Community Artist as Space Designer
by Jeff Huebner




The first version of this article appeared in the Chicago Public Art Group Newsmagazine, Volume 6, Number 2, Fall 1999: Remaking the City: the Community Artist as Urban Designer. Edited by John Pitman Weber. Written by Jeff Huebner.

Using a range of common materials and collaborative approaches, community public artists work in such forms as art parks, “garden galleries,” landscape design projects, playspaces, hand-sculpted and cast seating areas, relief sculptures, columns, archways, and pavements. While the roots of the community-built art in Chicago go back at least to the mid-seventies, sculptural and space design projects have gained momentum in recent years as more artists and citizens have staked a claim in their communities by building unique and complex works intended to provide a sense of identity, stewardship, and place.

It’s art and also urbanism--an accessible form of urbanism because it involves the use of materials that people from all walks of life can relate to. It involves community-artists (on behalf of their client-residents) gaining a foothold in territories traditionally occupied by urban designers, space planners, landscape architects, and commissioned sculptors.

“It’s about the importance of people being able to modify their environments, about residents having a role in the design of their public space,” emphasizes Jon Pounds, Chicago Public Art Group’s director. “Not only imagining, but changing—actually shaping their world.”

We in Chicago were pioneers in terms of community involvement in shaping the environment,” remarks John Pitman Weber, cofounder of CPAG and an artist who participated in making such works as Living Circle and For the People of the Future. Over the last three decades, community sculpture has taken many forms, including enhancing walls with concrete reliefs, constructing playpieces for schoolyards, installing mosaic benches in public spaces, and the creation of large-scale, site-integrated projects such as Uptown’s From Many Paths We Come or Navy Pier’s Water Marks.

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Soft Technologies

For community-built works the use of materials is key. Most traditional, modern, and contemporary public sculpture requires the knowledge of specialized, expensive technologies such as cutting and welding steel, bronze casting, stone and granite carving. Community-built art usually involves the use of “soft technologies"—common building materials such as wood, concrete, brick, clay, and ceramic or glass mosaic.

These low-tech, relatively low-cost materials, along with the labor-intensive methods used to shape them, can produce tangible and visually satisfying results in the hands of participants without prior training when led by skilled community artists. “The use of familiar materials engages the energy of many participants,” Weber explains. “Adults who are too inhibited to join a painting team will help lay pavement, mix cement, etc.”

“It’s interesting how the conjunction of physical work, craft, community volunteerism, and art brings people together from different directions,” comments Olivia Gude, an artist who developed many of the community outreach strategies for the Water Marks project.

Some people will come to work on a project because of their interest in art and crafts and will find great pleasure in connecting up with other people. Some come because they value participation and community involvement and find that they get in touch with their artistic spirit. It’s great to see someone who arrives announcing that he will only be there to dig a foundation, gradually be lured into the artistic aspects of the work.

Strong communities are built out of people who can sense their individual wholeness and complexity as well as their interconnectedness.”


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Contested Space

“Community-built art is a natural extension and development from the mural form,” says Pounds, trained as a sculptor and now active in developing opportunities for community space design.  Extending the symbolic meaning of walls, works often enter (literally and figuratively) what Weber and Pounds call “contested space.”  Pounds comments, “Community sculpture, like murals, is the assertion of people’s rights to express and transform their space. It’s like a mural extending itself off the wall into the air in front of it. In the same way that it’s important for people to “own” an image on a flat wall, people who collectively transform a space can take responsibility and ownership of that space too.”

“Whose public space?” is a question that lies at the crux of community-built art. While contemplating and planning projects, artists, residents, and activists must be aware of the issues of ownership and control. They must ask themselves (and others) questions such as, “Who or what ‘owns’ this space physically and/or symbolically? Who or what is it being designed for? Who will use it? Whose presence will be symbolized, invited, included? Will the site’s ‘official’ history predominate or will alternative histories be commemorated?”

Community-built space is political by virtue of its process and physical fact. It occupies space and thus involves the control and ownership of land—a commodity, which, for many, is hard to obtain. By creating built works, community residents take possession of space and stake a claim in their present and future.

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Building Community Culture

“Original art makes a space a lot more interesting—who can resist that?” says Glenda Daniel, Open Land’s coordinator of urban projects….People in the neighborhood will give artists ideas and they’ll translate it into something wonderful and the community feels that it is theirs. African Americans have a long tradition of creating gardens with homemade art.”

Archi-treasures director Joyce Fernandes points out that there are benefits to such places beyond the art, plants, and other improvements. “Our projects are meant to be outdoor places for the community, not just schools, to gather and use,” she says. “These kinds of public spaces are really meaningful in our culture—it’s not mall culture.”

“It takes space to make a community—whether it’s actual space or cyberspace, there must be a place where people can come together to interact,” notes Gude. “A problem of contemporary society is that we have many choices for how to use our leisure time, but actually relatively few choices that involve getting connected to a diverse group of people in our own neighborhoods for work, play, or reflection.”

Community artmaking offers a process by which this interconnectivity can happen: community sculpture and space design leave behind a product, a place in which further spontaneous interaction can take place. Often residents who participated in the making of a project or who were enthusiastic observers “hang out” by the finished project, setting in motion a community discourse as they share information about the making and meaning of the piece.

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Art Education for Citizenship

CPAG artist Mirtes Zwierzynski has created numerous community-based mosaics since the mid-1980s. In the last several years, an increasing amount of her mosaic work has been incorporated into community-built works—cast concrete pieces that are part of larger urban design and art environments. “I think with painted murals, the most important thing is content,” says Zwierzynski. “But with this work the content is inside the concept of how to occupy space. You have to take into consideration the environment and the different ways to occupy space. You want to find a way to incorporate art into the environment that makes sense—that makes an impact on the landscape and makes it meaningful to the space.”

Zwierzynski often works with school and youth groups on projects, selecting kids’ drawings and adapting them into over-all designs.  “We learn about the landscape,” she says, “and we discuss where to put pieces. I make them conscious of how art goes into the environment.”

Artists, teachers, and art-education directors agree that the interdisciplinary study of community-built environments and group design can enhance students’ skills in many areas besides art—math, language, science, sociology, and history as well as teamwork and decision-making. Perhaps most important of all, young people learn—through the principles of participatory democracy and civic responsibility—how creating a sense of community takes more than just building with bricks and mortar.

“The importance of this work is that it gives kids the opportunity to realize they can transform their immediate environment,” says Pounds. “ And there are tremendous lessons in that—practically, metaphorically, spiritually, and potentially globally.”

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