By Diana Nollen/ SourceMedia
CEDAR RAPIDS — The city’s past will be present for the future when the first installment is unveiled May 19 for the new public art project, Murals & More: The Cedar Rapids Mural Trail.
Until then, the mural is under wraps along Third Street SE, between Second and Third avenues downtown. It’s mounted above the alley between the Armstrong building and Deb’s Deli, in a space project artist Bounnak Thammavong describes as “a big, empty canvas.”
The non-profit Murals & More group is dreaming big, with a three-phase, multiyear project intended to bring 27 murals and free-standing pieces to downtown Cedar Rapids, indoors and out, at a pace of about three per year.
“My vision was to make Cedar Rapids a cultural and artistic destination, and I think we can do that,” says Murals & More Executive Director Lynn Ocken, 63, of Cedar Rapids. “We can put Cedar Rapids on the map.”
But first, she wants to put feet on the street and get people thinking about Cedar Rapids’ history and culture — past, present and future.
“If you’re interested in art, you’re going to get a great art piece. If you’re interested in the city, you’re going to get a learning component, as well,” Ocken says. “If you’re not interested in either of those, it does beautify the buildings, it does draw people to come and see it. That means tourism, that means frequenting the businesses, and with all the activities we’re talking about, there can be all kinds of activities.”
She and her volunteers are planning a gala celebration at 2 p.m. May 19, with presentations, a scavenger hunt, music and a ceremonial dropping of the tarp to unveil the artwork.
The project also will include an annual Student Art Walk. Banners designed by area students in grades 5 through 12 will adorn lamp posts along Third Street SE from First to Fourth avenues, mid-May through August, to enhance the strolling art experience.
The inaugural mural contains six panels totaling 19 feet wide by 17 feet tall, painted with a marine-grade paint used on cruise ships and amusement parks, requiring just the occasional powerwash to maintain. Three-dimensional elements will project from the painted surface, jutting 3 feet above the wall on which it’s mounted.
“It will pop out at you like a pop-up book,” says Thammavong, 32, of Swisher, who created the piece with his business partner, Mike Sneller, 25, of Cedar Rapids. Both have worked with public art projects around the Midwest.
The two have given multidimensional life to Ocken’s dream, born as she and her husband, Bob, strolled through Seward, Alaska, in August 2009, admiring the many murals painted on the sides of buildings.
“We found ourselves wandering around, saying, ‘This is cool, let’s see if there’s anything else,’” Ocken says. So they grabbed the accompanying maps that led them to all manner of history, facts and points of interest in the area.
Ocken, who has been surrounded by art and artists all her life, thought that kind of colorful, interactive public art project could help revitalize downtown Cedar Rapids, post-flood.
She brought her idea home and started bouncing it off others involved with various arts, cultural, city and downtown organizations.
“Everybody said, ‘Oh that’s a great idea — go forth and do,’” Ocken says with a laugh.
The process ramped up in earnest in 2010, taking nearly two years to navigate all the proper channels involved in forming a non-profit organization and volunteer board, securing rights from the building owner and city, raising funds, finding and hiring an artist and getting the design approved.
“You don’t realize how much this entails, to do this. The very first people that sat around a table said, ‘Let’s just put up a mural.’ And I remember at the time saying, ‘You can’t just put it up. Who owns it, what about maintenance? Boy was I innocent then,” she says. “When we’re talking grass roots, this is grass roots. Everything was truly learn as you go.”
Ocken says building owner Jon Dusek came onboard right away and has been “very supportive” every step of the way. The various murals will become the building owners’ property, with the Mural group retaining rights should the buildings be sold or if the murals need to be moved.
The project also has the stamp of approval from city and county officials and the city’s Visual Arts Commission, Ocken says.
“We didn’t have to approve it, since it’s not going to be owned by the city. We were asked to endorse it, which we did,” says Jim Kern, 62, of Cedar Rapids, chairman of the city’s Visual Arts Commission.
“What I like about it is that it elevates the profile of visual art in our community,” Kern says. “And I have personally believed for a long time that we need to be more proactive in celebrating our history of contributing art to the world. Public art is one way of doing that.”
Ocken and her efforts also got a shoutout from Mayor Ron Corbett in his State of the City Address on Feb. 22.
Local art galleries, the Iowa Arts Council and the Cultural Corridor helped spread the call for artists in 2010.
From nearly two dozen applications, a jury of area arts and design professionals narrowed the field to three artists, interviewed two and chose Thammavong, a Cedar Falls native, sculptor, engineer and University of Iowa graduate. He signed the contract in May 2011 and ordered the aluminum panels that day.
“Because this is more than murals — it’s not a typical mural trail, it’s any kind of art medium — one of the many things we liked about Bounnak was that (his design) was done in metal, with dimensionality to it,” Ocken says. “So although you’re going to see painting, it is something that people aren’t going to expect.”
The panels depicts key people who shaped the city from 1900 to the 1920s. Metro High School students assisted in the research, supplying photos, images and essays.
“My job was to find the character of Cedar Rapids through the ages, in this time span,” Thammavong says. “In reading through those essays, the kids got it. They knew exactly who the Founding Fathers were, all the way through interesting characters and nuances of Cedar Rapids that I had no clue existed. We have quite a few big names in there that are pretty obscure, but they’re big names.”
Thammavong will go back to Metro with his mural presentation and demonstration in the fall, then invite students interested in specific aspects like metal fabrication to come to his studio to further explore his artist process.
“In that endeavor, when the next mural comes up along the trail, I’m hoping that we can then set this tone for students coming in and being an even more integral part of the project,” Thammavong says.
“This first run, we were very concerned with just getting the project done and involving the community in peripheral ways,” he says, such as the scavenger hunt.
“When we say ‘murals and more,’ we mean more than painted murals,” Ocken says. “We also mean more than just coming and looking at the art. …
“We want people to see these murals as a place you can come and wander and look at it and learn from it. There’s the educational component. The Metro teachers and students are designing a scavenger hunt. They are putting together clues of specific things on buildings and people will have to figure out where they are,” she says. “They can start learning more, walking around and suddenly the town becomes more alive.”
Those activity cards will then be available at The Carl & Mary Koehler History Center and other sites in the future.
“We’re always looking for how can we expand this,” Ocken says. “We see this as a collaborative thing with the community. We’re always encouraging community — this is your project, get involved. Anybody can get involved.”
“When I do a project for a community, I try to use the community resources, so that it’s not just the people that gather around it, but the economics, as well, that gathers around it. It helps get more people involved in things,” Thammavong says.
“I feel that when people have more involvement in the project, whether it be providing the paint or whatever, they have ownership in it, they can see it go somewhere. And then it becomes less about seeing it as a frivolous decoration and more about a symbol that can help drive it and bring the community together.
“The scavenger hunt is a actually a really good metaphor for what we’re trying to do,” he adds. “What we’re creating is a larger mural scavenger hunt, essentially, to point out the great parts about the city. This first scavenger hunt with the kids and the banners is a preview of what’s going to happen. We’re bringing together all these students, but in the grand scale, we’re bringing together the community.”
What: Inaugural unveiling: Murals & More — The Cedar Rapids Mural Trail
When: 2 p.m. May 19, 2012
Where: Third Street SE, between Second and Third avenues, downtown Cedar Rapids
Features: Presentations, artwork revealed, meet the artist, scavenger hunt, entertainment, prizes
Location: Downtown Cedar Rapids, along Third Street SE between Second and Third avenues SE; mounted on wall above the alley between Deb’s Deli and the Armstrong building
Dimensions: Six panels, totaling 19 feet wide by 17 feet tall, projecting 3 feet above the alley wall
Artists: Bounnak Thammavong of Swisher, with welding, collaboration and work space by Mike Sneller of Cedar Rapids
Budget: $20,000, funded through Berthel Fisher 2008 Flood Relief Non-Endowed Donor Advised Fund of The Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, building owner Jon Dusek, Lynn and Bob Ocken; includes $15,000 artist’s fee, $5,000 for all other costs, with discounts and in-kind donations from area businesses
Scope: Phase 1: nine murals/artworks depicting Cedar Rapids from 1837 to 1920s; Phase 2: nine works depicting the city 1930s to present; Phase 3: nine works looking to the future
Ownership: Artwork becomes property of building owner to display and maintain, but Murals & More retains right of first refusal if the building is sold or the artwork needs to be moved