Yes, public art is political.

Here’s a mural that went up recently in Newark honoring ‘The Three Doctors,’ friends who met at University High School in the mid-1980s and decided to get through school and college then medical school together to become doctors. They supported each other academically and personally through some of life’s challenges, which included a sometimes dangerous city, the absence of a father’s guidance, financial struggle, incarcerations in the family, and people around them lost to drugs and violence. Doctors Rameck Hunt, Sampson Davis and George Jenkins graduated Seton Hall University and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School together, and chronicled their lives in The Pact (2003) and The Bond (2008). Now they’re a mural.

Success comes differently to different people. I’m not here to suggest it’s only worth celebrating if it shows up like theirs, big careers, high-paid jobs, or books. Actually, what interests me most here is the art. In this morning’s Blue Jersey News Roundup, we had a story about The Morristown Fiber Fairies, who adorn their city’s statues with hats & scarves they knit, meaning for those to be taken by homeless people who need them. That’s public art; and it’s exciting. I agree with the idea that all public art is political; in this country that can mean statues of Confederate generals, but also the effort to take them down. Increasingly, it means a celebration of ordinary people, including those know struggle, like those docs.

First Night:. Years ago, I was the founder & artistic director of First Night Flemington, when we were the smallest town in America to host a First Night, the arts festivals that transform public spaces into art spaces. An $8 button pinned to your coat got you in everywhere for 10 hours, dozens of things to choose at any moment, all over town, then midnight fireworks. All the artists were paid; local businesses underwrote so much that buttons were cheap. But even low-cost art is a luxury for some families. We made more than 100 buttons free to whoever needed them, given out anonymously (so nobody felt embarrassed taking one). Even without a button, dozens of things to see and do from daylight to midnight, all free. There was a Procession through town with music, a giant peace dove street puppet operated by 8 people, glittery moons and art we commissioned carried through the street before installation in the park that night. But just before all those feet hit Main Street, an even more anticipated event: Chalk on the Wild Side. In early evening, we closed the street to traffic, and everybody over age 12 had to get on the sidewalk. We cranked up the music, and kids were given buckets of colored chalk, and dye for the snow, to do anything they wanted. Then the Procession came through, and  hundreds of feet picked up the childrens’ art and carried it all over town.

The Starlight & Shivers Ballroom: It was always this kind of stuff, the public art, that meant the most to me. My best idea, everybody warned me would fail. It almost did – except for the old woman. This was The Starlight & Shivers Ballroom. Main Street, closed. Full orchestra, in a big 3 sided tent set down in the street. Electrical panels run out to the street for sound, lights, heaters for the musicians. The street with hundreds of feet of white twinkle lights; a low fence roping off the sidewalk from the dance floor which was the street. Hundreds showed up. But only when the music started did we see our mistake: We panicked. Were the twinkle lights going to keep people on the sidelines? Just then, a glorious thing. An old woman slowly and dramatically cast off her winter coat, hat, muffler, boots, to reveal a black sequined dress, long black thermal underwear and glittery silver heels. People were transfixed. I’d stopped breathing. Her outerwear in a pile behind her, she delicately stepped over the white lights and began to dance, all alone. Within 3 minutes, hundreds of people joined her. Main Street was The Starlight and Shivers Ballroom.

God, I love public art.

Find the mural of The Three Doctors at at 16th Avenue  at South 18th Street, Newark. Hat/tip to Larry Hamm for pointing everybody to this story.

Some more things about public art in Newark:

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