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On the blog: Public art, placemaking and community: The heart and mind of a community

February 16, 2014

By Jennifer A. Easton, San Jose Public Art

Take a moment and conjure in your mind an artist, specifically a sculptor, working on a new piece.

Take your time, I'll wait...

All right, I'm going to guess that many of you thought about someone, likely a man (but that's for another blog post), in a large studio carving or building away. This is not surprising, indeed that is how many artists are trained through the university or art school system, to conceive and create an artwork and present the completed work (tah dah!) to the world.

And yet, there is a realm of artists who include community as a medium – community as place and community as people. Not far from Rapid City is one of the earliest and definitely largest examples in the United States: Mount.Rushmore. Yet the role of "community" as place and people in the conceptualization and realization of this work is of another time and certainly subject for discussion to this day.

So in our age what happens when an artist comes to a place and a community before they start to create their artwork? Take another moment to think about the artists in and around Rapid City, and I'll bet that through their collective artistic expression you can start to build a sense of the place. Public art is about melding place with an artist's unique aesthetic, and placemaking is utilizing this art as one of many components building the public realm. The public art becomes one of the unique identifiers of a location and collectively these elements become an expression of the values of the people of the community. Public art builds underpinnings for economic health through pride of place. Art is visual values, and the greater the diversity, the healthier the society.

And such is the value of Passage of Wind and Water by Masayuki Nagase. Through the vision of a group of engaged community members, a former parking lot has been transformed into a community focal point. Another parking lot conversion project, by the way, is Chicago's Millennium Park. Both these projects were driven by a desire for economic enhancement to the community, and both recognized the need to create a "heart of the community" – and tellingly both include significant art as a part of that core value.

I had the pleasure of working with Masayuki Nagase on a project for one of our new local libraries. Much as with The Sculpture Project for Main Street Square, the community had identified a strong affinity for the natural elements of this urban neighborhood. In the park adjacent to the library site, there had been a large group of beautiful mature trees that had been removed because they were diseased.

After Yuki was selected for the project, he took the time to learn about the community, who lived there, and what they valued. He designed a conceptual tree that also provided a quiet place to go with a book outside the busy library, and he saw the handprints of the local children as the bark of the tree: its protective layer. And while we weren't fortunate enough to have Yuki in residence, he did go to the nearby school and have the children make the handprints that would become the pattern for the "bark" of the sculpture, he did hear the value the community placed on nature in the midst of the built environment that had disappeared, and he introduced a place into the library where the trees are given strength of memory and continue to provide a place of quiet introspection.

When I heard Yuki was being considered for the Rapid City project, I instantly knew he would be a fantastic choice. He is a gifted artist, particularly with stone, and he has the ability to listen to a place – its people, its past and its presence – even as someone from outside – he quickly becomes "of a place" in his work. And I have experienced first hand his ability to engage a community in his process, so it becomes a shared process – and everyone who visits has a "hand" in the final artwork.

I look forward to visiting Rapid City when Passage of Wind and Water is complete. Congratulations Rapid City on such a beautiful expression of your place.

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