You may have seen them. They appear in downtown St. Louis. Brand new public art. On street corners, in shop windows, on giant buildings, even bright yellow LED lights on multi-storey garages.
But these works of art did not appear there by accident. They represent a years-long process by InSITE STL to bring temporary public art to downtown St. Louis through the Regional Arts Commission’s Downtown STL Public Art initiative.
There are now six large-scale art installations spread across the city centre. But not all of them are murals. There is a wide range of artwork, from murals to digital projections to LED lights.
“Public art is not just beautification, but encourages deeper thinking, understanding, interpretation and interaction with and of the environment around you, in this case downtown St. Louis,” wrote Chloe Smith, grants and program manager at the Regional Commission for the arts.
The idea, however, is not to create long-lasting works of art to be embedded in the fabric of St. Louis. The goal is actually the opposite: to create short-lived art, temporary art that can only last for a year.
“This gave the artists the freedom to choose sites and projects that interested them and would not be hindered by the special considerations that need to be made when a work is intended to be permanent,” says Smith.
The process began in 2018 with an open call for artists from the St. Louis area. InSite STL received over 100 applicants, and the Downtown STL Public Art Initiative Advisory Committee whittled that number down to 10 people. The finalists then had to present their designs, with a budget, samples and Photoshop images.
The advisory committee settled on four projects that will dot the city center. Jenny Murphy painted murals in three different windows on the ground floor. Timothy Portlock projects digital artwork onto a building on Washington Avenue. Van Dyck Murphy Studio has created a sculpture using a 3D printer outside the historic Wainwright Building in the courtyard, although their project won’t be finalized for several weeks.
Jacob Stanley developed Strips of lightLED sculpture in the Park Pacific Apartments parking garage at the intersection of Tucker and Pine streets.
When Stanley first saw the call for artists in 2018, he knew he had to apply.
“I thought, well, this call sounds like it’s for me,” Stanley says.
Stanley is a sculptor who “specializes in temporary large-scale public art” across the country, from a bridge in Richmond, Virginia, to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. This form of short-term art allows him to push his craft while avoiding the restrictive requirements and permissions that come with permanent art.
“If you say it’s temporary, you might be riskier,” he says. “Well, if you really don’t like it and people are complaining, I’ll take it down next weekend and it will last a week. … On a more conceptual level, I love the spontaneity of it, so you had to be there right now.”
Pretty quickly, he developed an idea for his project in St. Louis: he wanted to decorate “boring concrete boxes.”
“I specifically looked for parking garages because no one is like, ‘This parking garage is beautiful,'” Stanley says.
He wanted to match the artwork with the building. He wanted curved lines to ‘soften’ these ‘boring concrete boxes’. He also didn’t want the Cardinals, blues or colors of St. Louis University. He chose yellow, a color that would draw attention without screaming I love sports, allowing viewers to create their own narratives.
“Light has so many specific connotations, whether it’s spiritual, whether it’s uplifting, whether it’s just shock and awe,” he says. “… It’s a good entry point. You don’t need a PhD or an art history degree to appreciate it.”
Kelly Van Dyke Murphy and Jonathan Murphy wanted to do the opposite. They wanted to draw more attention to a 132-year-old building that is often overlooked: the Wainwright Building — considered one of the country’s first skyscrapers.
“We were really interested in coming up with a project that would draw attention to this beautiful old building that people often walk past and don’t really realize its significance,” says Van Dyke Murphy.
But Van Dyke Murphy tried to contrast the historic building with a modern art form. As an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Washington, she worked on a research project using ceramic 3D printing. She decided to create decorative terracotta clay architecture from a 3D printer to complement the Wainwright Building.
“I think that’s what’s super interesting about 3D printing with clay. …it’s a mix of old and new – or really ancient and new,” she says. “Since terra cotta has been around for ages, this building is from the turn of the century. Then we use this new technology to create something.
The design may seem simple and uncomplicated. Isn’t it easy to just 3D print something out? Didn’t Stanley turn off the lights and call it a day?
Far from it. Stanley’s installation, for example, requires meticulous attention to detail. He had to take photos of the building, sketch it out in Photoshop, figure out how to bend 3-inch conduit, zip-tie the LED lighting, bisect the curves with the windows, make custom C-brackets, get to grips with the architecture of the garage drawings, draw the building to scale on paper and then glue the lights onto the drawing.
Then he had to transfer all this work to the parking lot. “I had a very big puzzle to put together on the building itself,” he says.
It was a windy road. The RAC had originally hoped to unveil contributions by 2020, but the pandemic hit, delaying the process by a year and a half. When Stanley began again, numerous setbacks hampered the process. He had to switch parking lots twice and wait for LED lights from China, and when he finally got up there in the fall, he needed two boom lifts to even finish the project.
But everything turned out OK. In January 2023, months after he started, Stanley finally completed the project. Now there are waves of yellow LED lights covering what used to be a large beige box above the Papa John’s building, lighting up St. Louis.
“We choose to make buildings cheap and ugly, or utilitarian ugly,” says Stanley. “But we could also choose to make them full of life.”
This post has been updated.
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