Syracuse's Public Art Brings More Than Beauty; Artists Portray History, Culture, and Pride

Apr 11, 2019

Many Syracuse area residents have probably noticed some form of public art around the community, especially downtown...a mural here, a sculpture there, or even posters by local artists in empty storefront windows. 


It might be nice to look at, but what is the value of public art to the larger community?  One way to find out is by taking a walking tour of some downtown art.

I needed an expert for my tour, so I enlisted the help of someone who knows the public art scene probably better than anyone.  Kate Auwaerter is the Public Art Coordinator with the City of Syracuse.  One of our stops on a recent windy day took us just outside of Clinton Square…

"Clinton Serenade" is probably most visible from I-690 eastbound. It's otherwise off the beaten path for pedestrians who have little reason to venture to that side of the building.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

“One of our larger scale murals is called Clinton Serenade. It is of the Erie Canal showing a moonlight depiction of the Erie Canal and Clinton Square. Even if people are not coming downtown, many, many people have seen this mural, actually from 690 as they’re traveling east, if they are looking to their right.”

The mural was painted by Corky Goss and Chip Miller in 2009.  Goss’s work can also be seen on the Erie Canal museum.  Auwaerter says art can play a role in everyone’s life.

“Public art, in particular, is going to be seen by people just walking by on their everyday lives. Our goal with the public art program is to really create visual interest. Everybody should be able to have art in their lives.”

Executive Director of CNY Arts, Steve Butler says public art can invigorate a community.

“Public art can actually enliven and energize a locality. They can be a draw. People actually come in to see public works of art.”

CNY Arts promotes and supports arts, individual artists, and cultural organizations through grants.  Butler says funding comes from the state, the county, and sometimes the national endowment for the arts and private foundations.  

“When you look at public art, you have to make sure that the public is going to have real access to whatever that artwork is," Butler said.  "For example, we fund Lightwork.  They do the urban cinema, the movie on the wall of the Everson Museum in the summer.  It draws people in, anyone is welcome to attend.  It’s well publicized, the outreach is significant.  We fund the Syracuse Poster Project.  The posters appear all over the city.  We’ve funded individual artists, for instance art and poetry on the bus.”

This bold mural is on 420 E. Genesee St. adjacent to Firefighters' Memorial Park.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

Kate Auwaerter says public art if for community members and visitors alike.

“I see public art as being primarily for the people of this community, but it’s also for people who are coming in from the outside who want to learn something about us. It informs people about who and what Syracuse is,” Auwaerter said. “When you go to a museum, you’re expecting to see artwork. You’re going into a repository or a venue that has exhibitions. Whereas public art can be something unexpected. You come across and go ‘Oh. There’s something unique here. It’s something I hadn’t seen before.’’’

For example, perhaps you’ve walked right by an installation by Leon Reed.  It’s easy to miss.  It’s on east Jefferson Street near Prince of Peace Church across from the county courthouses and is a piece Auwaerter holds dear.

“So, this is actually one of my favorite pieces because it’s something you just walk along and don’t even realize and then, ‘What is this!’ This is called The Grazers. It looks like a family of parking meters that are grazing on this tree. It reminds you of giraffes. It’s very whimsical.”

But what can the impact of smaller whimsical installations have, or that of larger pieces?  Why should they be supported?  Steve Butler with CNY Arts knows some question the value of art in all forms.

“Over the years, the arts have made the case with facts and research from outside sources for arts education and the benefit to our youth. And adults, actually, that arts education can bring art as an economic driver.”

Auwaerter points out something many people have probably seen from the car, but not on foot.  It’s at East Genesee and South Townsend streets, kitty corner from Firefighters’ Memorial Park.

"Immersive Cloud" sits on the corner of S. Townsend and E. Genesee St. It was commissioned by the Connective Corridor, and created by Daekwon Park, an assistant professor in SU's school of architecture.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

“So this piece is called Immersive Cloud. It was commissioned by the Connective Corridor. It’s a series of these stainless steel reflective disks on galvanized steel posts, but they’re in a very undulating pattern. And the reflective surfaces of the disks, sort of reflect the skies and the trees.”

She says people have posted photos of their reflections on social media. That can be a powerful tool in raising awareness of a community’s public art and wanting to learn more.  Chris Malone is Grants and Public Programming Associate at CNY Arts. 

“When you got to a city and see a mural or some type of public art, people are going to take pictures of it. They’re going to put it on social media. So people will go and want to visit that and they will take pictures. The more art you have, the more entertainment, all that investment goes to making Syracuse and Central New York a better place.”

MEANINGFUL MURALS

If you’ve traveled South Salina Street just south of downtown since last summer, you’ve probably noticed murals on each concrete wall underneath the railroad bridge.  It’s a unique example of public art that aims to do more than beautify the drab space.  I caught up with artist London Ladd to talk about the value and meaning of his murals, and of public art in general.

Artist London Ladd finds one of many water pockets that have formed beneath the surface of his Martin Luther King, Jr. mural. Eventually, they'll burst and leave pockmarks. He's disappointed that the preapared surface is not holding up better less than a year after he painted.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

We met near the bridge at the busy intersection of Salina and Taylor Streets, which also sees its share of pedestrian traffic.   That’s the best way to take in the murals, which depict two important figures in African American history.  On the west wall is Martin luther King Jr., and on the east, Frederick Douglass. 

“Douglass spoke here 12 times during his life; King spoke twice, so it matched.  We used text to convey the message.  Not just through the visual arts, but almost like a picture out of a picture book,” Ladd said.

 “The artwork is like bait, where they see the artwork, the quality of it, and hopefully they like it," he continued.  But it’s the words, the text, their quotes that resonate, like the one [from Douglass] that says, ‘It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.’  That resonates with this side of town.  There’s a lot of broken people, broken men, broken families.”

“These words, the best thing I love is when people stop and read them," Ladd said.  He recalled a moment while he was painting.  "There was one guy who would read and study them, and turn around to try and memorize the quotes, especially on the King side. He was really reciting them and taking them to heart.  You’d see fathers with their sons coming by, and moms explaining who that person was…Martin Luther King, or the importance of Frederick Douglass.  It gave me a chance to get feedback from the community, and what it meant to see something dilapidated and then doing something to beautify it.”

Ladd says public art can uplift a community.  He says people passing through last summer seemed to have a little more pride.

“I think public art is so important.  When I go to other cities like Philadelphia, which is a beacon of public art and murals, you see the pride that they have in it.  Or in Rochester, when you go to their arts district, you see these gorgeous murals, and it really elevates the area in the sense of pride and just being a hub of art.  I believe art can be very therapeutic, it can be very emotive, it can be inspiring, in any neighborhood, whether it’s predominantly Polish, Irish, or mostly Muslim.  You get public art that touches upon the historical impact of that area, or the predominant people of that region, it helps,”  Ladd said.

Ladd checks the condition of the Frederick Douglass mural. This one is holding up much better.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

He says public art can have a bigger message:

“Being a children’s book illustrator, I’ve done the literary side.  Being able to do public art, and the impact of the public art is almost like a social justice movement when you see these two murals.”

So, what’s London Ladd's next project?  He’d like to tackle the bridge itself.

The project above…you have the base of the color, everything was treated.  They were ready to go, they had an artist, but he wasn’t able to finish, so they’re ready to start over and do something new.  It’s interesting, but for me, I have to make sure everything works out well.”

Ladd says there are still many details to be worked out with the city and the railroad before anything becomes final.  If it doesn't work out, he says he’s at peace. 

While he’d like to continue doing public art, Ladd is also working with his daughter on a children's book.  She has a degree in illustration, and Ladd says he’s only too proud she's following in his footsteps.  He’s also nurturing ideas for his long-time desire to publish a graphic novel, which he says would be a nice bookend to his career.