|Frank Morris tests a mock-up of one of 10 Parkway Emblems. Markers are being installed on E, N and S Parkways.|
Article by Isabelle Campbell
The city of Memphis has changed much since the year 1900, but one element has remained constant – the Parkways, the markers of the original city limits. From the hands and mind of artist Frank Morris, North, South, and East Parkways will soon receive ten distinctive emblems at their major intersections. Each emblem will stand ten feet tall and will be constructed of steel, iron, and brushed aluminum. Just as these emblems will reflect a quality of distinction from their parkway locations, they will also symbolically reflect the past and present of Memphis. While one great aim of this project is to improve the aesthetics of Memphis’s oldest streets without abandoning the history that these roadways have seen, the other is to form a meaningful connection to the people of the present day.
“I love the way you can ambush people with art,” Morris says, “They can’t stop it – they can’t un-see it.” The Parkway Emblems Project pays homage to the rich cultural history of Memphis through examination of what that history means in a contemporary context. “Vision is so important in the formative stages of art,” Morris remarks, noting that a “strong concept” must be developed which gives correct degrees of attention to the themes and background of a piece. Half the fun, Morris shares, is the adventure of developing the style and format of a new piece and the challenge of tackling diverse types of projects. As this project is the artist’s first public art commission, he learned that process takes a standard 3-5 year timeframe from beginning to end, comparable in process and review mechanism to architecture and the construction industry. Morris says that he has been having a fun adventure with the project, which is being facilitated by the UrbanArt Commission for the City of Memphis Public Art Program.
For Morris himself, the Parkway Emblems are a culmination of his many practiced talents. His scope as an artist has extended throughout a variety of mediums and commissions, including private portraits, portraits of past U.S. presidents, and a series of commemorative coins (including five currently in productions and several more that are pending) for the U.S. Mint. Morris has also lent his talents to up-and-coming artists, as a teacher at the School of Visual Design in New York City, at the Memphis College of Art, and at his own home studio. A born Memphian, Frank Morris estimates that about ninety percent of his works is done for locations beyond Memphis. As a local, Morris feels deeply connected to the people and culture of Memphis that his Parkway Emblems commission will represent. The combination of both his global and local perspectives make the artist’s role as creator of Memphis’s iconic new markers all the more significant to the representation of the culturally burgeoning city.
Morris tips his hat to the UrbanArt Commission’s mission of promoting unlimited thinking to all people, many of whom are unaware of the effect art is having on them at a subconscious level. “Even if people do not realize it, art instills a sense of hope,” Morris shares. With the Parkway Emblems, he hopes to impact people on both conscious and subconscious levels, and especially those who have less regular access to art in their communities. Morris hopes that others will find personal connections in the Parkway Emblems, just as he has found and integrated elements of himself into their creation. “I do art and I am a dad,” the artist shares. The concentration of the Parkway Emblems project in the Memphis area has allowed Morris, a single father, to involve his daughter in the artistic process. In short, the Parkway Emblems have come to symbolize so many elements of the artist’s life. For Frank Morris, his personal history and his present identity as an artist and father have intersected to embody a greater sense of meaning within this public art commission. The introduction of these emblems to the Memphis community at key Parkway nodes presents a similar opportunity to others driving along the Memphis Parkways, to discover bits of their own history and even subconscious present.