Cities are living, breathing creatures. Like other living things, they thrive on positive reinforcement, growth and creativity. And sometimes they exhale the slow reek of decay. Samson Contompasis, owner and curator of the Marketplace Gallery, looks around Albany and sees beauty and possibilities everywhere. He wants to take decaying or barren vistas and make new life out of them, turning them into awe-inspiring pieces of art. So he's launched Living Walls, a public art project aimed at making Albany a bit more alive with art.
He's brought together a slew of mural artists, some local and some nationally regarded, to help create works of art around the city. The public art project will be accompanied by a lecture and workshop series that will run September 16 and 17.
You may have already seen the first completed wall, which is at 74 Livingston Avenue between Broadway and North Pearl Street. That one was done by the artistic team of Gaia and Nanook, who came up with the concept for the piece after touring Albany.
Samson loves to talk about the power of art, legal or illegal, massive or fleeting...
Where did the idea for Living Walls come from? Are there others throughout the world?
The idea for Living Walls originated in Atlanta. The organizers wanted to challenge the barrage of advertising a city has at every corner. It was an effort to engage people using art rather than advertising. It provided a working platform to present our city with a working public art conference model.
Albany is the first city to take on the conference in its satellite form. Our mission in Albany is to continue that engagement and introduce or reintroduce people to the public realm of art by taking down the walls of the gallery and opening them up to the community and the world. The hope is that it inspires other cities around the world to do the same.
Samson at the site of the mural
How did you reach out to artists and decide who would be involved? Was there a curatorial process or was everyone who wanted to be a part of it welcomed?
The process of choosing the artists involved a few different factors. Every artist that we have for this project was chosen for their content and their ability. These artists have been working in the public realm for some time. They have a lot of experience with different wall surfaces and are well-respected in the artistic community.
To be able to present a cohesive and structured plan for this conference, we had to choose the specific artists involved. We needed to work around many of the artists' availability as quite of few of them are in high demand. The submission list was closed off months ago just to make sure we would be able to accommodate the artists we already have.
What challenges have come up in getting this project going?
We didn't want to just surprise Albany with a public art festival. I have been working with the city since December of last year trying to get everything in order for the arrival of these artists. This is a very new idea for this generation. There was a city-sponsored project in the 1970s, of which there is one remaining piece. Due to the historic nature of our city, we have been working with the Historic Resources Commission to make sure that the work going on the buildings will be neighborhood-friendly and not aggravate the historic look of those areas.
Our project is a privately-funded venture and has been, thus far, supported completely by the citizens of our city. Due to the tough economic climate these days, we must work within limited means, but every penny we take in for Living Walls goes right back into the project. Our team and every artist creating something for Living Walls are volunteering their time and artwork for the simple chance of improving and educating our great city.
Any donations such as paint, ladders, scaffolding, lifts, or money would be instrumental at this point in making sure that this project reaches its fullest potential.
A work by White Cocoa
Have you had a lot of cooperation from property owners?
The property owners have been fantastic for this project. Everyone involved in this project is a community member who understands the importance of public art and its ability to positivity affect peoples' lives. We have had spaces donated that are the size of a window and some that cover entire sides of three-story buildings. Living Walls can outfit any building with an artist, and we are looking for as many buildings, walls, or other spaces that we can possibly get. So if anyone knows of a potential space, we hope they contact us.
How will the public art portion interface with the conference?
The public art portion of this project will go hand in hand with the conference portion. The New York State Museum will be hosting most of this portion of the event. At its core, the entire purpose of this conference is to educate people about how to live better. We will be hosting lectures about everything from urban gardening, public art, and Zumba classes. The conference is about providing education and new experiences for people that wouldn't have had a chance to learn about them otherwise.
A work by Chris Stain
What's the difference between this project and graffiti?
What Living Walls hopes to accomplish is to educate people about the ever-growing public art movement. Graffiti is illegal, public art is not.
Each artist has an intrinsic style and, if allowed to expand on that in a public space, they will leave our city with an amazing gift. My vision is to have a child walk down the street, look up at a mural, and become inspired to learn more about the artist, and hopefully expand on his own creativity as well. I have studied and loved art since I was a child. Most art doesn't make it anywhere without dissidence, and public art has created intelligent conversation for people worldwide. It doesn't just question the "Do this, buy that" in the everyday barrage of our commercial world, but it challenges the whole system itself. By taking the gallery walls down and bringing art into the public space, we hope to shine a light on the importance of art, particularly to those kids who have had art and music programs eliminated from school because of budget cuts.
This is also about the artists' creating beautiful masterworks and then painting or pasting them up for all to see. It is beautiful at its core no matter what the imagery, and some people miss that entirely.
Is it ever okay to create public art in a situation where it would be illegal?
Legally, no, it is not okay to create public art when it isn't legal. You stand the chance of going to jail or having fines.
Are there any times when illegal art has worked?
Arturo Di Modica's "Charging Bull" on Wall Street was a $360,000-dollar, 7000-pound act of unsanctioned guerrilla art. After Modica placed his bull in downtown Manhattan, it was impounded. There was a public outcry to bring the bull back and it has since become a national icon.
Another work by Chris Stain
Why is public art important?
This is the value of someone's heart and life, on a wall for the world to see. There is no gallery, no money. This art has an emotional content that creates an interaction within the communities that see the art. Public art's role should be an affective one -- exciting passions in people for the present moment and raising their responsiveness to themselves, their community and the areas they live in. It should be surprising, shaking up the habitual viewer, stimulating them into a greater awareness of their current and immediate physical environment and that which may exist beyond, hopefully inspiring him or her into a greater sense of being.
Do you think Living Walls will have any sort of lasting effect on Albany?
I think Living Walls will have a long lasting and amazing effect on Albany. My hope is that people will look at the city like they never have before. I want them to go into areas they wouldn't normally consider visiting to see something new, beautiful, and amazing. We want the citizens of Albany to see beauty where they may have only seen decay.
We will be joining a fraternity of major cities all over the world such as Miami, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Berlin, and Stavenger that have embraced these artists and ideas and have effectively changed their communities for the better. It will also garner positive international attention for Albany because of the artists involved. Some are recognized and their work coveted worldwide. We also hope that with the eventual success of this project that we can expand this to Troy, Cohoes, and the rest of the Capital Region in the coming years.
Due to the nature of social networking and media, people will start seeing the progress of these works as soon as they start, following them diligently until their completion. It will introduce them to our city in a positive fashion. It personally makes me very happy and proud that underneath every photo and video of the art being created for this project there will be the name of Albany, and I hope by the end of this venture that the people of our city feel the same way.
When did you first become interested in public art?
Honestly, it was the Rockefeller collection of art at the Empire State Plaza that started my love for public art. It was always so huge to me. The fact that these massive pieces made of steel, canvas, bronze, and stone were there for me to enjoy, some of them created for the very spot where they reside. Money wasn't what made me look twice at them. It was the scale, the quality, the fact I could come to this certain place and enjoy these works whenever I wanted. It was a freedom that I didn't have anywhere else. Through looking for understanding in these heavy structured movements by Franz Klein, the delicate stone work of Isamu Noguchi, or the purpose of the Alexander Calder sculptures, I started looking for the artists that influenced them, their friends and colleagues. In my searches I would stumble upon other artists like Henry Moore, Christo, BLU, Andy Goldsworthy, and the list goes on. The educational aspect of visual stimulation is unmatched.
What is the coolest public art you've ever seen?
I have a thousand of them, but mostly, I want to paint a mountain. Not in the Hudson Valley landscape sense, but actually paint an image onto a mountain.
What space in the Capital District is most in need of a mural?
Central Cooler Warehouse, hands down. That could become a billboard for international talent with our skyline as a backdrop. Walls that size are an artist's dream. We also have an artist interested in painting the top of a water tower into a giant cheeseburger if there are any takers.
There are some fundraisers for Living Walls coming up, including one tonight at the Spectrum
Thursday, September 1
Spectrum 8 Theatre
SpaceBalls for Living Walls
$5 and a can of paint
Friday, September 9
New York State Museum
Terrace Gallery-4th Floor
Night at the Museum
Costume and dance party
$10 and a can of paint
The following venues will participate in the Living Walls conference on September 16th and 17th
38 Ten Broeck
The Marketplace Gallery
40 Broadway #23
Grand Street Community Arts
68 Grand Street
photos courtesy of Andy Milford, Nina Blix and Samson Contompasis
The first Living Wall
between Livingston and North Pearl
Albany, NY 12207
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