Thursday, September 30, 2010

Underpasses in Memphis Need Some Mural TLC!

Dear Memphian Fed-up with Eyesore Underpasses,

Let's face it: underpasses are ugly. Memphis has dozens upon dozens of these dilapidated, gross looking, crumbling concrete behemoths throughout the city. They are a prime contributor to the problem of urban blight and make Memphis look bad. It is time to fix that!

Here's how.

Step 1: Pick an underpass. What abysmal, graffiti scrawled nightmare do you have to drive by or through every day? What gaping maw of civic embarrassment do you have to look at on your way to and from work, or taking your kids to school? What monolithic pile of urban neglect makes you cringe when trying to show out of town visitors the bright spots of our fair city? That's probably the underpass you should focus on first. Afraid some other good citizen will beat you to it? Don't worry, there are plenty to choose from!

Step 2: Get permission. This would seem like a fairly straightforward procedure, and in some cases it is, indeed, rather easy. However, it depends on the owner, and the design proposed. Memphis underpasses are owned by a variety of entities, but the 3 primary controlling authorities are usually the City, the State, or the railroad companies. Each requires a different process. So research who owns it first, then get your plan together. Ask for permission to propose a design for painting the underpass, as their permission will always be conditional upon what design you are proposing. This is the hardest step. For example, UrbanArt has been trying to secure a user agreement from a certain railroad to paint a certain underpass for close to a year. Although we've had verbal and email correspondence confirming it is fine for us to paint our selected design from the railroad official, the actual hard copy user agreement seems to never be forthcoming despite repeated reminders on our part and assurances its on the way from them. While I'd love to unleash the community volunteers that are eager to get to work, and who have donated private funds to cover all costs, until I get the signed agreement in hand, I am wary of simply showing up with buckets and ladders. In order of difficulty for getting permission I'd say that City owned underpasses are fairly straightforward as the willingness of the City administration and our partners there are very supportive of the use of community murals as low cost, high impact anti-blight measures. If it is a state controlled Tennessee Department of Transportation held property, that is slightly more involved simply because they are based in Nashville and it takes a bit longer to coordinate permissions, etc. Railroads, from our experience, require the most time because they are primarily based out of state and local communities ideas and desires for improving the visual look of their built assets are generally not a priority. It takes a lot of coordination. A LOT.

Step 3: Gather your crew. Assemble a group of neighbors, business owners, community association representatives, and neighborhood civic leaders who have to drive through these awful eyesores everyday to brainstorm how best to brighten up this beast of blight. You will have to also raise the funds to pay for the supplies and any artist you wish to work with your team.

Step 4: Brainstorm. What do you want to see instead of a monstrosity? Geometric patterns? Figurative historical scenes? If you can dream it, it can indeed be done, but it will affect your budget. Here are some basic rules of thumb that will determine how much funding your civic improvement project requires: Complexity costs. Simplicity saves. Seriously, it's that straightforward. If you want complicated designs, it will require more color, more time, more expertise, and more money. Because these are underpasses and not parkland, most folks will not be using these spaces for family picnics [...or, will they?]. Many of them are poorly lit even in the day time, so, spending a lot of money on any single underpass doesn't make much sense. Good news! It doesn't have to cost much!

Step 5: Establish your budget. In general, I recommend design patterns rather than figurative works unless the area is well lit in daylight. The Soulsville underpasses by Arnold Thompson are an excellent example. Those portraits of Stax Records superstars are a hit! Working with an artist requires that they be fairly compensated for their expertise and time in consulting with your group, making design proposals for your review, and leading the installation process. If your budget does not allow for professional expertise, your group can make the design super simple and do it yourself. While it does require design sense, and knowledge of proper materials and processes, what it requires most is elbow grease! Go to your area hardware store or paint supplier and inquire as to the price for gallon of concrete water sealant, concrete primer, and an all weather concrete paint. Find out what colors they come in and if they vary in price depending on the hue. Ask about the coverage area per gallon of material. For example, how many square feet will one gallon of paint cover? You will also need roller heads, extension rods, step ladders, scrapers, paint stirrers, paint brushes, buckets for mixing paint, and buckets for carrying water for clean up, drop cloths to prevent spills onto the sidewalks, and rags to soak up any messes. You may want goggles to protect your eyes when dealing with the upper areas of columns and ceilings. You will also most likely need to rent or borrow a power washer to clean off the caked on dirt and any loose concrete fragments from the surface. A clean surface is the first step to a well made final product. Painting on a dirty surface is pointless, because the dirt is loose and can flake off, taking your paint with it! You may also want to get a set of orange traffic cones and a 'Slow: Work in Progress' sign to alert traffic of your team's presence.

Step 6: Get to work! Once the site is chosen, permission is granted, teams are set, design is decide, budgets are confirmed, and supplies are collected, you are ready to go! First, you power wash, then water seal, then prime, then paint, then water seal again. Depending on the size of the underpass, the whole installation process should take 2-3 days.

Step 7: Party time! You and your colleagues have worked hard to make Memphis shine, so celebrate your selfless civic works! Crack open a couple of beers, grill out some hot dogs and take lots of photos of your new best pals on your mural team enjoying their newly refashioned streetscape!

Congratulations, proud Memphian, you just made the world a little bit better place to live in.

                                      South Main Street just North of Crump Blvd.

                                       Central Avenue between Lombardy and Flicker

                                       Soulsville gateway murals by Arnold Thompson

                                                   'Modern Hieroglyphs' by Anthony Lee

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

UrbanArt Recent News

Hello Everyone,

I hope you are well.

I wanted to share some positive news in the programs and processes of UrbanArt that have recently taken place that we believe will improve the entire way we work in terms of project determination, artist selection, artist payments processing, and overall project completion.

First, we've added new staff! After a period of time where we had no choice but to keep staff levels low as a cost savings measure due to funding decreases related to the economic downturn over the past couple of years, we have been successful in structuring a new funding stream that shall provide for staff numbers appropriate to our projects caseload. Our projects management team is composed of Rodney Coleman, Tiena Gwin, and Whitney Ranson. They shall be administering the selection process for all projects and their production schedules and logistics. Shelley Madison has recently joined our organization as the Business Manager, and shall be coordinating all projects billing, contracts, and benchmarks confirmation, as well as internal controls and compliance matters. Whitney Washington is our Executive Intern performing a variety of tasks from research, projects promotion, and event planning. Siphne Sylve shall be acting as an ad hoc assistant on special projects.

This increase in staff is the result of a resolution approved by the City Council allowing a percentage of the Capital Improvement Projects allocations to be billed for expenses associated with projects' management. Previously, we were receiving a set sum that did not change for several years. This had the deleterious effect of causing the caseload to swell beyond capacity. With the passing of the resolution we will be able to give each project more attention from individual project managers moving forward.

Secondly, after concerted efforts by ourselves and officials within the City administration, we believe we have come to an agreement on measures that should reduce payments turnaround by as much as 1/3 of the previous time frame. Included in these changes are: setting up electronic payments of invoices to UrbanArt, weighting benchmark compensation percentages toward the front end of the project so that materials sourcing is swifter, and layering of design and fabrication invoices so that payments can potentially be parcelled in larger sums over fewer installments over the course of the project's production.

Next, we shall be condensing the selection process in a manner that builds increased levels of community engagement prior to contracting the final artist to assist smoother approvals through selection committees. Additionally, PAOC members shall be invited to attend individual selection committee meetings, and selection committees for individual projects shall be requested to attend those PAOC (Public Art Oversight Committee, responsible for program functions and projects confirmations) where their projects are to be discussed. We believe this will also streamline the process.

Regarding artist's selection, the PAOC has approved providing honorariums up to $1,500 per artist for up to 3 artists per project for design proposals. This shall be policy across the board. I will be sending an e-newsletter with additional detailed information on new selection process steps in the coming week or so. If you are not receiving our e-newsletter, please send an email to, and request to be added to the 'Constant Contact Artist Opportunities' list.

Pertaining to the amount of a project's budget recouped by individual artists for their work on a project, we've devised a system that we believe has the potential to make it where artists could consistently garner up to 20% of the entire project budget for their design fees and fabrication labor costs. Nationwide, 10-15% is considered standard. This is a new metric with new mechanics, so understand that 20% may not always be possible, but that we are working to make it the case more often than not.

Whereas the City ordinance that founded the Percent for Art program mandates 60% of those projects be completed by local artists in a 5 year period, we are now closing in on the 90% mark and believe this statistic will hold between the 80-90% level fairly consistently in the future. We still love artists based nationally and abroad, but their engagement will be more specifically targeted moving forward.

We are also formalizing a series of professional development workshops that will cover all these developments and more, to begin in the Spring that will be free of charge to all local artists and art students.

Lastly, [*for now!] whereas historically the program produced projects primarily in association with new City capital improvement building projects, we are now permitted to produce projects on any appropriate City owned property or parcel of land. For example, the 7 District Gateways currently in the midst of their selection process, and the FY11 Public Art Plan mural projects and Plough Blvd. sculpture [*RFQ's coming soon!] are all being produced in sites independent of new construction. We feel this will enable the general public increased accessibility to art throughout the city.

I greatly appreciate the encouragement, patience, and support you've all provided the organization over the years. Would you consider doing me a personal favor by assisting us in communicating the strides UrbanArt has made in its efforts to refine the processes by which large-scale public art projects are produced in Memphis? If friends or colleagues casually wonder what UrbanArt is working on, please tell them!

We fully realize there will always be room for improvement, and that other issues will occasionally arise. Please know that the task of perfecting our programs and procedures that affect the artists we work with to enhance the cultural vibrancy of our community through the development of public art is one that the UrbanArt staff, its Board of Directors, its municipal and private partners, and I personally view as a top priority. Please be patient while we put these new policies and procedures into effect.

Also, if you have a question about how something works, or a concern that an aspect of our program is not working as well as it could, please let me know. Send me an email with any quick ideas or inquiries. If you would like to know more about a specific aspect of our work or a particular process that may require detailed explanation, it may me a few days to get back to you because of our current workload, but I will get back to you. Just let me know.

The artists that make all our work worth the effort deserve the best experience possible. Our neighbors in the city and metropolitan area at large will no doubt benefit from the public art produced as a result. I look forward to seeing UrbanArt's endeavors flourish in the future and for the public art landscape of our hometown of Memphis to grow ever more dynamic because of your ongoing support.

Thank you.

Be well,

John Weeden
Executive Director
UrbanArt Commission

UrbanArt's mission is to enhance
the cultural vibrancy of our community
through the development of public art.

UrbanArt Staff

                                             Rodney Coleman

                                       Tiena Gwin

                                            Shelley Madison

                                          Whitney Ranson

                                       Siphne Sylve

                                       Whitney Washington

                                                  John Weeden

Friday, September 24, 2010

UrbanArt 'Work in Progress' Exhibtion Series


Friday October 8 will be the opening night of the second exhibition in the UrbanArt exhibition series, Work in Progress, highlighting innovative urban design in the public realm.  The first exhibition in the series, 40 Bike Rack Maquettes, is recent work by native Memphian, Gadsby Creson.  This series of maquettes explores the opportunity to create functional and innovative designs for bike racks.  The artist’s hope is that the maquettes will eventually be used as blueprints for bike racks around the City of Memphis.
Creson earned her Bachelors of Fine Arts degree from Tufts University/School of the Museum of Fine Arts and is currently a candidate for a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Memphis College of Art.
The opening for 40 Bike Rack Maquettes will be held on Friday October 8 from 6 – 8 PM at the UrbanArt office on Broad Avenue.  The exhibition will last from October 8, 2010 through January 28, 2011.  Viewings of the exhibition will be by appointment only.  To schedule an appointment to view the exhibition after the opening, please contact 

For questions about the Work in Progress exhibition series please contact Whitney Ranson at or 901.454.0474.

The mission of UrbanArt is to enhance the cultural vibrancy of our community through the development of public art.

For information on how you can support innovative public art experiences in Memphis, contact

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Live From Memphis to light up the Wellworks Building on Friday September 24 for 'Curious Pictures'

Transmission is a collection of 3 short films to be projected one night only onto the Wellworks building at the corner of Main St. and Madison Ave. in downtown Memphis. 

Transmission is presented by Live From Memphis as part of the Urban Art Commission's "Curious Pictures" project.  The program will run on a loop from 8-9pm.

The Pieces

"River Rising"
A collaboration between spoken-word artist tamE and LFM filmmakers, this experimental film couples artful linguistics with archival and avant-garde video to create a truly poetic commentary on the television of our society.  Or, in the infamous words of Mike TeeVee, "Why is everything here completely pointless?"

"…and things of that nature"
A collection of footage shot over the past five years by an eccentric group of transient filmmakers, set to the darkly schizophrenic tunes of ninjacat, and viciously blended together with the editorial stylings of madbrad to ensure maximum lunacy.  "What the @#&! was that?  Let's watch it again!"

A collection of footage shot entirely on the iPhone 3GS by LFM filmmaker Sarah Fleming.  Edited by LFM filmmaker Christopher Reyes and set to music by the Memphis-based experimental duo Overjoid.

Curious Pictures is sponsored in part by the First Tennessee Foundation Award for Innovation in the Arts and the Center City Commission.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The UrbanArt Commisson and the Center City Commission have teamed up tobring 'Curious Pictures' to Memphis. The city has never before seen or experienced art on this scale before, as works from various local artists will be projected onto historical downtown buildings through every Friday through October (see below for schedule of events). 

The first event was a success as Jill Wissmiller showcased her original works on the the north facade of the Orpheum Theater. Attendees got the chance to get crafty with various odds and ends that Jill provided and project their own work onto the building. Many were able to show Memphis their best karaoke skills as songs were also projected and music blared in the Orpheum's Central Parking lot. Jill also built a Magic Meaning Making Machine that viewers chilled out in and enjoyed Pickles on a Stick, beverages and other snacks that were on the menu. There was a great turnout and this set the bar for the following Curiuous Pictures events. Good job, Jill! Thanks to all of those who supported! 

Check out more pictures on our Facebook fan page!!/pages/Memphis-TN/Urban-Art-Commission/8152689478 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The first 'Curious Pictures' projection will take place Friday September 10 at 8:00 PM. Jill Wissmiller will be projecting on the north facade of the Orpheum Theater from the parking lot between Peabody Place and Beale Street. See the map below. Come collaborate with Jill as she transforms the Orpheum Theater!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

UrbanArt to Light Up Downtown Memphis with 'Curious Pictures'

07 September 2010

Friday September 10 will be the inaugural evening of a series of outdoor video art exhibitions never before seen in Memphis hosted by UrbanArt and the Center City Commission.  

Curious Pictures is a downtown installation of works created and curated by local artists that will take place each Friday evening from September 10 through October 8.  These video vignettes will be projected onto various buildings in Downtown Memphis to bring life to our cityscape and demonstrate the possibilities and potential of new media art within the public realm.

Original video work created by local artist Jill Wissmiller will be projected onto the north side of the historic Orpheum Theater.  Wissmiller’s Magic Meaning Making Machine came from the concept of theatrical staging and will allow viewers to participate in a collaborative performance with the artist that will be projected onto one of Memphis’ most historic arts spaces.

On the evening of Friday September 17 Erik Jambor of Indie Memphis will activate the north wall of the Jolly Royal Furniture Store with work by Godfrey Reggio as he transforms Gayoso Avenue into a walk-up theater.  Jambor will be showing the first film of Reggio’s QATSI trilogy, KOYAANISQATSI, which is an exploration of the contrast between technology and the environment.  The following Friday night, September 24, Sarah Fleming and Christopher Reyes of Live From Memphis will light up Center Lane near the Madison Hotel with their unique interpretation of video art today.

On Friday October 1 Alex Harrison will bring the eastern fa├žade of the Waterford Building at Front and Beale to life with a polychromatic experience of color and light that will be accompanied by the musical talents of his band, The Warble. 

The final evening of the Curious Pictures event will take place on October 8 on the Main Street Mall behind 1 Commerce Square with a projection of original video work by local artist Brian Dixon.  Additional work by Matt Ducklo, Chris Miner, and Matthias Mueller and Christoph Giradet will also be projected on the evening of October 8.

Please join us as we light up downtown Memphis with video work by Memphis artists.  This project was made possible with the support of a First Tennessee Award for Innovation in the Arts and the Center City Commission.

All projections start at 8p and end at 11:30p.

For questions about Curious Pictures please contact Whitney Ranson at or 901.454.0474. 

The mission of UrbanArt is to enhance the cultural vibrancy of our community through the development of public art.

For information on how you can support innovative public art experiences in Memphis, contact