Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Dorian Spears and the 25 SQ Public Art Initiative: A Portrait

Dorian Spears (center) with artist Cat Normoyle and her husband
at the 25 SQ Crosstown festival in fall 2012.

By Alexis Becton
Since moving back to Memphis from Atlanta, GA, Dorian Spears has been known for her involvement around the city of Memphis. She has been active in a variety of organizations including Women of Achievement and Give 365. For the past two years she has been part of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team (MIDT). The initiative is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s charitable foundation. The $4.7M grant addresses both challenges of reducing handgun violence among young black males and increasing neighborhood economic vitality. 
The Innovation Delivery Team is comprised of eight members including Spears. The team initially researched and then focused on three areas in Memphis: South Memphis, Binghampton and Madison/Cleveland/Crosstown. Under the 25 SQ programs the Mayor’s team began to partner with neighborhoods that suffered from economic disinvestment for an extended period. Each area is comprised of 25-square blocks, hence the title of the program. The Division of Public Works – Office of Neighborhood Improvement stepped in to discard trash and other unwanted items in the neighborhoods. The next phase entailed working with local artists. For this purpose, the MIDT partnered with the UrbanArt Commission, which led the artist selection and public art process. The 25 SQ Public Art Initiative was launched and neighborhood artists were selected following a curatorial review by the team.
Dorian Spears at one of three 25 SQ neighborhood charrettes held at the
J.E. Walker House of LeMoyne-Owen College in winter 2012/13.
Public art for the three 25 SQ neighborhoods began with neighborhood meetings and charrettes in South Memphis. In Crosstown, a public call for ideas and artist recruitment process was held at a 25 SQ street festival on Cleveland Street in fall 2012. In Binghampton, partner meetings took place at Caritas Village and a 25 SQ festival was organized on Broad Avenue in spring 2013. For the 25 SQ Public Art Initiative, a series of high-impact, low-budget public art projects has been commissioned in 2013 and 2014.
Community-based artists Darlene Newman of South Memphis / Soulsville, Frank D. Robinson of Binghampton and Shea Colburn Midtown along with other artists have been creating public art at a number of sites. Murals on plywood boards were painted at the Stax to the Max Festival in April 2013, destined for abandoned buildings, as well as at Caritas Village and at the Carpenter Art Garden in Binghampton, where the mural vignettes will be installed along fences at Binghampton Park, Howze Park and at Caritas. Darlene Newman and Shea Colburn led the painting of several wall-size murals located at Knowledge Quest, at the Hub and at 989 Looney Avenue. More works are in progress.
Dorian Spears, a South Memphis native, and Darlene Newman, who also lives there, share the same vision by uplifting the community with positive art. Newman shared her goals: “I strive to bring a mixture of positive messages and spiritual concepts to life in my paintings. Through my art I would like to educate people about the area, instead of seeing teddy bears hanging and ribbons as a memorial. People would like to learn more about the neighborhood from the art they see and see that this neighborhood still has hope.”
Spears also connected with Cat Normoyle, an artist who teaches at Memphis College of Art, to help with the South Memphis project. Students and neighborhood residents volunteered to help paint murals. The murals were created in partnership with Knowledge Quest, where they fill the windows of a currently vacant building at 1042 South Lauderdale Street. The pictograms there promote healthy eating, education, ambition and literacy. These messages are identical with the goals of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, says Spears: I employ current knowledge and acumen, while making a meaningful impact on the 25 SQ organizational mission, vision, and values.” Spears and her team continue to make meaningful impacts in Memphis, although the grant funds will be depleted in October 2014.

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