photo by: Contributed Images
A public art project that once divided neighbors is now hoping that the culmination of the long-running effort can bring the whole community together for an outdoor event of art, live music and free food.
The completion of the East Ninth Street art project — which includes the work of 18 artists — comes after a yearslong saga that included disagreement, rejection and ultimately reinvention of the project’s concept. Now, that second iteration of the project, Rebuilding East Ninth Together, is preparing to celebrate its completion on Saturday. The event, adjusting to the pandemic, will host art, performances, live music and activities across more than 20 sites in East Lawrence.
Because of the struggles and conflict in the project’s past, as well as the pandemic, project facilitator Mandy Enfield said she hopes the event, which has combined with the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association’s annual block party, will be about much more than just the project.
“It’s about seeing your neighbors, seeing great art, sharing a meal and having a moment with beautiful weather before it gets cold,” Enfield said. “(An event) where we’re all reminded that our neighbors matter and our community matters.”
photo by: Dave Loewenstein
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Work on what was originally referred to as the “arts corridor” began in 2014 when the Lawrence Arts Center won a $500,000 ArtPlace America grant to fund the integration of public art along several blocks of East Ninth Street, which connects downtown to the arts district in East Lawrence. But the project stalled after a large-scale, expensive concept was opposed by some neighbors and ultimately voted down by city leaders after about three years of planning and debate. Eventually, Rebuilding East Ninth Together emerged in the fall of 2018 with the goal of more directly involving the East Lawrence Neighborhood.
Originally, the art was to be designed and installed in tandem with the city’s street and walkway improvements along East Ninth Street, but Rebuilding East Ninth Together includes various nonpermanent forms of art and also scattered the projects throughout East Lawrence. Though the current version of the project includes a few of the originally selected artists, the project team sought proposals in partnership with the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association and was especially interested in artists committed to building community, according to the request for proposals. Among the 18 projects, which include four youth projects, are murals, sculptures, a community garden, a short film, community portraits, a neighborhood crochet project, and various forms of performance pieces.
photo by: contributed photo
One of the projects, “Sounds of East Lawrence,” collected about 25 recordings related to the neighborhood, including oral histories from East Lawrence residents, music and ambient sound. Examples include the congregation of St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and the chatter of crowds at Lawrence Beer Co. Oral histories include a resident talking about the Mexican migrant community that worked for the railroad and another resident talking about her experience with segregation as a child. The recordings are pinned to locations on a digital map and available on the project’s website.
The artist behind the project, Nick Carswell, said that in the end his project just scratched the surface of the neighborhood’s deep history. He said he saw his project as a small sampling of the neighborhood’s vast and varied story.
“I ended up thinking about my project as a gateway into the histories,” Carswell said.
As part of Saturday’s event, Carswell will present a multimedia installation that will include projected images related to the neighborhood, live music and some of the recordings collected as part of the project. Carswell’s presentation will occur at Van Go, 715 New Jersey St.
photo by: Fally Afani contributed photo
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Another project that residents can visit as part of the event on Saturday is “Natives Now” by Mona Cliff, where Cliff will be on hand to answer questions about the project. The main project includes a series of murals depicting Native American orthography, designs and plants indigenous to the area. The mural consists of several panels on the building that houses The Dragon’s Hoard Games & Hobbies, at 1045 Pennsylvania St.
Cliff said the project was her first public art project. She said the format of Rebuilding East Ninth Together, which did not require prior experience with public art and provided support for artists, is what gave her the confidence to apply. She said though the city is home to Haskell Indian Nations University, she doesn’t see much native representation away from Haskell, and that the goal of her project was to increase the visibility of native peoples and cultures.
“So that’s what I wanted to bring forth, is just something for our community to see ourselves out in the larger city of Lawrence,” said Cliff, adding that she hoped it would also build dialogue about the native community.
photo by: contributed photo
Cliff said the largest mural depicts the Osage word for people and has native designs in the background, and the smaller murals include botanical depictions of native plants. Cliff’s husband and children are part of the Osage tribe, which once resided in Kansas. Cliff herself is an enrolled member of the Gros Ventre or A’aninin tribe, and also has Assiniboine and eastern European heritage.
As part of her project, Cliff also shot a portrait series of Native Americans and projected them at Burroughs Creek Park. She is also in the process of planting six indigenous trees near the Burroughs Creek Trail — persimmon, paw paw and chokecherry — and installing four benches in East Lawrence. One bench will be installed by the trees; another beside a community garden in Hobbs Park, planted as part of another East Ninth project; and the other two at the bus stop in front of the park. The benches weren’t initially part of her project, but Cliff said she decided to commission them after, on the way to a meeting with Enfield for the project, she drove past a woman sitting in the grass waiting for the bus.
“I thought I needed to address this because I wanted to incorporate some of my own teachings from my grandparents and tribe about trying to care for people who have the least,” Cliff said.
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Though the art projects have wrapped up, Enfield said there is still one more aspect of the project to be completed. She said as a capstone of the project, the project team is going to put together a document that summarizes the history of the project, provides information about the ultimate community-based concept and brings together associated documents for both iterations of the project.
photo by: contributed rendering
Those involved spent countless hours in dozens of meetings to plan and discuss the first project, which culminated in a $3.8 million proposal from the firm El Dorado Inc. Both the ArtPlace America grant and the city contributed money to fund the creation of that concept. The El Dorado concept would have integrated permanent public art and other artistic elements, such as natural rock seating, native grass and light and sound displays, into the city’s project to reconstruct the street and sidewalks on the corridor.
The El Dorado proposal had its ardent supporters and its fierce opponents — those who worried that the project would not represent the historic, working class neighborhood of East Lawrence, or that it would contribute to gentrification of the neighborhood, or that the changes to the street layout would simply create traffic or parking issues.
photo by: Nick Krug
Enfield said the document would include the perspectives of people who participated in both iterations of the project, and that the goal for the document would be to arrive at findings that can help future public art projects. She said she wants to be a good steward of the energy and commitment that have been given at every level of the project, and that she hopes ultimately the document can help the Lawrence community and others learn from the experience.
“We can’t fix or undo the conflicts that happened,” Enfield said. “We can’t make the project that everybody wanted because everybody wanted different things. So what I think about a lot is: What can we learn from this or what can we take away from this that when we’re done, everyone is better off?”
All activities for the celebration of the end of the project and ELNA’s annual block party are free, and will include community meals, art, live music, raffles and other activities across more than 20 sites in East Lawrence. The event will take place Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m., with the free meal being distributed until 6 p.m. at the Sunrise Project, 1501 Learnard Ave. Attendees should wear masks and practice social distancing, according to the event announcement. More information about the event and additional sites is available on the project website, rebuildingeastninth.com/finalevent.