Art project brings community together one block at a time

As the 2016 presidential election was kicking into high gear last summer, St. Clair artist Jason Stier noticed something: his neighbors, who before had seemed to have so much in common, were deeply divided.

Stier, president of the St. Clair Art Association (SCAA), chair of the Public Art Committee, and an art teacher at Riverview East High School in Marine City, wondered if art might be able to bring his neighbors back together. He’d seen the positive impact art could have on his students; could it help bridge the divide in his community?

That initial question--could art help on such a grand scale?--led Stier and his fellow art enthusiasts at the SCAA to launch the Block Project. The goal of the project is simple: to, one block at a time, create a more vibrant, united community. How does the Block Project work?

It’s simple, Stier says, gesturing to the four block pieces currently on display outside the SCAA shop and studio in St. Clair's Riverview Plaza.

Participants are given a simple 4-foot plywood cube (or block), donated by Mike Grover at MDG Enterprises, which they’re encouraged to “art-ify” however they see fit. Each part of the installment will be entirely unique, since the only common thread is the “blank canvas,” the plywood cube.

The four Blocks on display outside the SCAA studio illustrate how differently people can create their interpretation of art using the simple cube. One, designed by Stier’s students at Riverview East, features a colorful rendition of Alice in Wonderland on one side, “tiles” by individual artists on another, and a galaxy scene on another side. The second, by Marine City High School students, is adorned with patterns of glittery mirrors. One brightly-colored cube was rendered in chalk by dozens of children at the St. Clair Art Fair at the end of June.

The fourth cube, which was made to be interactive, has attracted the most attention. Completed by SCAA member Dave Fry,This interactive cube was designed by Dave Fry. Photo by Heather Burt all visible sides are covered in pre-modern and modern technologies (like rotary phones, remote controls, and computer floppy disks), some broken down into their most basic pieces. The installment includes directives to interact with the pieces in various ways, many of which create noise. The cube also carries a special request, asking people who interact with the art to post their videos and photos to the Block project’s Facebook page at facebook.com/scaablock.

Viewed separately, each block is a masterpiece in its own right. But displayed and seen together, they’re an ideal representation of how differently people can create art. That, says Stier, is the point of the project. He’s been fascinated by his neighbors’ hidden skills, talents, and abilities. His concept for the project--bringing entire city blocks together to create a “block” to represent them, artistically--has evolved to include not just neighborhoods, but more than 30 individual people, groups and organizations, and local businesses. That level of engagement was a surprise, Stier says.

“When we first launched the project, we thought we’d get a dozen cubes,” Stier explains. “But we have three times that.” He’s obviously excited about the project, and how it’s brought his community together.

Stier also explains the thought process behind providing the large plywood cubes. “Art can be intimidating,” he says. “By giving people the same first step, the Block, it’s not as daunting to get started.”

Still, Stier admits, some participating “artists” have difficulty deciding what to do with their cubes. That’s when he recommends the participants chat with SCAA members and, in keeping with the concept of the project, each other, to develop ideas.

One block became an engagement ring box thanks to the creative minds at Coughlin Jewelers. Photo by Heather BurtOther Block participants immediately know exactly how they want their finished project to represent their group or business. Pat Coughlin, of Coughlin Jewelers, for example, decided in about an hour what he would do with his cube.

“We were all out to dinner, and my grandson suggested we turn our block into a box for an engagement ring, with our signature blue wrapping paper,” Coughlin says.

Once the plywood box was covered in blue, Coughlin added a real silver ribbon, but felt his cube still needed some pizzazz. So he cut the cube in half, added an LED-lit diamond/disco ball engagement ring, then a funny sign to go alongside the artwork. In all, the installment took about three days to complete, and it’s currently on display in front of his downtown shop.

“People driving by think it’s one of the unusual displays we do from time to time, like our giant chair,” Coughlin says. “They might not realize it’s part of the citywide art project.”

Stier says there’s still time to request a blank cube and get involved in the project, though as summer progresses, time is short. The Block Project will wrap up with a “Block Party” from 2 to 6 p.m. Oct. 21 in Plaza Park, where participants and the general public will celebrate their collective accomplishments.

“It’s all about creativity, community, and collaboration,” Stier says.

Sandy Attebury, who also sits on the Public Art Committee, points out that the project’s sponsors are all local, which she finds encouraging.

“We have to thank the St. Clair County Community Foundation, of course,” Attebury says, “and also the Marysville Meijer.” Another local sponsor is St. Clair packaging, who donated the supplies for smaller cardboard make-and-take cubes during the St. Clair Art Fair.

What will become of the Blocks once the Block Party is over? Stier explains the cubes will all be brought to the SCAA studio, where they’ll be displayed under cover, protected from the elements, then they’ll be submitted together as an entry in the 2018 Grand Rapids Art Prize.

As summer carries on, and the community embraces the Block project with gusto, Stier and Attebury hope the passion for the project, and the drawing together of the community, will carry on long after the cubes have been entered in Art Prize. They’re both looking forward to seeing all of the completed pieces in October, where there are bound to be a few surprises.

“We’ll see you at Block-toberfest,” Attebury says with a smile.

For more information about the SCAA Block project, visit facebook.com/scaablock.
 
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