Art Works for the Community

Dottie Habel, director of the School of Art in the College of Arts and Sciences, understands that parents aren’t usually impressed when their children pick art as a career.

She understands the common misconception that art is only about painting, sculpting, or graphic design. But thanks to a revived service-learning movement in the School of Art, she’s proud to show the university and the Knoxville community that her faculty and students are about so much more.

“There’s a lot we can do for the Knoxville community,” said Habel. “In our own backyard, there are needs that our artists can fill. We can have a lasting impact on people and communities, and we’re showing the Knoxville area that art can contribute to communities in ways you might not imagine.”

Dogwood Arts Festival

Dogwood Arts Festival 2009Art comes in all shapes and sizes, and the people who chance to wander through downtown Knoxville this spring are sure to notice some big art. As part of the Dogwood Arts Festival’s Art in Public Places Exhibition, about 30 large-scale sculptures are now on display for all to enjoy. The works are thought provoking and awe inspiring. But for 10 students in Professor Patricia Tinajero’s public art course, these pieces instill a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Nationally recognized sculptor Wayne Trapp has curated the 7-month installation of sculptures. From the selection of the sculptures to the installation, the students assisted Trapp and other Dogwood Arts personnel. Through their involvement, the students have influenced what visitors to downtown Knoxville will see over the next several months.

The Dogwood Arts Festival always offers dance, film, literary arts, music, theater, and visual arts. This year, the festival offered a unique service-learning opportunity for the School of Art.

“When I was told about this arrangement with Dogwood Arts Festival, I was excited to work on this kind of project,” Tinajero said. “This is a different type of task for these students. They’re used to creating art. Being involved in the curatorial and administrative processes behind the scenes of an exhibition challenged them as artists.”

“The idea behind the class is to give students a comprehensive understanding of what public art is,” said Tinajero. “While this project allowed them to contribute to it—which is what service learning is all about—they contributed to it in a different way. Through this process, these students have learned things they couldn’t learn in the classroom that will help them become better professional artists.”

Working on the exhibition may even influence some of these students to work in the nonprofit arena, Tinajero said. “It’s important for these students to know that these organizations and opportunities exist.”

A call for entries took place last fall, with a February deadline, and that’s when students got to work. Collaborating with festival personnel, students began organizing the entries and selecting artwork. The students recommended pieces to select; the curator made the final decisions.

Tinajero admitted that some of the students struggled with this assignment, but she was proud that most of them enjoyed being “on the other side.” The students got an inside view of the process that artists go through when submitting work for an exhibition, including how they enter the competition, get the work to the show, and deliver it to audiences. They have a better understanding of the process, she said, and her students agreed.

“I’m excited to have this kind of real-world art experience,” said senior Rachel Gurley. “I graduate soon so this has helped me prepare to be a professional. This experience gives challenges and has regulations, which happens in the professional world, and I now have a better understanding of that. Public art is crucial in obtaining social creativity. Without public art, life becomes mundane. Public art helps society enjoy the beautiful details of life,” she added.

Fellow senior Lucas Henderson said he thinks public art makes creative works available to the whole community.

“Art is a cryptic language to some, but public art facilitates the sharing of that language with other members of society, and brings the artist and the community together,” he said.

Tinajero agreed. “Public art is very important because it mirrors where our priorities are as a society. We need to value art, education, and culture, and public art helps qualify that need. Through public art, we create a place for dialogue.

“Public space is activated by public art pieces, and a city can create an identity through such works. It makes people from the area proud. Art ultimately can improve the economy by bringing visitors and possibly more residents to the area. It’s powerful, and we were honored to contribute to it in this way,” she said.

In addition to helping the Dogwood Arts Festival select pieces for the exhibition, Tinajero and her students helped with the on-site installation of the sculptures. The various sculptures are located throughout Krutch Park, Volunteer Landing, and World’s Fair Park.

“The students didn’t operate the heavy machinery but were helping hands in general placement of the sculptures,” Tinajero said. “A couple of the students who’ve had a little more hands-on experience with sculpture installation were more involved, but overall our role was to watch, learn, and ask questions. Sculpture installation isn’t something you can teach in the classroom, so it was beneficial for the students to get to see up close how it’s done.”

The students weren’t the only ones who benefited from working on the exhibition, Tinajero said. “It’s a wonderful exchange—the students learned about public art and civic service, while community organizations, like the Dogwood Arts Festival, received extra help. In times like these, everyone can use a free helping hand, especially a group that relies solely on community support.”

Tinajero’s students also helped draft abstracts describing the artwork for the Dogwood Arts Festival program. On the day of the exhibition, they led participants on walks through downtown, pointing out and describing the sculptures.

While the festival only lasts a month, the sculptures will be on display until October, which is when art professor Jason Brown, who will teach the public art course in the fall, will involve students in the de-installation and removal of the sculptures.

Beardsley Community Farm

Sign at Beardsley Community FarmThis semester, Tinajero’s public art students worked with Beardsley Community Farm to learn about community art, also known as “dialogical art.” Beardsley Community Farm is an urban demonstration farm within Malcolm Martin Park in northwest Knoxville that grows crops using sustainable methods and donates the harvested produce to local food pantries, volunteers, and others in need. The partnership between Beardsley Community Farm and the School of Art was formed in fall 2007, when art professor Jason Brown contacted Ben Epperson, director of Beardsley.

Brown’s students made sculptures that were installed on the grounds at Beardsley in 2007.

“There are aspects of sculpture that are very much in line with the mission of Beardsley Community Farm,” said Epperson. “We’re here to improve our urban community and culture by educating people about whole foods and their benefits. We’re working on carving out a little space in the middle of the city, a place where people can feel welcome and engaged—where one can come to learn, play, work, and interact with others.”

While the sculptures helped beautify the grounds, they soon became targets for vandalism and defacement. Eventually the sculptures were removed—but the relationship between Beardsley and the School of Art continues.

This semester, Tinajero and her students sat down with Epperson and other members of the Beardsley farm to brainstorm projects that would be designed to more directly improve Beardsley’s interaction with the community, not just beautify the grounds. This is real dialogical art.

In March Tinajero and her students designed, constructed, and installed planters created out of recycled materials to hang from the farm’s fences and to be placed around the grounds. The planters are to be filled with “good-smelling herbs,” Epperson said, “to help promote the presence of the park in the neighborhood.”

Students with new sign at Beardsley Community FarmThe students also fabricated and forged a sign for the entrance into Beardsley Farm. Made out of copper, the sign will help “turn a smiling face to the community we serve,” Epperson said. “The farm is situated on a hill at the edge of the park. Due to its location, Beardsley appears to have its back turned on the community. This is a problem we’ve been trying to address for some time, and the sign will help us establish a front entrance to the farm—a large step in the right direction.”

“These projects were designed with the mission of Beardsley Farm in mind—to reclaim the neighborhood and instill a sense of pride in the community,” Tinajero said. “We helped make pieces—integrated, functional pieces based on specific needs—to improve the farm. The students used their skills as artists to create a working object, not necessarily a work of art based on their imagination. This proved to be a challenge, and they stumbled along the way.”

The students struggled most with trash receptacles that they also were commissioned to design and build for the farm.

“Unfortunately, the trash cans didn’t turn out the way we had hoped and wouldn’t have worked for the farm,” she said. “But that’s how commissioned art is in the real world. Some projects are successful while some are not. It’s a reality for artists.”

Epperson and others at Beardsley Farm appreciate the School of Art’s contributions to improving the farm and are hopeful about future projects.

“Beardsley is run solely on volunteer cooperation. We’ve worked hard to improve the overall look of the farm to pull people in with an inviting atmosphere. The School of Art’s ability to create something beautiful and meaningful and to enhance our culture and community is something we desperately need and appreciate. We realize that gardeners and artists work in different mediums, traditionally, but this partnership is stretching beyond the boundaries of our two disciplines, helping each other grow. It’s one that I am sure will continue to be fruitful.”

Panther Creek State Park

From curating a downtown exhibit to improving a farm’s interaction with its community, the School of Art’s service to the Knoxville area is evident. But one service project has taken the school’s influence 40 miles northeast, to the banks of Cherokee Reservoir outside Morristown, Tennessee.

Sarah Lowe, associate professor in the School of Art, teamed up with faculty members and students from the College of Architecture and Design on a unique project with Panther Creek State Park, a 1,435-acre spread of forest, trails, and recreational facilities along Cherokee Reservoir.

The Panther Creek State Park site has evolved over the years from Cherokee hunting grounds to a grain-mill town to a state park. Friends of Panther Creek State Park, a nonprofit organization established to protect and preserve the park, wanted a scenic overlook. The faculty–student team designed not only a functional platform but also an artistic interpretation of the park’s evolution, and Lowe was the artist behind that interpretation.

“It was satisfying to work together with the architecture faculty as a team to conceptualize what the interpretative panels needed to be. We all had similar intentions of providing experience for the visitor that would live up to the rich history and stunning landscape of the Panther Creek area.”

Panel at Panter Creek State ParkThe panels that Lowe designed interpret the area’s cultural, physical, and temporal landscape. Through her artistry, park visitors and people in the Morristown community are able to learn more about the history of Panther Creek State Park.

“Within each panel we developed secondary levels of information that would provide the viewer with more context,” Lowe said. “For example, the Panther Creek park rangers identified several leaves of trees that were common to the park. We scanned those and incorporated them into the panels.”

Named the Bill Catron Observation Deck in honor of a late member of the Friends of Panther Creek State Park, the 687-square-foot platform gives visitors to the park a scenic view of Cherokee Lake and the surrounding mountains. The platform was designed for installation below road level so it does not impede views of the lake and mountains for those approaching by car or on foot. Its three-tiered configuration staggers down the bluff, allowing clear views to those either seated or standing and providing an accessible route for park visitors.

Lowe coordinated the design of the panels in collaboration with architecture faculty members and park administrators, and sculpture student Ronda Wright fabricated the metalwork. Graphic design student Stacy Reynolds helped Lowe with the illustrations. Members of the College of Architecture and Design designed and built the observation platform, which was opened to the public and dedicated in August 2008.

“Professor Lowe is a prime example of the faculty leading the public art initiative in the school,” Habel said. “Though the project didn’t involve lots of students, Sarah’s relationship with the College of Architecture and Design on this project will blaze a road for more interdisciplinary relationships on campus.”

James Agee Park

“The great thing about our contributions to the community is that they can be timeless and lasting,” Habel said. “What our artists do now can have an impact for years to come. For instance, the gate that professor Jason Brown and his students forged and installed a couple years ago in James Agee Park still stands today and will be the face of the park for many, many years.”

Brown has always been involved in public art projects and has arranged several service-learning opportunities for the School of Art, including the Beardsley Community Farms partnership. Before Beardsley, Brown helped a little neighborhood next to the UT Knoxville campus—the Fort Sanders community—perk up its park.

Acquired by the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association from UT in 1999, James Agee Park, at the corner of Laurel Avenue and James Agee Street, has had a slow evolution since its creation in 2003. Dedicated in 2005 in honor of Agee, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Death in the Family who grew up in Fort Sanders, the plot of land has grown little by little into a tranquil haven in Fort Sanders for residents to enjoy. In September 2007, after 18 months of work, a 10-foot triple-sectioned iron gate was installed on-site, giving the park the facelift it needed.

New gate being installed at James Agee Park“Traditionally, gates and fences are structures to mark boundaries, but I think the Agee gates generate public curiosity and invite people into the park,” Brown said. “The sculptural aspects of the gate add beauty and integrity to the space. We hope that it’s served as a landmark the past couple years and that it will still be in place a hundred years from now, after we’re all gone. Even today, the students who worked on the project are no longer at UT, but this was their gift to the neighborhood. It will serve as a bridge between the past and future, linking the history of James Agee’s Fort Sanders to the next generation regardless of how much time has passed.”

Brown doesn’t do much metal forging himself, and his fabrication methods are usually more industrial and mechanical rather than organic, such those used in the Agee project. But the opportunity to get his students involved in a community service project was one he couldn’t pass up.

“Projects like these are essential. I am committed to facilitating community outreach and service-learning projects for students in the School of Art. Regardless of what form art takes, I think it is important that we educate students to be socially responsible through civic art projects,” he said.

This wasn’t the first time Brown was involved in a project at James Agee Park. In 2005 a group of students from his public art course designed and built a temporary sculpture that stood in the park for 2 years. Through this project, Brown and others in the School of Art agreed that it would be ideal to have a permanent work of art installed in there. Soon after, work on the gate began.

Lasting effects

Dottie Habel said service-learning projects, such as the Art in Public Places Exhibition, Beardsley Community Farm, Panther Creek State Park, and James Agee Park, help students—and faculty members—think differently about learning in the classroom.

“Service-learning projects provide students with unique opportunities to use their knowledge in real-life situations in their own communities,” she said. “Students’ skills are used in a practical and applied way. The hands-on situations force students to respond to what presents itself ‘in the field.’ They learn patience and better communication skills, which helps them grow as professionals and as individuals.

“These projects are a wonderful complement to the work our students do in the studio. Some of the creative work they do may not have real-world application, but these projects require them to make art for a particular context, which makes it more real world. This pushes and nudges them and stretches them beyond their boundaries to give them a whole new level of learning. They see the impact of their work, beyond themselves, and gain a sense of civic duty to the community in which they live. It’s hard to imagine teaching without these possibilities,” Habel said. “We’ve got a good thing going.”

—Kristi Hintz