It’s easy to feel played by public art.
Feel-good whimsy meant to sedate you into shopping, hodge-podges designed by committees, space-fillers under bridges to intimidate homeless people and skateboarders — there are many ways for art to be co-opted by bottom-line-driven “placemakers.” Throw in the constant challenge of weather and vandalism and the odds are stacked against artists hoping to express themselves in the public square.
The Lansing Art Gallery’s “Art Path” project quietly bucks that trend. The variety, integrity and sincerity of the art installed this month along the Lansing River Trail downtown deserves a respectful eye and a slow walk.
“Entropy,” a modestly scaled, perfectly realized gem of tubular metal and rope in an obscure patch of grass between the Impression Five and R.E. Olds Museums, is Exhibit A.
Inviting from every angle, it’s both a graceful, compact sculpture (resembling a squat, three-dimensional treble clef) and a sound piece you can play like a harp. The husband and wife team of sculptor Jacquelynn Sullivan and percussionist Samuel Gould fused their disciplines into a delicate yet apparently indestructible piece of art. Don’t move on until you zzzing it and savor the lingering overtones.
Most of the ArtPath art pulls you deeper into life, instead of throwing shiny distractions at you. Not more than 20 yards east of “Entropy,” Flint-based artist Jenna Hupp Andrews’ almost trash-like installation under the Kalamazoo Street overpass, “There Once Was a Land Flowing With,” is the most provocative of the lot. Half-wasted human figures made of empty plastic water bottles languish next to caravans of more bottles and little boats, left to deteriorate on purpose, in a place where homeless people often camp out.
Walking from north to south, ArtPath begins at the Turner-Dodge Mansion, with an orange piece of metal filigree by Interlochen sculptor Maureen Bergquist Grey, called “Follow Your Bliss” (the sculpture is solid and well stacked, much less of a cliche than its title). Following the trail south under Grand River, strollers are astounded by an elaborate array of particolored umbrellas, pompoms, fabric swatches and streamers by Lansing artist Jane Reiter.
Many of the pieces add instant interest to dead or dreary spots along the trail. Lansing artist Tamara “Tea” Brown spiced up the grey plaza under the Shiawassee Street Bridge with “Break Free,” a kaleidoscopic panorama that fuses rainbow-colored crystals, outstretched wings and other images from nature with bits, bytes and circuits. Tightly composed as it is, the mural has the spirit of guerilla street art — just right for a space favored by skateboarders and homeless people.
Take the trail further south and east, past “Entropy” and the haunting plastic bottles, and you find Dimondale-based photographer Gigi Morton’s “We are the Forgotten Ones,” a gallery of faces of veterans from diverse backgrounds affixed to the pillars of the I-496 overpass.
Further south, next to the ballfield at Elm Park, Lansing-based artists Fred Hammond and David Such’s “River Tones” looms like a crazy-quilt weather vane made of repurposed metal. The viewer is invited to bang empty diving bells with giant bolts, making a BONG that could summon the Cyclops out of his cave.
Further along the trail, under the Beech Street viaduct, walkers will discover another underpass mural, “Kia Ix Arriaga.” Little Rain Kiauitzin, a Detroit-based blacksmith, ceramicist and Aztec dancer born in Mexico, uses symbols of Aztec traditional culture showing rain nourishing the land, flowers and people, in another street-artstyle panorama.
A few yards away from the mural, near Larch Street, Interlochen artist Johnson R. Hunt’s “Grove or Glade” sets up a dangling array of slender fabric panels, drifting like laundry in a grove of trees, a ghost forest intended to fade over time.
Pieces like “Grove or Glade” and “There Once Was…” raise serious issues (deforestation, bad water policy) but also work perfectly well as unique visual experiences. The artworks of ArtPath deal differently with the exigencies of sitting outdoors — some, like “River Tones,” are built like tanks; others, like “Grove or Glade,” are designed, and resigned, to dissolve with time.
We’ve had our share of embarrassing public art. About 10 years ago, Lansing’s idea of a public art installation was a set of life-size, ceramic people, gawking like tourists, eating ice cream and feeding pigeons, placed along downtown streets to make them seem more active. Along the same stretch of trail where ArtPath now leads, on the north side of the Impression 5 Museum, your eyes can still boggle at a five-year-old mural of a painting (that’s right) of a singer on a stage, on an easel that has ballet dancer’s legs, forming a giant letter “A,” being lifted by a crane and inserted into the word “STEM,” symbolizing the importance of the arts in science and technology education.
To set up nine pieces of art that aren’t intrusive, banal or confusing is a feat in itself, but ArtPath is even better than it needs to be. Some of the pieces are more successful than others, but all of them are sincere expressions of individual personalities. None of them made me feel like I was being played for a tourist.