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Creating Legends

UrbanArt Commission seeks artists to enhance two public housing sites.

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Last week, as part of upcoming public art projects, a small group of local artists gathered to learn about the redevelopment of two historic public housing sites in Memphis.

"As an artist, you want the complete freedom to manifest an idea from within," says metalsmith Tootsie Bell. "Working for a commission, the project is essentially your customer, and you want some direction, vague though it may be, of a purpose."

The UrbanArt Commission, along with developers McCormack Baron Salazar, is seeking proposals for public art at Legends Park and University Place. The deadline for proposals is Wednesday, August 6th.

Legends Park will be built on the former Dixie Homes public housing site across from Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center. The area was home to an African-American community called Queen Bee Bottoms in the early 1900s.

University Place is located just off Interstate 240 at Lamar and replaces Lamar Terrace, built in 1939 and one of the Memphis Housing Authority's oldest developments.

UrbanArt and Salazar want the projects to reflect the history and culture of the sites. Because both locations are highly visible to vehicular and pedestrian traffic, they also hope for iconic art installations.

"[The projects] are important for the community in creating a sense of place, and our hope is that beyond the rebuilding of houses we're trying to create some special places for neighborhood residents," says Tom Currell, vice president of McCormack Baron Salazar's Memphis office. "We feel like an art installation can go a long way toward enhancing that."

At the workshop, Elizabeth Alley, the UrbanArt Commission's public art director, presented artists with an overview of a recent community-oriented project in the Rugby Gates neighborhood at Overton Crossing at James Road in Frayser.

The project consisted of a series of brick columns that identify the neighborhood's entrance and pay tribute to the historic stone gates that once stood there.

Artists also were given a brief history and shown master plans for both development sites.

"We don't always have the opportunity to give artists this much information about a site at the beginning of a project," Alley says. "It's good to be able to give the artists this chance ... to help them develop ideas."

Mark Nowell, local metal sculptor, has won several public art projects over the years. He says these workshops are great for artists.

"When a representative from the community gives you an emotional expression of what they might want, when a human being stands there and says, 'My grandfather grew up there,' it really helps," Nowell says. "As an artist, you're looking for a morsel of inspiration."

The budget for the art projects will be $100,000 for University Place and $75,000 for the first phase of the Legends Park development.

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