A pair of works by Memphis artists Anthony Lee and Greely Myatt have been identified as among the best in the nation in the prestigious Public Art Year in Review, which is assembled by the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts organization.
Lee's “Modern Hieroglyphics” mural on South Main Street and Myatt's “Cloudy Thoughts” billboard on Madison Avenue were both privately funded public artworks developed in conjunction with Memphis' UrbanArt Commission.
"This is a big deal," says John Weeden, the UAC's energetic executive director. There is an uncommon busy-ness in Weeden's Broad Avenue offices. The front of the sparely furnished space functions as an art studio and a group of teenagers from the city's summer work program are busy painting a "portable mural" on one of many giant vinyl banners donated by Clear Channel Communication, while the commission's skeleton crew of project managers peck away on their computers in the background.
There are more than 300 organizations similar to the Urban Art Commission across the United States, and Americans for the Arts recognized the top 40 projects in 2008-'09.
"It's rare to see more than one in the same city, and it's even more uncommon that both projects came out of the same organization," Weeden says, explaining that cities such as New York and Chicago often have several, more specialized organizations dedicated to the creation of public art.
"My master plan is to empower people to rebuild their city," Weeden says, noting that he gets one step closer to realizing this plan every time his organization works with a neighborhood association or community development group. "The groups learn what it takes to develop public art. They not only learn about the tools, they get to see the impact."
Having a work of public art recognized isn't the same as getting a good review for a gallery show. Artists working on large-scale public works have essentially gone into the construction business, and the honor speaks to their project-management skills. According to Weeden it's not just good for Memphis and the UAC, it's a seal of approval that raises both Myatt's and Lee's national profiles.
"Modern Hieroglyphics" and "Cloudy Thoughts" were both produced with budgets of $5,000 for UrbanArt's10th anniversary series. That's a drop in the paint bucket compared to larger projects that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. "It's a good example of what can be accomplished with little expense," Weeden says.
Both "Cloudy Thoughts" and "Modern Hieroglyphics" were created to enliven urban elements which might otherwise be described as eyesores. The former decorated a blank concrete wall connected to the train station while the latter brought a whimsical aesthetic to a blank billboard.
Weeden has often described his job as making "neighbors out of strangers," noting the ability of distinctive art and architecture to bring communities together and begin public dialogues that might not have happened otherwise.
In this case, Weeden hopes the artworks have helped to open up a dialogue about the kinds of things that can be done to neglected or wasted spaces. That's a dialogue he intends to continue with the development of the UAC's portable mural project. Once painted, the vinyl banners can be used to screen off blighted lots or to cover damaged buildings in neighborhoods in transition.