Public Art is About Learning in Public

A Conversation between Ann Lewis, Kate Gilbert, moderated and written by Curatorial Consultant Martina Tanga, October 2017

Making public art has its own unique qualities. Unlike isolated studio practice, public art is in front of its audience every step (or misstep) of the way. It is about learning to make art in full view, pretty much all the time. The creative process is more vulnerable as people can comment and judge before the work is finished. And yet, its very openness at this delicate stage is, in turn, more dynamic in that it constantly sparks interactions with local inhabitants. It is this publicness that is the key component to creating a community around the work.

Four months after the inaugural celebration of the mural See Her,  I took a moment to sit down with artist Ann Lewis and Kate Gilbert, to debrief about the successes and stumbling blocks of the project. This reflection was an opportunity to see this project with some distance and examine it in the larger context of the challenges of working in public art. Challenges, let alone the word “failure,” is not generally talked about in the making of art, especially in public art, because the focus is often on the end product and its impact. This conversation hopefully offer words of wisdom for artists entering the field.

Kate Gilbert (KG): Ann, when you started in the public realm, did you anticipate how challenging it would be in terms of the unknowns and the types of things you had to respond to?

Ann Lewis (AL): Not when I started. The first couple of murals I did were close to my house, so I was constantly running back and forth from my house for supplies. Now, for each project I set up, I pack a list a few days before, and I make sure I have what I need: my “micro-studio.” But every time you push yourself to do new things, you will be learning as you go. It’s always a process.

KG: I had a boss who used to say, “If you’re not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough.” Any time I see challenges in an artist’s work, I know that they are working at the very edge of their practice, and that excites me.

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AL: There are always challenges: communication, location, or whatever. You get to work with people who are really amazing and you can troubleshoot together. That’s what I had in Boston for See Her. But I have worked on projects when I did not have that support structure at all. You get through it, but it’s harder when you don’t have that team.

KG: See Her was the largest project you had ever done, right?

AL: Yes, by two-fold. Getting up there was challenging. The first couple of days I didn't even know how to move around on the lift. This particular machine had one specific tweak that was not in the manual, so it was trial and error.

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KGI think there is a lot that is expected of public artists: in this case, you had to be a boom lift operator, a sensitive workshop facilitator, a listener, a manager.

Getting back to support systems, there are things that some cities and organizations like Now + There are doing like training artists to use equipment or priming their mural walls to offer support.

MT: Right, that is true. But for artists, that sometimes is problematic as the more implicated you are in terms of city processes, you get slowed down, or limited. It’s about nimbleness; Now + There is independent, so it is more flexible. We did have our fair amount of red tape as well, though.

KG: Yes, learning to navigate city offices is like learning to operate a boom lift for the first time—a learning process. And it's a circle of well-curated projects that beget support, which begets bigger projects. Thank you, Ann, for starting us on a really nice cycle.

AL: Thank you for supporting me through the fact that it fell apart and we had to rebuild the whole thing. When you talk about success I cannot help but think that, in a way, the project also totally failed. Mother nature stepped in and decided to take the mural down. I remember I got home that night and it was raining, and I was a little nervous because there was no sealant on the wall, but I thought, “it is going to be fine.” I couldn't have prepared myself for what happened.

I think the day the piece came off the wall there was definitely failure in my heart. Over the course of the project, there was success on many levels, but that dip in the middle was real. I don't think I’ve ever felt so distraught in my life. I got that photograph and I thought to myself, "I can't salvage that." I knew I had to start over.

Once the initial shock was over, I thought, “you keep going until it is done.” I know we kept repeating it while we were doing damage control and I was tearing paper off the wall, but we did it for the women at McGrath and for their community. When you have challenges like that, you keep going for other people. I couldn’t let them down. I couldn’t leave Laura’s image tattered on the wall. It's not how we were going to honor them.

See Her  was near completion when a fierce, fast moving storm barreled through Boston on June 29, peeling off the photo elements of the mural. 

See Her was near completion when a fierce, fast moving storm barreled through Boston on June 29, peeling off the photo elements of the mural. 

KG: Persistence is the word there. I saw you dig deep and put away a lot of your own needs for the common goal—to put the mural up—and I saw it in you, as you wanted to honor Laura and all of the women. But just after it happened, that moment was all on Ann Lewis. And suddenly, the press and Now + There were asking you to make a response. Did you feel that pressure to have figured out a response, and the pressure to have a persona?

MT: Because it all happened in such a public way?

AL: Right, the public wanted to know what was going on with the wall. Yes, I definitely felt the pressure to say, “yes, I’ve got this,” when I was not sure I had it. I was floored by the fact that I had to redo the whole thing.  

In terms of the community, there were so many people that were like, "Oh you took it down?" and then I would have the same conversation six or eight times a day, "no, the weather..." and people would respond with "so you're going to do it again? Well, it's not going to stick next time!" or  "the storm was God's work, God wanted you to do it twice." Comments like that didn’t always feel helpful.

Public art is interesting; I really enjoy talking to people who come by and talk about the work. But when I have failed—and I am such a perfectionist and work really hard not to fail—in such a public way, and I get told by strangers that I have failed, it’s really hard.

Repairing the damage and completing the mural took two weeks in sweltering July heat.

Repairing the damage and completing the mural took two weeks in sweltering July heat.

MT: In that moment, when the work came down, did you feel alone? Or did you feel you had the support of the community, of Now + There, of McGrath?

AL: I definitely had the support of Now + There, that never wavered for me. It was always there for me. The community: sometimes. There was one woman that lived on the side of the building and she would walk by every day and say, "I don't know why you are going to such great lengths, I don't know why you are trying so hard." She was a character. But support did come. The ladies at McGrath found out and they sent a note saying, "never give up," and that was important.

While I had an extra ten days of really hard labor, I also kept thinking that what I went through was nothing compared to what the women at McGrath have gone through and continue to go through, being incarcerated. Being put in prison, pulled away from your children, going through the criminal justice system, is hard.

MT: But I think it was important for them to see you go through that process of picking yourself up. You know, there is talk and there is action. I think it was inspirational to them to see that you were confronted with what seemed an insurmountable challenge and you faced it head-on.

KG: Does it feel different now as opposed to when you first got the photo of the damage?

AL: I mean, I still cannot really laugh about it. Knowing that I am capable of doing it all again makes me see now that I have the capacity to pick myself up when I have failed in the most enormous and public project of my life. Eat my humble pie and face that wall until it is done.

KG: I wonder if you have any words of advice for someone starting off in public art about the challenges.

AL: Have a support system and troubleshoot. Work backwards—Okay, what is every step I am going to do and work backward from the end. Another piece of advice is knowing your materials and knowing what you’re working with. Also, have really good vendors that deliver your materials on time. I mean, you can be as prepared as you can be, and there are still things you cannot predict. That’s part of public art—people are going to engage with it and there are going to be weather conditions outside of your control. There is going to be conflict, so it’s about being diplomatic and learning how to compromise your ultimate idea with what is functional with the space.

MT: Absolutely, you cannot make everyone happy, but that’s the point. The work is there to be a point of beginning and a conversation starter, even, hopefully, difficult conversations.

AL: Yes, public art—especially with all these conversations about monuments—can have the opportunity to be a point of conversation for shifting things forward. If artists can use their privilege to have these conversations in public space, in public space, everyone’s opinion is as valid as mine.

The people at the church were really skeptical at first. They were like, “who is this woman and what is she doing? What is she in for?” They were so judgmental of her. But when the celebration happened, they were able to see her humanity.

MT: Right, she was not abstract anymore. She was a real person. She was not a statistic; she was a human being.

KG: I wonder what is the artist’s responsibility, and what is the commissioning agency’s responsibility, to continue the conversation that was started. Ann, maybe you can talk about what you’re doing with Laura.

AL: I reach out to her every 10 days or so just to see how she is doing. She has left McGrath—she was really itching to get out of there! I can see that she has taken every ounce of support she got from us and put it into making her life better. She has two jobs; her first job starts at 4 am and then she works until 7 pm at night. I love that she is as tenacious as the day that we met her. She wants her life back, and that’s understandable.

Aside from my relationship with her, I am doing a mural in Newark in conjunction with a huge show about incarceration. Mine specifically focuses on women. I am also in touch with legislators to advocate for laws that ease the issues women face in prison. I was really inspired by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz about keeping your legislators on task and accountable. I am in touch with local lawmakers that want to make these changes and then use the art as a platform for those conversations. Changing public opinion is half the battle for the laws to be on the table or enforced. This project was really eye-opening for me, especially the challenges women face as they are transitioning out of prison.

The finished mural will be up through September 2018.

The finished mural will be up through September 2018.