A canvas for community: Barricades in Downtown Midland serve as artistic additions to outdoor spaces

The pandemic has forced us to reimagine many of the things we do. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean that some sort of normalcy can’t be achieved, it just has to be planned for. Communities around the nation and globe are doing just that, taking advantage of the summer season and the prime real estate of our public spaces in entirely new ways.

Midland joined a long list of communities who closed off portions of downtown streets in June, making way for additional dining and activity space.

A space scene by Jazzmyn Benitez.

“When it became a reality that the shutdown and corresponding changes were going to be longer than initially anticipated, we started looking at what other communities were doing,” says Selina Tisdale, Community Affairs Director for the City of Midland and head of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA). “We first looked for best practices nationally and specifically at what states like Florida were initially doing to help both citizens and the local business community in a way that was responsible and safe.”

“Cities and downtown communities that started utilizing their public spaces, portions of their roadways and parking lots to expand their outdoor dining opportunities were what we modeled after,” says Tisdale. “Here in Michigan, Traverse City, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids were all helpful test cases for us to model and follow suit with best practices.”

Artists painted the barricades in Downtown Midland to liven them up.

With those models as guides, the City of Midland was able to quickly shift gears and activate areas previously not used for dining, like portions of sidewalks, parking spaces and the roadway along a short segment of Main Street in Downtown Midland.

With the limitations placed on restaurants for capacity inside, these efforts helped double the outdoor seating capacity. Some places had existing outdoor seating and this helped expand that, whereas restaurants like Gratzi ventured into the use of outdoor spaces for the first time.

A flower scene.

“On June 19 when we initiated the street closures, we also started talking about how do we keep people extra safe to make sure that no one accidentally drives through a closed area,” says Tisdale. “We were fortunate enough to get the concrete barricades donated by Fisher Companies, which was a huge help. When the barricades were dropped off and set up, we looked at them and realized they could use a little something to spruce them up.”

Tisdale had been thinking about enlisting artistic help and ended up running into local artist Jazzmyn Benitez in Downtown Midland one day shortly after, sharing her idea for giving the barricades a makeover.

One of Parker's daughters completed the flowers.

“She was immediately supportive and helped coordinate with Parker Lane Design Studio and several local artists,” says Tisdale.

With that, Benitez and Dacia Parker of Parker Lane Art & Design Studios got to work on an overall project plan. Benitez approved all the design plans and the group got to work, completing the project in about two weeks from concept to completion.

A sunset scene by Dacia Parker of Parker Lane Design Studio and her daughters.

In total, seven artists and groups created the designs on the eight concrete barricades, with Benitez doing two. Parker completed hers along with her daughters Ella (15) and Sophia (13) in what was their first public art project together.

“It was pretty nice that Selina gave us the open book to run with from a creativity standpoint,” says Parker. “And each of the artists did so well. For some of them, it was their first major public piece. For our piece, my girls are really excited for this to be their first paid artistic job.”

A scenic view from Parker Lane Design Studio.

For her two pieces, Benitez, who is an artist by trade, decided to work with a bit of a new medium – spray paint. She worked with Plutonium Paint out of Metro Detroit, which is sold locally at Ace Hardware.  

“It’s a really good quality spray paint for artists, has good coverage, dries fast and they have quite a few custom tips for application, so you can get the right look you’re going for and their cans work in a 360-degree circumference, so they aren’t restrictive and don’t clog up as you are working, even if that is upside down.”

An octopus by artist Jazzmyn Benitez.

Benitez worked with the intricacies of the barricades as part of her creation, embracing the natural holes into her design on her octopus feature and making use of the unusually rough corner edges of her astronaut and outer space inspiration.

“I took that one, as it had the roughest edges and the most imperfections and was going to be a bit more challenging to work with. The alien in the space-theme kind of evolved as we went and actually Dacia’s daughter Sophia suggested it would be a good addition,” Benitez says. “Which was a great idea and I just kind of ran with it in the design on the fly.”

The opposite site of the space piece by Benitez.

Benitez notes the process was very interactive compared to some of her other projects.

“It was really a whole community effort downtown. Pizza Sam’s provided pizza for us on one of the days where many of the artists were working, and it was really hot that week and Dimond Jim’s provided us with cold drinks,” says Benitez. “Between business owners like Bo Brines from Little Forks Outfitters, friends who gave us supplies like tents for coverage from the heat and the public, we had so many people coming by to see what we were working on. It’s especially fun to work on an art project like this live within the community, if feels much more interactive in a really fun way versus working on mural.”

A piece by Shauna Wood, owner of Kindhuman Holistic Bodywork.

For Shauna Wood, owner of Kindhuman Holistic Bodywork, it was an interpretation of one of her passions along with current and culturally-relevant events.

“As a massage therapist, I work with my hands every day, so I wanted to have the piece speak to that in a way that was uplifting,” says Wood. “And I have a pulse on some of the issues we are currently facing as a society, and wanted to incorporate that as well.”

A piece by Shauna Wood, owner of Kindhuman Holistic Bodywork.

While Wood has been involved with the arts for quite some time and has various interests from painting, to clay, to textiles, this was her first public piece of art in the community. It took her approximately 10 hours over the period of a couple days to complete and many of the artists were painting at the same time.

“We were all connected on Facebook in a running group chat prior to painting to talk about our inspirations and plans,” says Wood. “And while we were creating our pieces it was nice to be out in the community and connecting with other people. We had so many people walking around and commenting as we worked on them.”

"Bee the Change" by Painted Love Arts.

For Desiree Hund of Painted Love, the intricate and detailed honeycomb-themed piece was her first step into public artwork as well.

“This was a really fun process to be a part of and I’m so pleased at how my first piece of this scale turned out,” says Hund. “It is a pleasure to be featured alongside so many other talented artists.”

"Bee the Change" by Painted Love Arts.

“We didn’t give them much direction, other than we were looking for themes of inspiration and we are so pleased with how they all turned out. The quality of work is fantastic, especially since they were all completed in the heat wave around the Fourth of July holiday.”

The initial approval timeline for street closures in Downtown Midland only runs through July 31 and the city is in the process of requesting an extension that will run through the end of September 2020. That extension will be pursued at the July 27 City Council meeting.

An abstract piece by artist Corby Blem.

“We also received many compliments from citizens and visitors on how impressed they were with the artwork and the beautification efforts to bring some added interest to the street closure area,” says Tisdale.

So, what is going to happen to these pieces of artwork after they are no longer in use?

An abstract piece by artist Corby Blem

“We are working on different options now and there are a couple of possibilities we are working though including auctioning them off similar to what we’ve done with our previous sculpture series features, which we were unable to do this year with the pandemic. We are also open to creative ideas from the community,” says Tisdale. “Jazzmyn is going to be clear-coating them soon for us so they have some element of longevity, and we look forward to announcing what that will be soon. They are beautiful pieces of artwork and we want them to have a life after this.”

You can find all eight of the barricades in Downtown Midland on Main Street in the area of street closure that runs between Ashman and Rodd.

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.