

Last summer, in his post called, “Staying,” ThinkHouse member Ryan Walton invited us to participate in creating fabulous culture here in Sacramento rather than move elsewhere to find a “ready made” culture. Creating local culture is a focal point here at ThinkHouse Collective. Co-founders Janna and Jeremy were inspired, in part, by Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class.

Florida’s book was on the agenda last May at the Book Club Pub Crawl where we had great dialog about the book and Sacramento’s Creative Class; those who, regardless of their line of work, create and implement innovative ideas that benefit their own business, but, more importantly, provide value to the local community that they serve. Florida describes the qualities of city culture that this group tends to gravitate towards and contribute to as a Street Level Culture with a “teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between participant and observer, or between creativity and its creators” (p. 166).

Inspired by Ryan’s invitation and Florida’s book, I find myself coming up against the question: How? How do I become an active participant in creating the culture of the place where I live? I’m sure there are many varied and unique ways to answer this question. Exploring this for myself, I’ve come to believe that one important ingredient in becoming a creative participant in the city where you live is to really come to know the place.

Two years ago, I began an exploration of Sacramento’s public art. I found myself drawn to murals and sculptures, my head craning to see them better as I whizzed by on some errand or other. This was neither a safe nor satisfying way to take in the art. So I decided to stop, pay attention, and feed my curiosity by spending time with each piece and taking photographs. This led to blogging about the art with online research about the piece itself, the artist, and any interesting stories that emerged. As the blog posts accumulated, I realized that not only was I learning about individual pieces of art, I was building a more interesting relationship with my city.

Take, for example, the abstract “L” shaped metal sculpture Downtown at 6th & L Streets. We have all seen this piece, but I had never paid it much attention. Finally stopping to examine it, I learned that it is a kinetic sculpture whose movement is powered only by gravity and wind. I had always only seen the shape and never taken the time to notice the subtle, rhythmic movement. According to the artist, the piece is all about the movement of the sculpture, rather than the shape. He says, “I wanted whatever eloquence there was to come out of the performance of the piece—never out of the shape itself.”

Where I once barely noticed a single piece of static art that evoked limited meaning for me, I now saw multiple layers of meaning. A once flat two-dimensional experience transformed into a more vibrant holographic scene, and I now felt myself as a participant in the scene rather than a passerby.

Following my curiosity led me to the accidental discovery that public art is a playful and meaningful way to get to know this place called Sacramento. Our city is full of public art. In the downtown and midtown areas alone there are more than 300 public art pieces from commissioned works to urban tattoos. Works of art in our public spaces (“the commons”) are an important part of a vibrant local culture.

Public art is local in the most basic sense of the word; each piece is a physical presence in the local space. Esthetics is one element of public art, but regardless whether a piece is esthetically pleasing to you or not, the art typically evokes something on an emotional level: interest, curiosity, joy, surprise, shock, irritation, confusion…. Public art brings us into the moment and engages us emotionally in the physical space where we stand.

It is often local in other, less obvious ways. Many artists live locally including Stephen Kaltenbach, Fred Ball, and others. Local groups such as Midtown Alley Project promote public art at a grassroots level. Russ Andris, a retired Sacramentan, walks the streets with a camera and prolifically documents murals (as of today, his site has more than 1,300 images). Many pieces, including Gold Rush, Ishi, and others, have something to teach us about local history. Others, like the Alhambra Reservoir, remind us of Sacramento’s remarkable natural resources.

Through public art, we are invited into a more alive relationship with the city that extends beyond the art itself. Getting to know the public art here has given me a more multifaceted relationship with Sacramento that is both direct and personal. These days, as I move through the city, I’m more aware of the living culture that surrounds and includes me.

So, whether it is through public art or another avenue, get to know your place, and let’s see what interesting things transpire from there.

About the Author: Tara Ingram is a ThinkHouse member with a perfectly good day job, but she has more fun out and about exploring Sacramento through its public art. You can visit her and the art at sacpedart.com

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Alison Kranz September 10, 2012 at 11:56 am

This is a great article! Thanks for sharing :) You probably already know about this, but the Arts Commission has an online database of their public art collection. It’s fun to peruse! Here’s the link: http://cityofsacramento.pastperfect-online.com/36991cgi/mweb.exe?request=random

Tara September 10, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Thanks so much, Alison, so glad you enjoyed it! Definitely familiar with the Art in Public Places online database. I use it often and have posted about it on sacpedart to help promote one of Sacramento’s best public art resources; http://sacpedart.com/?p=1114.

Alison Kranz September 10, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Awesome! Dig it. Consider your blog RSSed!

Tara Ingram September 10, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Great, glad to have you! Thanks

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