By K.A. Letts
We expect public art— all those fountains, sculptures and murals— to express our civic soul, our collective values and our aspirations, providing visual relief from right angles and concrete.
Ann Arbor’s PowerArt!, an ongoing project sponsored by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, The Arts Alliance and private donors, places the work of some of the city’s most accomplished artists in the open-air. Open for viewing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the ubiquitous and oft-defaced traffic signal boxes, squatting like toads at each major intersection, have been wrapped, and redeemed, in colorful vinyl replicas of work by Washtenaw County artists.
The artists were selected through a two-step process, balancing the expertise of a knowledgeable jury of art professionals with popular sentiment, garnered through an online public vote. The results, so far, have been a hit. Deb Polich, President of the Arts Alliance and manager of the PowerArt! program , says that most people previously ignored the unsightly boxes. “But once they’re covered with something attractive,” she says, “People begin to think, ‘Gosh that was an eyesore before!’”
Some of the fun in PowerArt! is in seeing work around town by talented artists you may know and to pick your favorites. Here are a few that you shouldn’t miss:
John Gutoskey Because I Cannot Sleep (corner of Ashley and Washington)
Gutoskey is a socially aware and politically active media master in assemblage and printmaking. He maintains an active art practice in Ann Arbor, and also curates and shows his highly topical work nationally. Gutoskey recently won Best Juried 2D Prize at Grand Rapids’ Artprize.
Gutoskey’s power box image is from his series of 12 mixed media monoprints Climbing Out of the Abyss, a series where he wrestles with his anxiety over current events: “Haow do I keep a sense of faith in the goodwill of humanity when minorities, immigrants, women and the poor are under constant attack by the government?” he asks.
Gutoskey reaches for the answer in his work.
David Zinn Pen Pals (corner of South Main and William)
Transitioning to the whimsical, the Main Street traffic signal box, adorned with David Zinn’s, gently comical, Pen Pals, depicts an unlikely pairing of a friendly octopus and a little mouse guy. Along with these recurring characters in Zinn’s ongoing sidewalk fairytales, the bulk his art practice is ephemeral. He creates small tromp l’oeil characters and scenarios in chalk and (mostly) outdoors, often leveraging the peculiarities of the built environment such as cracks in the pavement or odd angles in walls to surprise the unwary. Although the images are temporary, photos of the originals often make their way into picture books that Zinn, a graphic artist when he’s not a sidewalk artist, creates and sells on his website.
A certain modesty is built into Zinn’s work by its temporary nature, seemingly saying that it’s enough for him to make us smile.
Leslie Sobel Lake Michigan Blues (corner of William and Division)
Leslie Sobel describes herself as “a hiker, activist, music lover, M.F.A. student.” Her box features a reproduction of her encaustic painting of a view from the Sleeping Bear Dunes, where she camps with her family each summer.
The daughter of two scientists who encouraged her fascination with the natural environment, Sobel is deeply engaged in the study of climate change and passionately involved in environmental advocacy.
Two years ago, Sobel traveled to the Eclipse Icefield in Kluane National Park in Canada’s Yukon Territory with a group of climate scientists, to study glacial changes which have affected the water supply to the Slim River. She explains her contribution to the group as an artist: “One of the central fallacies from those fighting climate change action is that what is here now is normal. It takes data to demonstrate that it is not. We artists can make that into a form that resonates with people, in a way that scientific reporting alone may not be able to do.”
More than two-dozen power boxes
There are over two dozen artist-decorated power boxes peppered around Ann Arbor’s streets right now. Pick your own favorites, perhaps a dreamy childhood memory by Kathy Jacobs, a techno-futurist fantasy by Tim Gralewski, or a catalog of nature’s varied species by Bruce Worden. Options abound with art by and for the community. Enjoy!