From sparking dialogue to providing visual beacons, Washtenaw County's public art fills many roles

Public art can serve various deeply meaningful functions, whether as a visual landmark, a more utilitarian object, or a way to ignite political and social conversations.
This story is part two of a two-part series about public art in Washtenaw County. You can read the first part, which covers the recent history and politics of public art in the county, here.

When you look at "Drip," an installation by the Jefferson Lettieri Office design firm at Ann Arbor's 117 W. Washington alley, what you see depends on where you stand.
The installation features layers of multi-colored fabric that seem to drip towards the ground. From one side, the fabric appears in a vibrant sequence of red, yellow, and blue. From the other side, the fabric takes on a metallic, reflective sheen.
Hannah Kirkpatrick, director of the Art in Public program at the Ann Arbor Art Center, which is responsible for "Drip," says, "If you're there at noontime on a sunny day, the silver side is actually reflecting those colors, so the silver side starts to become more colorful."
"I can see that piece as a visual beacon as I'm biking up to come to work," Kirkpatrick adds.
Ann Arbor Art Center Art in Public program director Hannah Kirkpatrick.
Public art can serve various deeply meaningful functions, whether as "a visual beacon," a more utilitarian object, or a way to ignite political and social conversations.
The Ann Arbor Art Center's Alleys project, a series of three installations in Ann Arbor alleyways, seeks to "breathe life into these auxiliary spaces … and demonstrate the value, importance, and potential of these spaces between spaces," according to the project website.
Kirkpatrick says she'd like to add a lighting feature under "Drip" that could be activated at night, an added dimension that would not only contribute to the aesthetics of the piece but also have a more practical purpose.
Lighting could "make that space feel more welcoming or add some safety to where the alley and the street meet," Kirkpatrick points out.
Embracing Our Differences

Embracing Our Differences Michigan, the Ypsilanti- and Ann Arbor-based offshoot of a Florida-based nonprofit, leans into public art's potential to spark community dialogue. This year the organization will stage its third annual exhibition.
Embracing Our Differences Michigan Art Director Lynne Settles says Washtenaw County residents were invited to "submit artwork that reflects the theme of diversity and inclusion," a theme intended to be interpreted broadly.
Selected artworks will be displayed on 16-foot banners in Riverside Park in Ypsilanti and Gallup Park in Ann Arbor, where they can be viewed by all free of cost. Prizes are offered in various categories for both adults and children.
Like the Ann Arbor Art Center's Art in Public program, Embracing Our Differences offers public art to the community free of charge. But the nonprofit also has an explicit goal to pursue social justice in addition to aesthetic pleasure.
 Lynne Settles at Riverside Arts Center.
"We believe that if we increase our understanding of one another … we will create a better world for everybody. So we try to spread that message through art," Settles says.
The organization's approach is utilitarian by design.
"A lot of the pieces spark conversation," Settles says, and they're intended to do so.
Settles cites a piece from a previous exhibition by a young artist who identified as being on the autism spectrum. Artists are invited to include a quote beneath their artwork, and the young woman had written, "My autism made me a superhero."
Settles says the quote had a powerful effect on many viewers. 
An Embracing Our Differences installation in Ann Arbor's Gallup Park.
"Many people that saw it [said] they never even thought of that — being autistic as being a superpower," she says.
Those viewers were prompted to think in a new direction, Settles says. She adds that her goal for Embracing Our Differences is "to reach more communities" and "to expand the message."
Already, to encourage more travel between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor-based artists are exhibited in Ypsilanti during Embracing Our Differences shows, and vice versa. (Children's work is exhibited in the artist's city of residence to simplify travel issues.)
"We're always trying to figure out: 'How can we get this message out?' 'How can we reach more people?'" Settles says.

A fresh perspective

Community engagement is vital to determining how, where, and whether public art takes shape. According to muralist and Ann Arbor Public Art Commission member Mary Thiefels, "what's important about art [is] it creates conversation. It allows people to have dialogue — and the value of art, hopefully, is a collective one."
Together with her husband, artist Danijel Matanić, Thiefels owns and operates TreeTown Murals, and has long been active in Washtenaw County-area public art projects.
In fact, Thiefels says, "public art was the first point of entry into the art world for [her] at a very young age." Public art was also something that caught her attention when she was traveling, Thiefels says.
"If artists were a part of placemaking in that community, it was something that I immediately noticed," she says. "For me, it showed that a town or a city values art, values community, and values the way that artists interpret community and can really have a unique standing in the community."
 Ann Arbor Public Art Commission member Mary Thiefels.
Thiefels says public art gave her a "feeling of immediate connection to [her] community and [her] surroundings." Being involved in its creation, whether in the form of a mural or some other installation, gave her a "feeling of giving a gift," she says.

"It was like placing something beautiful in an undesirable place and kind of transforming the location," Thiefels says. "... I think the transformative power of public art is what hit me immediately."
Thiefels says her interest in Ann Arbor's Public Art Commission, an advisory body to Ann Arbor City Council, began to foment right after she decided to devote her creative career to painting murals. At that point, Ann Arbor's controversial Percent for Art program was still in place, and Thiefels says she started "inserting [herself] in conversations wherever [she] could that had to do with public art."
When Thiefels joined the Public Art Commission, she says she was advocating for "more art in the downtown area" and "broader support for artists in general," and that hasn't changed.
"What I bring to the Art Commission is a fresh perspective from a working artist [and] years of connections, partnerships, alliances, and projects," Thiefels says, adding that her knowledge of "how to build partnerships, how to execute [projects], how to understand the mechanics of making art" has been appreciated by her fellow commission members.
 TreeTown Murals' Danijel Matanic and Mary Thiefels.
"I feel like my expertise is needed and is valued," she says, and adds that the feeling is mutual.
"[The Commission is] an impressive body of people right now," she says. "…There's a real desire for us to represent public art and then advise city council to the best of our ability to continue to bring art into every project that they are considering for developments or renewal."
"Art can be integrated into every single facet of the way we use our city," Thiefels says.

This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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