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Art Felt

Sometimes, the simplest way of expressing an idea is the most powerful way.

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As part of a new campaign called "With or Without," the urbanArt Commission created two booklets. The first, labeled "with," has pictures and information on 17 of the group's more than 70 completed projects. The complementary book, labeled "without," is more than without: It's completely blank.

"It really came out of conversations with the board of urbanArt," says member Doug Carpenter. "I think most people are not aware of the breadth of work urbanArt has done over the past 10 years."

As part of its 10th anniversary, and with an enhancement grant from ArtsMemphis and help from Carpenter's ad agency Carpenter|Sullivan|Sossaman, urbanArt aims to make Memphians aware of what the city would be like without them. The group plans to run print ads and has a new Web site, withorwithout.org.

"We've grown up," urbanArt executive director Carissa Hussong says of the site. "We look better now."

The urbanArt Commission began with seed money from the Greater Memphis Arts Council, recently rebranded as ArtsMemphis. Their first project — the one that was supposed to be a demonstration piece for public art — was the main library on Poplar.

"As the main library project began, we asked, How do you make this building a unique gem for the city? Public art is a way to make sure you are creating a landmark," Hussong says.

But the library project — and perhaps the entire commission — came at the right time. Other projects began with Ballet Memphis and the Hope and Healing Center and were completed before the library.

One of the most striking images from the Web site is a picture of Jill Turman's trestle in Cooper-Young and what the abandoned railroad tracks had looked like before.

"When we were first approached about the trestle project, I said I'll come back with a bunch of images and show you what's been done in other communities," Hussong says. But she couldn't find any. "There were none."

Now completed, the trestle has received national attention, both from arts organizations and from other communities as they wrestle with what to do with similar train tracks.

Since it began, urbanArt has completed dozens of projects throughout the city, many of them at community centers. Both the city of Memphis and the Memphis City Schools have a percent-for-art program, which allots 1 percent of a capital project's funding for public art.

Hussong says cities like Chicago, New York, and Seattle have had a longer history of public art, both commissioned by the local governments and by private individuals and corporations.

"Other communities have had a more continuous commitment to art. That's why people here don't see as much as they think they should," she says. "We don't have a tradition of doing that."

For its 10th anniversary, urbanArt is doing an exhibition entitled "Interactions/Interruptions." The exhibition will include a show of drawings and photographs of previous urbanArt projects and 10 temporary public art installations. One, proposed by local artist Tad Lauritzen Wright, will wrap street trees in blue vinyl bands. Another, by Memphis-born Phillip Lewis, will transmit the sound of the Mississippi River around greater Memphis.

The biggest change in the 10 years that urbanArt has been around is that "people see the value of public art," Hussong says. Before, they would have to explain how public art could enhance Memphis.

"Now we don't have to do that," Hussong adds. "The reaction is that there is not enough [public art]. ... For me, it's about who we are as a community and what we want to be. It's about visually expressing our heritage."

Public art can define a city's spaces; it can take something utilitarian and mundane and make it memorable. And in a world of Starbucks and WalMarts, being unique is no small feat.

"It's about creating a sense of place. You can say, we'll meet by the sculpture," Hussong says. "It becomes a way of seeing your community and creating gateways."

The trestle is a perfect example of a landmark that defines a neighborhood both spatially and architecturally. Since the piece was installed, "Cooper-Young" has crept north to meet it.

"The trestle is now part of Cooper-Young's recognized border. It's changed the impression of the space," Hussong says. "You can't pick it up and stick it somewhere else."

But the "With or Without" campaign comes about in part because urbanArt has done its job so well.

"They forget we were ever involved," Hussong says. "That means we did our job. It's part of their experience and their neighborhood."

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