An Intersection of Art & Community
(Published in South Sound Sustainable Living Local Winter 2016 Edition)
Olympia streetscapes have received a small but important gift and I wonder how many have noticed. At nearly every intersection in this fair city there have sprouted box-shaped visual blessings that give delight to the senses and relief to the soul.
Waiting for a light to change at a busy intersection, a moment when the homeless and the sign flippers can make the hardest of us long for something hopeful and inspiring, there is now art that provides simple respite from the bleakest of our local urban landscapes.
Public art is often an expression of the select few displayed on a grand scale: large, impressive installations by “legitimate” artists commissioned by the established deep pocket of a bank or other institution or, somehow worse yet, the tyranny of government tax. But this project, albeit sponsored by the city of Olympia, was wide open to any local artists in the community. Moreover, the project handed the selection process over to social media for the public at large to be the final arbiter of taste. Once selected for the Traffic Box Wraps project, the artist’s creation is converted into a graffiti-proof, all-weather “wrap” that is installed over the large metal box that holds the electrical workings of each intersection’s light system.
I caught up with the youngest, and arguably least likely recipient of public art funds, Mary Wojnar, who is currently attending the U of W Art department, but was all of 17 years old when she applied to be selected for this project. She explained that the city required that she be a sole proprietor with a business license - perhaps to winnow the competition down to the truly “working” artist - so she went out and got the license despite her status as a minor. “I like challenging myself – doing something that is remarkable to others”, Mary told me. The experience of competing for and being selected had a transformative effect on Mary and her career as an artist. It gave her confidence not only in her creativity but her ability to put herself “out there” in the public forum, something the creatives in society often lack the venue for beyond coffee houses and student showings. The City provided a new and practical avenue for local artists to bring their musings directly to the community at large, surprising drivers daily with eye candy at otherwise barren junctions of humanity.
Perhaps in the ongoing and often tortured efforts to design a better Olympia, we could learn a lesson from this project: that urban renewal need not always be on a grand scale with hard fought battles over height restrictions and lake designs. Instead, it’s the little places, overlooked but often frequented where blank canvases offer opportunities for creative types to bless us all with much improved urban vistas.