Creative Placemaking in Art Practice

What do Jane Jacobs and I have in common?

I think it’s the ecological perspective that strives to actively observe and understand relationships between people, places, and nature. We both emphasize a creative approach grounded in place and community. As a student, I use these placemaking ideas to think about what makes an engaging classroom, and as an artist, I create artwork that encourages intentional engagement in life and strives to heighten our awareness (both mine as the artist and you as the viewer) of our connectedness. Along with traditional sketching, painting, and drawing, this past year I’ve been learning about community-based art practices that both parallel and support the mission of Jacobs. According to Frasz and Sidford, socially-engaged art promotes positive transformation by approaching communities “humility, honest inquiry, reciprocity, generosity, equity, and safety.”[2]

I’ve been creating daily watercolor paintings to explore my connections to places in Perugia.

With these guidelines in mind, I experienced community-based art practices this summer while serving in Camden, NJ. (Disclaimer: I’ll be referencing Camden often because the experience is very relevant to this class!) First, I met the artist William Butler who collaborates with local residents to create colorful, inspirational art. He encourages community members to express themselves on the one collective canvas and uses his technical art abilities to bring the painting together (an excellent illustration of synthesizing local and expert knowledge) while also emphasizing how quicker, cheaper, lighter interventions can help revitalize a place.

William Butler’s painting of the Camden skyline depicts Camden as a welcoming space.

 Second, I participated in a community art project by creating a mural for one of the recovery centers we were partnered with. Although we (as in me and the other service-learners) weren’t able to directly involve the residents in the painting process, we tried to take into account the needs and interests of those who would see the mural. On one level, the mural conveys the inspirational story of St. Francis of Assisi welcoming the formerly terrorizing wolf of Gubbio, but on another level, the figures represent a narrative relevant to the recovering members of The Last Stop: the wolf is painted to look like Sky, the beloved pup, and Sky’s former owner who used to be part of the Last Stop is now a Franciscan friar. The mural is therefore specific to both the community and the place, and shows how creative art practices can be a powerful tool for highlighting connectedness and revitalizing cities.

The mural we created for the Last Stop Recovery Center.

As a side note, this mural also relates to my place-based connections since I’m now spending the semester in Perugia only 20 km away from Assisi and Gubbio! There’s definitely space to discuss how to use placemaking to transcend time and space and connect people across geographical distances…but that’s for another time.

[1] Alexis Frasz and Holly Sidford. Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Artistic Practice. PDF. Helicon Collaborative, September 2017, 4.

[2] Alexis Frasz and Holly Sidford, 20-21.

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