Community Public Art Process


Jon Pounds and Olivia Gude have been making and discussing community-based, collaborative public art for over twenty years. In this article, they share their evolving understanding of the goals of community art projects, the role of the artist as community aesthetic investigator, and the benefits for participants.

Public Art and Positive Outcomes

Olivia Gude: Public art, artistic architecture, thoughtfully shaped landscapes can all be centers of community life—literally and spiritually. Material prosperity in a society doesn’t guarantee a sense of well being. Many people long for a sense of belonging and connectedness.

Jon Pounds: We believe community public art builds community. It’s a notion that has spread from cities to towns and rural settings. Community public art projects are opportunities for people to interact, to explore their commonalities and differences.

People are experiencing the ways in which community public art allows them to transcend separateness and difference, to engage each other in conversation and dialogue, to change the spaces, and to enhance their understanding of the place, the community in which they live.

This interactive dialogue combined with creative action results in murals, mosaics, sculptures, and space designs. Places are transformed; the community becomes manifest.

OG: Through collaborative projects, communities can create interesting and amazing things. I’d also like to talk about the social and personal outcomes one can expect when making community public art.

First, let’s consider the outcomes for the direct participants—the people who help with the planning, organizing, fundraising, design, and making of a project. These people frequently report an increased sense of agency, a pride founded in the recognition that they have made a substantive contribution to their environment.

Second, such projects create a sense that individuals and organizations can work together to have an impact on people’s lives. Most projects represent collaborations of several organizations—local agencies, community organizations, schools, government entities. Public art projects demonstrate that such structures can function to enhance community life in practical and deeply emotional ways.

The other two outcomes I’d like to mention relate to the perception of the project by those who were not direct participants. First, one can consider the perception of local people. When people see a fantastic art project in their neighborhood, they perceive themselves as being part of a community that can produce something of high quality. This can overcome internalized negative feelings from living in dysfunctional neighborhoods or in prosperous places that lack a sense of cohesion and belonging.

Another important outcome is the outside recognition that a high-quality community-based public art project can bring to a community. Such a project can change the perception of a community in the city, county, or even national imagination. People often complain about the limited depictions of many aspects of our social and cultural life in the dominant media—often only the problems of poor neighborhoods are represented. Public art is a powerful way for communities to represent themselves in more complex ways to the world.

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Representing the Best We Can Be

Jon Pounds: It’s fair to say that our perceptions of things are an aspect of the reality we live. When people believe something to be true, it has a currency; it lends itself to others believing it also.

Olivia Gude: Yes, consider murals that celebrate multi-racial community—does this mean that there are no racial issues that have to be dealt with in the community? No, it means that this is a community that is willing to make a stand and to say, “We value diversity and justice.” The mural is a symbol of the commitment to working out problems, of bridging the gap between the reality and the ideal.

JP: I think that community public art is well suited to represent the collective consciousness of evolving possibility. In this culture, we tend to think of artistic imagination as the provenance of the individual artistic genius. Community artists can help the collective depict the past and present as they see it and they can also help groups experience and represent how they could be at their best in the future.

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Heteroglossia: Many Voices

Jon Pounds: I’m interested in how community public art functions when one encounters it in the streets of a city or town. Even if you do not know the story of its making, it comes across as not being impersonal, official art. It’s also not individual art that was just put there without thoughtful consideration of the community—like graffiti. It’s art whose authorization and presence comes from a collective sensibility, rather than being handed down from an official entity.

Olivia Gude: It has a quality that I like to call heteroglossia. That sounds like a fancy term, but it just means “many voices.” Community public art represents a commitment to heteroglossia, to creating a society in which many voices can be heard.

Ideally, individual pieces of community public art are in themselves heteroglossic, that a viewer can detect the many hands that made it or perhaps the many stories, memories, and images of which it is composed. One gets the sense that through various unique means and styles, the artist has gathered together unique sensibilities and represented these in the artwork.

JP: It’s not a Tower of Babel multi-voiced setting. There is a conversation, an orchestrated dialogue in which people speak of their understanding. It’s not that there is not disagreement, sometimes even heated disagreement. However, the basic premise of the process is that people will speak frankly, listen carefully, and reflect deeply.

In your project, Echoes of the Heart, a multi-racial group of adults came together to discuss racism on the southwest side of Chicago. People talked from their differing perspectives about their impressions then and now of everyday incidents and historic events such as Martin Luther King’s march for equal housing opportunities in Chicago.

OG: The text and image banners that came out of this dialogue were shown around the area—at churches, schools, community organizations, even at a bank. The project was also shown a varied downtown locations—a large government building, a church, and an art gallery. When encountering these banners it is as though you have suddenly become involved in a frank and interesting conversation about race relations in Chicago—viewers of the piece are drawn into that dialogue.

JP: In community arts processes, a community develops a sense of its identify. The aesthetic process creates opportunities to identify those things that people deem to be important to who they are and who they will become. 

OG: Also, an important part of the meaning of community public art is the stories people have to tell about making the work or witnessing the making of the work. It becomes an oral history of the community that surrounds the art.

JP: In the early mural movement, we often saw images of leaders of social justice movements—people such as Martin Luther King or Cesar Chávez. In recent years, I’ve seen a number of projects that celebrate local heroes. These are present or past community people who through their character, their perseverance, and their imaginations improved conditions in the place in which they lived. For example, in Bernard Williams’ mural, Feed Your Child the Truth, “Ma” Williams, a beloved community organizer is depicted.

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Structuring Dialogue

Olivia Gude: The first task of artists and communities working together to make a public art piece is to engage in dialogue, to create opportunities for people to come together and talk. Out of that discussion, “generative themes” emerge. Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian educator, invented the term “generative themes” to describe the “complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values, and challenges” of an epoch. You could think of it in terms of the issues or problems of the time, but that tends to sound negative. The term “generative themes” highlights that these thematic complexes are full of hope and possibility. They are the issues that either consciously or unconsciously are important in people’s understanding of self and society.

The goal of community dialogue for a public art project is not to come up with a single, simple narrative statement. Through the dialogue, participants identify images and concepts that make up the complex, crisscrossing ideas that are in play at a give time and place.

Jon Pounds: I’d like to make an analogy between community dialogue and the dialogue of friendship. The best community dialogue needs to unfold over time. As artists prepare and plan for dialogue, they must be aware you can’t bring people together and expect that in the very first minutes or even in the very first meetings, that people can necessarily have ease, trust, and the ability to communicate a common sense of what they are concerned about. Dialogues must be planned over a period of time so people can hear each other, reflect, and come back to respond.

Also, new voices can be added into the dialogue—deepening and extending the discussion. For example, a discussion may explore the problems created by “delinquent boys” in the neighborhood. Then the question is raised, “How does life in this area appear to these boys? We’re not sure. Why aren’t they hear to tell us? Let’s invite some kids to join the discussion.”

When community dialogues are structured over time, encounters that are quite unplanned begin to occur in the community. As they go about their everyday lives, participants recognize each other and spontaneously continue the conversation. They also experience other interactions in the community in new ways—everything people hear and see can become resource material for the project. In that way, the dialogue gets immeasurably deeper than if you have only one or two community meetings.

OG: As artists, we’re not trying to resolve the contradictions and paradoxes that come up. We’re letting the conversation flow, leaving things open. By structuring a dialogue as several meetings that take place over a few weeks or months, there is time for trust to build and for previously unconsidered themes to emerge.

JP: Artists who don’t live in the community in which they are working need to allow time to simply be there at unscheduled, unexpected times—to wander the streets, hang out in a park, to see what’s available at the local stores, to chat with residents, to really experience the life of the place. By scheduling this extra “research time,” the artist can bring forward his or her own knowledge and observations as a contribution to the dialogical process.

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Artistic Investigation

Olivia Gude: Some people think that the goal of art is only to beautify. It’s important to also recognize that in the history of aesthetics another important purpose of art has traditionally been to investigate and represent various aspects of human experience. The artistic process is a way of producing new knowledge. As one plans a community art residency, I believe it’s important to focus on art as investigation. How can the community make use of an “aesthetic investigator” to learn more about itself?

People sometimes think that this notion of investigation is essentially negative, but that is far from the case. Positive aspects of experience are often less conscious and more underrepresented than problems. For example, a community may not have a strong sense of its own many functional qualities or of the uniqueness of its local cultural traditions. An “outside investigator” can help a community to see and appreciate itself.

Jon Pounds: I want to reflect on your use of the word “beautify” as a possible goal of public art. Perhaps a better word to use is “enhancement.” It doesn’t suggest this notion of merely “prettifying.” By talking about public art as enhancing the public sphere, we recognize that a quality in the place or community that is already present is being enhanced and highlighted.

There is a fundamental paradox at the heart of the community artist’s relationship with a community. In modern art, there is a strong tradition that the artist is someone who stands apart, who sees more clearly because he or she (in the past, usually a he!) is alienated.

For a community artist, there has to be a balance between including oneself in the community by consciously refusing this tradition of artistic alienation and standing enough apart from the community so as to preserve one’s perspective and psychic distance and thus to better see and serve the community. One of the things that the artist has to do in the dialogical process is to carefully listen to what the community is foregrounding, but to also be aware of what is in the background, what is not being said, what is the shape of the negative spaces in the discourse. The artist can assert these missing things, not as being fundamental or primary, but as being of value in creating a more nuanced understanding of the community.

OG: The artist is not a transparent medium who channels the community’s ideas into a comprehensive, normative representation. I like to think of artists as specialized lenses. Each artist focuses on particular themes, images, or concerns because each community artist brings to the community unique styles of organizing, dialoguing, conceptualizing, and imaging. The artist’s job is to shape the artistic inquiry and to use her or his skills to make each participant’s insights a vivid contribution to the community’s awareness and vision. Each community artist paints a different portrait of a community.

The uniqueness of each artist’s way of working with community is a facet of his or her artmaking process—just as artists have different styles of drawing or brushwork. Artists have various methods of engaging community people in identifying themes, developing designs, and executing the final artwork. These collaborative working processes evolve over time-- just as an artist’s visual style evolves. Artists also use different methods depending on the situation and circumstances on a particular project. In the best work, there is a seamless interweaving of the dialogical, investigatory, and aesthetic processes.

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Evolving Styles of Community Process

Jon Pounds: The rich history of community art in Chicago includes the amazing work of Calvin Jones and Mitchell Caton, two preeminent muralists of the African American community. Mitchell and Calvin didn’t make much use of formal meetings with the community. They were deeply committed artists who were in touch with the themes of contemporary Black life in Chicago. Their “community outreach” was conducted on the street—being part of the political and aesthetic dialogue of the culturally vibrant Southside of Chicago. The community to which they belonged extended beyond the local Chicago community to a larger sense of connectedness based on the struggle for Black empowerment and the emerging sense of an international African-inspired diasporic art style.

When they worked together they talked over what they wanted to communicate and often created only quick sketches to plan the next day’s work on a mural in progress. Once I visited them at a site and saw the drawing for a large mural hastily sketched on the back of an envelope!

Many of the early murals in Chicago were designed by artists after holding meetings with community members in order to identify important issues and themes. Since that time the methods of designing murals have continued to proliferate and evolve.

Olivia Gude: We live at a time in the U.S. when there is not as much acknowledged consensus about social goals or strategies to achieve them. One of the roles of the community arts movement can be to build social consensus and ideally to stimulate utopian thought through collaborative design processes. The art becomes a place where the community identifies its past successes, its current values, and then attempts to formulate common goals.

There is a quality to these kind of collaborative investigations that might be considered halting or fumbling—sometimes it’s not obvious where to find firm, progressive, common ground.

Yet, the process of dialogue and articulation, sometimes as it unfolds over a number of years in a variety of projects, is nonetheless part of a larger social movement that works by building social solidarity, representing and solidifying support for the values of causes such as the civil rights movement, and then attempts to extend or re-imagine those values in new arenas. I know that this may sound like an overly romantic vision of collaborative community-based public art, but I think that we need to ask, “Can people really begin to take responsibility for the global environment if they don’t feel in control of their local environment? Can people care about the well being of folks in another part of the world if they can’t connect to their own neighbors?”

JP: Community public art gives people a sense of agency, of the efficacy of being involved. Well-planned community projects create many opportunities for people to participate —involving people in the planning, artmaking, fundraising, and celebrating. The artist, often working with a local organizer, identifies the multiple capacities of the community residents. The process of a community art project allows the community to utilize and value its own range of abilities—craft skills, organizing know-how, technical knowledge, ability to fundraise, or even childcare expertise.

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Collaborative Design with a Community Team

Jon Pounds: Sometimes people who do not have drawing skills find the thought of being involved in a design process to be very intimidating, but participants who have very little art experience can still make important contributions to a community design process. They may feel anxiety about whether their ideas can be translated visually into something that can be understood and admired. People sometimes say, “I can only draw stick figures.”

Olivia Gude: I respond, “Stick figures can be very expressive.” A sketch with stick figures can be used to communicate ideas to other members of the design team. Each artist might make use of such a simple sketch in a different manner. One artist might take stick figures drawn by community people and create stylish abstracted figures from them. Another artist might identify the dynamic content of the sketch and use it to develop a naturalistic drawing that harmonizes with the overall realistic style of the mural. Both are authentic ways of utilizing community design ideas.

We usually begin the process with larger meetings in which many people dialogue together to identify and develop important themes. Later somewhat smaller meetings of 10 to 20 people engage in the more intensive process of developing the images and aesthetic structuring of the work.

Design team meetings are conducted as art workshops and often include art lessons to aid participants in extending their creative and technical capacities. For example, I’ve done workshops with middle school age kids as well as adults in which I teach them simple techniques to turn stiff silhouettes into interesting, action-oriented figures. People are enchanted by their own enhanced skills and will return to the task of developing scenes or vignettes to illustrate themes with increased sensitivity and enthusiasm. I think a good community artist is also a good art educator who can develop appropriate art lessons that build the participants’ self-confidence and communicative capacity.

JP: Olivia, I’ve noticed that you often don’t organize the design process in a way that creates a single style of representation within the artwork. For example, in Fellows & Others designed with Juan Chavez, you use artwork by participants at various skill levels and in various styles—the design includes children’s drawings, silhouetted figures created by teens, diagrams, and sophisticated figure painting. You are not attempting to level the drawings so that they look as though they were drawn by the same hand.

The many styles of drawing as well as quotes and texts written by various community participants foreground that the piece is composed of the work of many different individuals. It is part of the meaning of the piece that the different styles interact and co-exist.

OG: One style of design that is very common in community public art is a montage method. In this style of working, the artist collects the drawings of many people and plans a composition that brings together the most significant images. The final drawing is done by the artist so that the completed work has an aesthetically unified style.

In recent years, we’ve seen more emphasis on a “collage style” mural. Imagery is accrued from different places and then there is a deliberate emphasis on maintaining the look of disparate sources when the mural is drawn and painted. The juxtaposition of various representational styles within a single painting was a hallmark of postmodern painting since the eighties and such deliberate disparity can be used in murals to suggest the disparate complexity of community life.

Analytic and Intuitive Designing

OG: Community aesthetic process can be orchestrated in a way that is very intuitive and expressive. Collaborative design isn’t just talking, identifying themes, and then illustrating them. In recent years, I’ve incorporated guided meditations, movement exercises, and Surrealist word games into my design practice.

The group gradually becomes a collective, creative entity and design ideas begin to flow.

JP: It’s important for artists to remember the role of trial and error, of actual experimentation in developing designs. By putting an idea forward, not just in words, but in a drawing on paper, it can be examined and commented on by others. Someone may pick up on an idea and alter or add to it. Images are developed through various points of view and by many hands. The ideas are tested visually and then discarded or refined.

OG: Some of my best work has come out of design processes where both these ways of working co-exist—moving back and forth between an intuitive process and an analytical process. The artistic process one engages in with a group is a mirror of one’s individual artistic process. A community artist expands the boundaries of his or her own artmaking to bring other people into that experience.

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Individual Contributions

Jon Pounds: Another interesting strategy for involving community members in designing a public art piece is to create opportunities for individuals to make individual elements that will be incorporated into the final artwork.

A dramatic example of this type of collaboration is the large-scale ceramic tile piece, Hopes and Dreams. During workshops at the Field Museum, literally thousands of “drop-in” participants made relief tiles on the theme of their hopes and dreams for the new millennium. These were then glazed and used by the artists as the basic unit in creating the overall design.

Olivia Gude: Here’s another example of this strategy of individual contributions. All the teens in the Gallery 71 program that summer designed a personal leaf that was used to make The Tree of Life at the end of the mural. Here the image and the design process are completely in sync—people are depicted carrying vessels of water to the tree, a symbol of people contributing their individual life energy to creating a flourishing community.

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The Meaning of Making Together

Jon Pounds: Every community public artist can tell wonderful stories about the pleasure and joy that people express to them as they encounter a community artwork in progress. There’s a real raising of spirit that comes from seeing something being done well by a harmonious group of people.

Olivia Gude: The work contributed by community members to a project has real practical value. I’m thinking of a mosaic project such as You Belong Here! that has especially intricate, varied, and amusing tile work—it’s difficult to imagine that project being done by a single artist and a few assistants—there’s so much kooky, creative energy in the piece.

Because people who read this will be responsible for developing timelines and budgets, I want to stress that lots of volunteer time does not mean that one can reduce the time frame for which the professional artist needs to be available for the design and oversight of the project. Training, designing collaborative approaches, and supervising initially unskilled workers can often take more time than an artist working alone in a studio with a few professional assistants. The pay off comes in the quality of the work and in the community’s commitment to the process and final product.

JP: Something that we have mentioned about the collaborative design process is equally true of processes of collaborative making—people both bring skills and they learn skills through the work. Artist directors need to learn to externalize for others the ways in which their own skills have developed and to create opportunities for the participants to build their skill levels.

When regular participants experience their creative and technical skills growing throughout the process, their commitment and enthusiasm increases. Their focus for the work increases.

OG: When I was working on a very tall mural in DeKalb, Illinois, volunteers would come to me and say, “I’d like to work on this, but I can’t go any higher than 10 feet.” Over the course of the summer, people became increasingly confident and enthusiastic and would decide that they could work a bit higher and then a bit higher and then higher up. There was a tremendous psychic uplift as people literally rose toward the sky as they met personal and collective goals.

Many people have a deep interest in learning crafts; I think craftwork can provide balance to the high tech society in which many people live and work. Now there is an unquestioned assumption that when people engage in crafts, it will be a solitary activity and produce a private product—a needlework picture or a spice rack. There is great potential for translating the interest in crafts such as mosaics or ceramics into making collaborative projects that produce intricate permanent public artworks that will last for generations.

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Paradoxical Community

Jon Pounds: Communities are like mosaics. They are created by loving attention over time.
Each element has its own gleaming, individual identity while also contributing to the
whole picture.

Olivia Gude: I like that image, Jon, I think it speaks in a really powerful way to the strength and positive qualities of living in community. However, I also want to acknowledge that sometimes the values and ideas of a community can seem restraining and oppressive to some people and that it’s important that we don’t romanticize the notion of collectivity by denying the potential problems of enforced conformity.

JP: Yes, even as we do this work to create permanent community monuments, we have to remember that ideally communities are fluent and open to change and redefinition.

A community project is a snapshot—ideally a snapshot of a community always in transition.

Art has often played an important role in developing thoughtful, nuanced individuals and can be pivotal in creating thoughtful, nuanced communities.

OG: The artworks are concrete symbols of connectedness, of people’s capacity to form meaningful bonds and to work together to shape their lives in meaningful ways. For many years, I have reflected on Martin Luther King’s phrase “beloved community”—the potential to create a loving society that offers pleasure and justice to all its citizens.

I believe that artmaking is a powerful form of eros, of the energy to make loving bonds.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about a notion I came across when reading Julia Kristeva, a French psychoanalyst. She talks about the notion of “paradoxical community.” That is a wonderful image to consider when planning a public art project. We can be individuals and part of a collective.

We can feel the community’s strength and warmth, but we can also acknowledge its gaps and its paradoxes.

We can be in an artistic dialogue in which we experience the tension of oppositions and lack of resolution, but there is still loving engagement. We are in an intense, unresolved and irresolvable, but ultimately fascinating, conversation. I think that’s the goal of community public art--to represent and carry on the community conversation. 

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