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Saving the world, one painting at a time: How public art can revitalize a city

  • 8 min to read
Saving the world, one painting at a time: How public art can revitalize a city

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a 3-part series within the "Rising from Rust" project that published Aug. 13-15 looking at how public art can help revitalize a city.

Walking down the path of the Richland B&O Trail, only one shade envelops the world around you: green.

On a muggy August day after rainfall, the air on the trail hangs heavy and the unmistakable smell of nature saturates the senses. The sound of your breath and the crackle of pavement under your shoes are the only things you hear for at least half a mile down the trail from North Lake Park, until the hum of a car over a bridge pierces the silence at 4th Street.

And then you see it – the unnatural pop of color out of the corner of your eye, a stark contrast to the emerald background in which it is immersed. Walk a little further under the bridge, and you soon find yourself standing before a behemoth canvas of paint -- yellows and blues and oranges colliding.

A smattering of graffiti tags accompany the art under the bridge, but mostly leave the painting untouched, save for one modestly hidden phrase: “Love More.”

The mural, titled “6:07 A.M.” was created by local artist Mark Calloway in 2016 as a partnership with Mankind Murals Inc. and Friends of North Lake Park. The goal of the mural was to brighten the B&O trail and entice more visitors.

This and other murals have been popping up across Mansfield ever since the creation of the nonprofit Mankind Murals Inc. back in 2015. A colorful revitalization of the city was exactly what creator Luke Beekman envisioned.

“I think Mansfield is really ripe for this opportunity right now to be in this stage of renewal and growth,” Beekman said. “It takes a lot of hard work to get where we’re going, and there are a lot of different players and people making it happen. The success of something like murals is in the ability to be collaborative and be open to the possibilities.”

A filmmaker by trade, Beekman serves as more of a project director than a muralist. He helps coordinate and envision a project - he sees the opportunity. He has the vision. Then he works to get the artists hired or brings together the community for a project.

“I’m able to step back and capture it from different angles as it’s happening, and to me that’s really gratifying because at the end of the day I get to help direct a piece of real life with artists and to actually have a finished project at the end that can be appreciated by a lot of people.”

Beekman was inspired to introduce the idea of public art in Mansfield while studying abroad during his education at the University of Miami in Florida. While in Prague, he discovered a free art wall – where anyone is welcome to contribute to the art – that was first created after the murder of iconic singer/songwriter John Lennon.

At the time of Lennon’s death in 1980, the Czech Republic was still under communist regime. Lennon’s lyrics of peace and freedom inspired a number of graffiti pieces featuring his lyrics and image on what came to be known as the “Lennon Wall.” Communist police continuously attempted to whitewash the wall, but by the next day it was again full of art. Eventually, authorities gave up, and the Lennon Wall still stands.

“In that circumstance, art was the driving factor and one of the things that helped change the culture,” Beekman said. “I think a town like Mansfield has a use for something like that.”

In Mansfield’s case, an infusion of public art could change the culture of the city by enhancing and highlighting the culture that already exists. It could create a renewed sense of adventure and possibility not just for visitors, but for longtime residents.

“I hope there’s going to be a very visible impression that art is positively impacting our city, and the impression of the city, and gives people an opportunity to explore and learn whether they’re from here or not,” Beekman said.

Have you ever experienced the feeling of arriving at work, and suddenly wondering how in the world you got there?

This feeling of coasting through your commute is universal. Oftentimes, when you're traveling a route you are familiar with day after day, you forget to take in the sights you're passing. You may even miss something new and exciting in your own city.

One person who understands the importance of perpetually exploring their own city is Matthew Stanfield, owner and principal architect at FiEld9: architecture, a Mansfield firm with a mind for community.

“Architecture is a culture act that serves as a means to shape community,” the company’s website states. “It creates space, not simply buildings; space to interact and engage. It serves as the field in which activity takes place and the scaffolding upon which our community is built.”

Stanfield was one of 15 people to travel to Austin, Texas as part of the local SXSW419 project created with the intent to reimagine Richland County. As an architect and frequent biker around the city of Mansfield, Stanfield traveled to Austin with walkability in mind.

“Walkability” is loosely defined as the measure of how friendly an area is to walking, which has measurable benefits on the health, environmental and economic well-being of a community. The app “Walk Score” gives Mansfield a score of 30 out of 100, rating Mansfield a “car-dependent” city.

“I have spent a fair amount of time riding my bike and walking around the city of Mansfield,” Stanfield wrote in a blog for the #SXSW419 project. “As such, I would have thought I had a pretty good grasp on the deficiencies that hinder walkability in Mansfield.”

Some of these problems include the crumbling state of sidewalks, litter, and the sprawling blueprint of the city of Mansfield. These are some of the same challenges facing the City of Shelby.

Shelby’s Project Manager Joe Gies faced the city’s problem of walkability head-on by attending a walkability conference in Atlanta nearly two years ago. Even something as simple as installing curb ramps, especially in low-income areas, can make a drastic difference in a city.

“A lot of people don’t realize how important that is because for one, it’s the law, and for two it does make a big difference in changing the focus.

“Some people may say we need to put our focus on the areas where the most travel is, but in low-income areas, that’s the only way they can get to work or the grocery store, so you need to look at that and how it might affect the economy.”

In the bigger picture, Gies and his colleagues were also challenged with creating different programs encouraging people to walk more and improve their health.

But it’s not just about the function or the health of walking – it’s also about creating a place for people to walk to.

“We’ve got a group really starting to talk about getting downtown spruced up,” Gies said. “We don’t have shade trees so walking downtown is hot, or if we had benches you could stop and sit and talk. It all ties in together.”

It turns out the city of Austin is plagued with many of the same problems as Mansfield and Shelby, down to cracked pavements and unkempt sidewalks. Despite this, Stanfield deemed the city of Austin very walkable, and Walk Score rates Austin as the 33rd most walkable large city in the country.

The defining factor? Visual interest.

“Austin is a visually interesting city. The density certainly contributes to this,” Stanfield wrote. “But it is really the public art that is the strongest contributing factor.

"From murals on buildings, to sidewalk mosaics, to stunning buildings (both old and new), Austin has something to catch the eye and imagination on nearly every block.”

Having a destination can certainly make up for some of the deficiencies of walkability, Stanfield said. But relying on having a destination falls short of what makes a place truly walkable.

“It does not account for the wanderer. The explorer. These are the people that really test the walkability of the city,” Stanfield said.

The trip prompted Stanfield to wonder, what could Mansfield look like with an ever-changing landscape of public art? What could happen if the city gave itself the space to be creative and inspiring?

Luke Beekman of Mankind Murals believes he has the answer.

“It’s about trying to connect the dots and trying to find opportunities where public art can happen and then we breathe new life into the city, with an artistic design or something that is community-based where everyone can take part,” Beekman said.

If there are two things that tend to go hand-in-hand, it's abandoned structures and graffiti.

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Yes, some graffiti art is meant to be destructive and offensive. However, others -- despite their illicit creation -- are a display of talent in a unique medium. The trick is how to harness this creative spirit in a community-friendly fashion.

One way Luke Beekman and Mankind Murals hopes to break new ground in Mansfield is by embracing urban art as a way to beautify – but within the rules. To do so, Beekman has developed a strong working relationship with the city's safety services.

“Nobody appreciates freelance vandalism,” said Mansfield police Chief Ken Coontz. “It’s not as much of a problem today as it has been in the past, but it is a problem.”

As of May 2018, Coontz estimated nearly 40 instances of graffiti in the city, writings or drawings illicitly painted on a wall and often within public view. However, the city has noticed that when a mural is introduced in a graffiti-popular area, the vandalism is often discouraged.

“You can go back to the 1990s where they talk about if you let one broken window go unfixed, another one eventually gets broken, and that kind of decay invites more decay,” Coontz said. “A key crime-prevention strategy is environmental design and maintenance.

“When people see that there are people that care about those specific areas, they are less likely to commit crimes in those areas.”

This idea has had some success in Moncton, the largest city in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. When the blank wall of a Moncton flea market became vulnerable to tagging with racist insults, artists were inspired to take action.

Huddle, an online news organization created to highlight entrepreneurs and economic advancement in New Brunswick, reported the success of this public art in the article, “How murals help reduce graffiti vandalism and attract people to downtown Moncton.”

Matt Kingsley Williston, co-founder of Festival Inspire, an annual event that puts 32 murals and installations by Canadian and international artists around greater Moncton, told public safety officials at an Anti-Graffiti Symposium in May that public art in the form of murals can reduce vandalism.

According to Williston, many of the walls painted through Festival Inspire have seen little to no graffiti painted on them. That's in stark contrast to walls that are empty.

“People that are putting up socially conscious and community sensitive murals in this town are fighting the same fight,” Williston said. “It’s to squash the vandalism that’s going on and get art and culture in cities -- and to have a fun, colorful, artistic place to live.”

The idea of commissioning mural artists in an attempt to reduce graffiti is not a new one. A research article titled “The Mural as Graffiti Deterrence,” published in May 2006, detailed an experiment where one half of a wall that was known to attract graffiti was painted with a colorful mural, while the other half was left blank.

The blank side of the wall was subject to significantly higher levels of graffiti during the course of the experiment than the mural section.

Beekman hopes to model the same idea with a “free art” space where urban art can exist, but with boundaries. Both Coontz and Mansfield Safety-Service Director Lori Cope are on board.

“We try to include them and recognize they have a skill and it is art, but we want them to funnel it to the right area,” Cope said.

Coontz noted there was a big difference between graffiti and art, and stated his appreciation for the public art projects led by Mankind Murals.

“The business owners downtown, along with the administration, have done a great job at revitalizing Mansfield downtown, and I think if we have more things like that it will help get people out of their cars and get them walking around,” Coontz said. “The visual improvement from just turning a blank wall into something beautiful is great.”

In addition to a free art space dedicated to urban art, Beekman has quite a few other tricks up his sleeve to encourage public art in Mansfield, from special invisible paint that only reveals itself when it rains, to paint specific to pavement in order to cover offensive graffiti on the bike trail.

He also has big plans for the future of art in Mansfield. Decades-old murals that already exist in the city are on track to be revitalized, as well as new historic-themed murals to be created. Mansfield could host its own mural tour someday, he said.

In the way of a filmmaker, Beekman has vision, and another lesson learned from the industry: collaboration -- especially when it comes to involving the entire community.

“I see a ton of opportunity, and know a ton of artists,” Beekman said. “Being able to watch something go from a dilapidated state to a renewed state, that sense of revitalization is something everyone has an affinity for.

“It gives a person a good feeling, so if they can take part in any way, shape or form, you’re just opening the doors for more beautification and revitalization coming directly from the citizens."

This Solutions Journalism story is brought to you in part by the generous support of our Newsroom Partners: Spherion, Visiting Nurses Association, PR Machine Works, Nanogate/Jay Systems, DRM Productions, OhioHealth Mansfield Hospital, Richland Bank, Mechanics Bank, Area Agency on Aging, and many others. To learn more about Solutions Journalism at Richland Source click the "About Solutions Journalism."

Journalism nerd. Adopted Shelby resident; Dayton native. Proud OSU alum. Coffee enthusiast.