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Art Preview: Sprout Fund to blitz region's walls with public art

Monday, May 26, 2003

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Walls divide. But in a new initiative of the nonprofit Sprout Fund, walls of various dimensions throughout Pittsburgh will be used to unite communities, brighten cityscapes and support local artists.

This mural by Brian Holderman, will be exhibited May 27 at Garfield Artwork as part of the Sprout Fund's Community Murals Project.

Community Murals Exhibition

WHERE: Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield.
WHEN: 7 p.m. tomorrow
ADMISSION: Free. 412-325-0646

The Sprout Fund, which sprouted from Allegheny County executive Jim Roddy's "new idea factory," has in the last year invested nearly $300,000 of private-sector funding into 57 community-based lifestyle-improvement projects, from publishing a bicycling guide to Pittsburgh to sponsorship of a local music series on the South Side.

As part of a larger public arts program, Sprout's Community Murals Project will commission Pittsburgh artists to paint public murals in the Hill District, Millvale, Wilkinsburg, Strip District, McKees Rocks, Garfield, North Side and Regent Square. The walls that have been selected range from 200 to 1,600 square feet.

The project is partially funded through a $25,000 seed grant from American Eagle Outfitters Foundation. The rest of the $87,000 price tag comes from unstipulated funding from various sources.

Through a long and thorough process of submissions and community input, 32 local artists have been selected to compose preliminary designs -- four for each of the participating communities. One artist will be chosen by each community, but all of the preliminary designs will be exhibited tomorrow at a showing at Garfield Artworks.

"This project grew out of a synchronicity of activities," says Sprout executive director Cathy Lewis, a Carnegie Mellon grad who served with the new idea factory. "One of our planks is to catalyze change in the region, and you don't catalyze change with one or two murals. We want to blitz the area in public art."

To coordinate the project, Lewis recruited Morton Brown, a muralist from Philadelphia, where some 2,500 public murals decorate the city. Brown solicited artists, brought ideas to communities at countless neighborhood meetings and organized the panel of artists who judged the preliminary designs.

"We did a lot of research," says Brown. "We found that the most successful public art projects around the country were those that had the most community involvement right from the beginning. Less graffiti, defacing and demolition of the walls. We hosted roundtable meetings with communities to brainstorm for themes that represent each community. We really coached the communities to not be so restrictive to the artists, and we picked very diverse artists, from impressionists to realists."

Each of the artists invited to provide preliminary designs gets a $100 stipend and a place in the Garfield Artworks exhibit. The eight artists chosen to paint the murals will be paid a flat rate on labor based on the murals' square footage. Payments will run from $2,000 to $6,500.

"As much as we are focused on the artists and the style and merit of the artwork, it really is a collaboration of the artist and community," says Lewis. "At the end of the day, these murals belong to the communities."

Figuratively, anyway. When the city demolished a Downtown wall bearing a giant sports mural by Pittsburgh artist Judy Penzer, who died in an airliner crash off Long Island in 1996, community outcry couldn't stop the destruction. Despite the positive motivations of the community murals project, the murals will be painted with little more than the undocumented permission of the buildings' owners. Seven of the structures targeted for adornment are privately owned; one underpass is the property of a railroad company.

"We'd like these murals to last 25 years," says Brown.

"But are we protected legally? No," says Lewis. "What we hope is that through all the community involvement and the building owners' willingness for [the murals] to be on their walls, there will be enough interest in the community that they won't be torn down."

John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1991.

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