Public Art Is Transforming West Palm Beach
By April W. Klimley
Public art can be a powerful force-transforming a city into an art destination. That’s what’s happening in West Palm Beach (WBP). It’s not Wynwood, nor the LA Arts District yet. But last year, the city took a big leap, building on a local mural art movement, when gallery owner Nicole Henry created a two-part mural competition and exhibition called Canvas Outdoor Museum.
“Public art is the next way for people to engage with art works,” explains Henry, who sees her initiative, Canvas, as an avenue not just for good public art but also art education.
The event attracted more than 20 national and international muralists to paint walls in downtown West Palm Beach. It also included the project Canvas Local Showdown in nearby Northwood Village where local artists could participate-with a competition leading to an opportunity to win a spot in the larger show in 2016.
The result-crowds came to the opening events in November-and some stunning artwork emerged, along with one intriguing video. The murals were a combination of simple and complex ideas, colors and black and white, and, all in all, managed to capture many of the trends in this art genre which is sometimes simply called urban art.
Among the best pieces were works by Brazilian muralist Kobra (Eduardo Kobra), who had a huge mural on display at the Brazil Summer Olympics; Puerto Rican artist Bik (Bik Ismo); Greg Mike; Hawaiian Hula (Sean Yoro); and Cheryl Maeder (a video artist). All these artworks except the Maeder video are still on display in the city.
Kobra’s most electrifying work (he had two in the show)-Einstein’s Theory of Love-contains a photorealistic image of Einstein perched on a stool slightly off center with light beams radiating out from him as if he were the sun. The combination of Einstein (in black and white), the asymmetry of the design, and the rainbow ribbons of brilliant color create a feeling of joy.
A second major show stopper is Bik Ismo’s mural called See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil. In it, three large Buddhas cover their eyes, mouth, and ears the way monkeys do in the usual representation of this saying. But these large Buddhas carry more force than the animals, probably because of the three-dimensional quality Bik Ismo is known for creating in his hyperrealistic chrome murals.
Greg Mike’s wall painting of two lions’ heads in profile is much simpler, but actually contains a hidden message suggested by its title, True Love. Instead of eliciting a sense of anger that might be expected, the mural’s lions seem to be enjoying the excitement of the confrontation. And that’s the point. The viewer doesn’t have to know it, but the mural was based on the passion the painter felt for his fiancée after he got engaged!
Two other artworks are particularly popular and thought-provoking: The mural entitled Clara by Sean Yoro (Hula), which he painted on a wall under the Royal Park Bridge, and Cheryl Maeder’s video (only shown during last year’s show) called Submerge-a woman swimming underwater. The combination of these two media under the bridge created a unique experience for viewers.
The Hula mural represents the first time the state of Florida has given permission for art to be created under a bridge. Hula painted it in his typical fashion while standing on a paddleboard and then ladders. What makes the mural so intriguing is that it is open to so many interpretations. The painting itself shows a monumentally-sized portrait of a woman’s face and torso with the woman’s left arm bent at the elbow over her head.
Some people are puzzled by Clara’s closed eyes and compare that look and her slight smile to the mysterious gaze of the Mona Lisa. Others think she is holding up the bridge. While still others focus on how parts of her torso are covered up and then revealed again as the tide rises and falls. The mystery inherent in this image may be the reason it was voted “best” in the WPB show.
In the companion 2015 Canvas Local Showdown held in Northwood Village, Amanda Valdés won first prize through Twitter voting for her mural entitled Veriditas. The large painting portrays the face of a glamorous, but empty-eyed young woman. The oversized eyes and cartoon-like hair curls are very typical of Valdés’ distinctive style, but not as dark as some of her other paintings. Northwood already had a strong arts program, supported by the WPB Community Redevelopment Agency, which resulted in a number of murals such as Edward Mendieta’s Bumble Bees mural.
The artworks in the 2015 Canvas exhibitions may not have been as edgy as the street art in Wynwood. But they hit a nerve. With it, Canvas creator Henry managed to tap into the local mural art movement; the public’s hunger for more beauty; the City of West Palm Beach’s support of art as part of its redevelopment plans; and the way mural art is crossing over into the realm of fine art today and developing a wide range of approaches.
For Henry, it was perfect timing. She had the good fortune of building on a movement that started over five years ago when the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), led by Rafael Clemente, supported the proposal of local muralist Eduardo Mendieta, to decorate the stairwell of the Evernia Street public garage. Clemente was convinced that public art could help achieve the goal of his organization-greater economic development in downtown WPB. With his support, Mendieta gathered a team of painters to create colorful murals in the stairwell which resulted in a safer and very delightful experience when lit up at night. The experiment was so successful that soon after the city began installing murals in its other parking garages-at the city’s own cost.
A while after that, the city itself passed an ordinance to create an initiative called “Art in Public Spaces.” The ordinance called for developers to contribute a certain percentage of their total costs of building for art within the city. It also laid out a formal approval process for murals in the city-thus making it clear what was required and heading off potential conflicts.
Early this year, one more public art initiative sprang up-a collective of artists called the Street Art Revolution dedicated to offering local artists more opportunities to create mural art.
“The purpose of the collective is to celebrate art in West Palm Beach and spotlight local talent we have in the city,” explains Caron Bowman, a member of the collective. “Before, there was too much focus on getting international artists into the city to do murals. That doesn’t reflect the culture of the community.”
The collective is supported by several other organizations in the city and its first mural went up this spring. Called Infinite Spirit, it was painted on the wall of a building owned by business owner Rodney Mayo, a major supporter of the arts in WPB. This lovely, beautifully composed mural consisted a graceful red and black bird in the center soaring through the air against a blue background with two similar birds perched at each end. Painted by Steve Blouse and Agata Ren, the mural reflected Ren’s commitment to calling attention to species that are now extinct-such as this Florida Sparrow pictured in the mural. This subject fit right in to the social consciousness trend seen in much of today’s mural art.
That handsome wall has now been repainted in keeping with the collective’s mandate to put up new art every three or four months with Letting Go. A noble goal. But the new team, Bulks and Mayling Pao, have created a much more cluttered mural that takes much closer examination to appreciate and interpret it.
After the success of Canvas last year, the City of West Palm Beach decided to jump on the public art boom in a big way. The city signed a five-year agreement with Henry to bring more outdoor art to the city. Henry is doing this through Canvas Art Charities, the 501c3 nonprofit she created last year. The nonprofit now has a $1 million budget made up of funding from multiple sources from the city to philanthropists, the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Downtown Development Authority, and others.
With this support, Henry is planning to create five new art park destinations. Two-a Children’s Art Park and a permanent Canvas Outdoor Museum space-are expected to be in place by November 11, the date the second Canvas Outdoor Museum exhibition opens. The setting will be lovely, since both of these parks are located right along the Flagler Drive waterfront. Canvas funds will pay for lighting and installations as well as shipping containers that will serve as canvases for outdoor murals-and in many cases become permanent installations. At the same time, Canvas will also continue to support the Canvas Local Showdown in Northwood Village.
Henry is very enthusiastic about Canvas 2016. Henry’s call for artists in 2016 included requests for outdoor sculpture and installations, as well as murals “My goal is to curate the best public art show in the world, not just murals but also sculpture and installations,” she says. This initiative fits well into the goal of civic leaders who are committed to using artwork to enhance the economic development of this fast-growing city.
Henry also hopes that art experts and collectors will stop in West Palm Beach to see Canvas each year in the future-when making their annual cultural pilgrimage to Art Basel Miami Beach. She’s making it very easy for them to do that. Even this year, she has scheduled Canvas from November 11 to 20-just a few weeks before Art Basel Miami Beach formally opens December 1.
April Klimley is an arts writer, journalist and editor based in Delray Beach.