For mural lovers and mural artists, Ann Arbor is the place to be
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
The Ann Arbor Public Art Commission has a perception problem, says Jeff Meyers, who has been a commissioner since February: For all the taxpayer money the commission has spent and will spend, Ann Arbor has nothing to show for it.
The new Municipal Center and the $850,000 work of art the commission bought for it won't appear until Spring 2011 and the choice of German artist Herbert Dreiseitl didn't go over well locally. A commission that set out to "do one project and do it well" with the expensive Municipal Center project still has yet to place its first work.
The new works will be continuing an already-established mural tradition in Ann Arbor, which boasts several well-known murals around town, including the author mural featuring Woody Allen on East Liberty Street, a wall of gigantic ants on Maynard Street and the colorful mural in the alley off Liberty Street near the Michigan Theater.
Murals, Meyers said, are everything that Municipal Center-type projects aren't—they're small, they're affordable, and they can be completed quickly. To contrast, three years will have passed between planning and execution by the time the Municipal Center work is unveiled in May or June 2011 (the city isn't sure which).
"Spending-wise, this is a very modest program, but it could be an impactful one. We want to bring a number of different stakeholders together — us, the DDA, the school system, the library system," Meyers said. "I think this could be a real turnkey for us, going forward, as far as working with other groups."
While the initial effort will focus on city-owned buildings, the commission might be able to place murals on private property if it gets an easement with the property owners.
"How much of what you see when you leave the house is actually engaging you, without trying to sell you something?" Meyers asked, noting that his children, like a good many Ann Arborites, use local murals as landmarks. "We hope to get a whole lot more of that going on in Ann Arbor."
Several new murals have been added to the city's public art stock in recent months. They include a mural painted In late August by Detroit-based graffiti artist Antonio “Shades” on the back wall of the Grizzly Peak brewpub on West Washington Street, a mural on West Liberty Street near the Alley Bar honoring local veterans and, on North Campus, a mural by New York artist Roberto Juarez titled “The Order of the Spheres” on the U-M Aerospace Engineering Department’s wind tunnel dome.
A big chance for a local artist
A new mural on the wall of Lucky Kitchen Chinese restaurant on East University Avenue is an example of the kind of project Meyers hopes to promote. That mural, funded by the South University Area Association with a grant from the DDA represented a big boost for local artist Katie Halton.
When Halton lost her office job at the Ann Arbor News, she and her husband Al saw a rare opportunity.
"The first thing Al told me was that I wasn't going to be sitting on my butt, watching television," Halton recalled. If she ever wanted to support herself as an artist and ditch the desk jobs, her layoff from the workforce would be as good a chance as any, Al said, and that Katie had better take advantage of it.
That she did. Al's speech came right before the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, where Halton was appearing as an "emerging artist" at the South University fair.
"I had to churn out like 50 paintings in a little bit of time, so I was working constantly," Halton said, calling the effort a turning point because it got her in the habit of producing art all the time, as professionals do.
Halton followed up her showing in the art fair with some recent successes, appearing for a second time at the Emerging Artist booth and winning an award and selling her biggest piece yet at the U-M Art & Design School alumni show in July.
Then the phone rang with Halton's biggest opportunity yet: A mural on the 50-by 20-foot wall of Lucky Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant on East University Avenue, and more or less free rein to design it. Maggie Ladd, executive director of the South University Area Association, had a small grant from the Downtown Development Authority to place a mural in the South University area and thought of Halton immediately, even though she'd never done a mural before.
"I had seen a lot of Katie's works, so I knew about her vision and her talent. I had no doubt she would learn what she needed to learn to be able to transfer her work to a bigger setting," Ladd said.
After some conferencing about which design to choose, Halton, Ladd and Lucky Kitchen settled on a cityscape theme featuring a colorful daytime look on the west side, near East University, which turns to nighttime as you look east toward Church Street.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
"There is no template on how to 'make it' as an artist", Halton said. Nor is there a common definition of what 'making it' even means. "Now that I've done this one I'd love to do more mural work in the future, for sure."
She'll probably get another chance in the spring, when the association uses the last of the DDA grant money to place a second mural. Ladd is eying the west wall of China Gate restaurant, facing Church Street, but would need permission from the building's owners to move forward.
If and when that happens, Ladd said she plans to tap Halton again.
"Katie had a design for a giant squid that I really thought was cool," Ladd said. "Or, given our proximity to the (University of Michigan) Exhibit Museum (of Natural History), maybe a dinosaur would tie the area together a bit."
As for how long the murals would stay up, Ladd said "I hope they stay up forever."
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com.