Sheboygan's Sidewalk Stories integrates art, community, environment
by Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org
Who hasn't wanted to leave an imprint in a patch of freshly laid concrete?
This month Sheboygan residents can, with the blessing of the city. As part of John Michael Kohler Arts Center's Sidewalk Stories project, residents are installing sidewalk art in the recently renovated General King Park. The process--taking place through September 18, 2009--involves stamping local stories and imagery into park walkways.
To lead the effort, the Arts Center brought in Anne Wallace, a Texas artist who completed a similar project in San Antonio. Working with hundreds of Sheboygan volunteers, she taught residents to conduct and record oral history interviews. She also went into the community and audiotaped many interviews herself.
Included in the project archives are voices reflecting the area's diverse history and population, from its manufacturing and agricultural traditions to German, Jewish, Hmong and Latino immigrants young and old. "We tried to cover as many of the bases as possible, from the old time communities to the newer arrivals," says Wallace. "All of these parts contribute to a sense of place."
Wallace calls the original, permanent public art that will result from all the hard work "kind of anti-monument." More than functional art, the sidewalks are integrated into the Sheboygan landscape. "I didn't want to create one more object in the environment, one more thing people have to negotiate around," she adds.
And as Wallace puts it, sidewalks connect communities, residents' stories connect to illuminate local themes and Sidewalk Stories creates opportunities for face-to-face human connections. "Sidewalk Stories is a public expression of democracy," she says. "I like that you can't see the art from a vehicle. You have to walk or ride a bike or skateboard to look at it. You're encouraged to get out and walk around and talk to people."
Many of the stories document the impact of urban renewal on historic neighborhoods, but Wallace says selected texts do not necessarily make obvious these cause-and-effect relationships. "It takes the thought processes, memories and prior knowledge of the viewer to reach these conclusions," she explains. "So I want the sidewalks to be fun and inviting and a little mysterious, but I also want them to be a learning experience." For the curious, Kohler Arts Center will make public its archive of all the oral histories transcribed for the project.
Early Sidewalk Stories art was installed near Kohler Arts Center, where volunteers helped lay sections for a test pour last July. The following example describes a historic 1982 fire, in which a century-old furniture plant burned to the ground:
I remember the firemen when the
Thonet Factory was burning down
Nothing they could do really,
except stand and watch it
and try to water it. But they
would say, "There goes the oak,"
because of the color of the flame.
"There goes the pine ..." I mean,
different colors, different smoke
from different things.
The summer pour served as the first functional test of Wallace's recent innovation, a stamp with moveable type. Before she invented the new stamp, she made separate panels for every block of text by gluing letters in reverse onto a shellacked board and then affixing a handle. The new process means she only needs one stamp, and she can change the letters between uses. "It's a technology that's certainly been easier to travel with," she says.
Sidewalk Stories is part of Kohler Arts Center's Connecting Communities initiative. According to education and community arts department head Amy Horst, the Arts Center takes on two to five projects each year and employs artists from around the country in all disciplines. Fifteen community partners from social services, cultural organizations and educational institutions help determine the projects best suited to Sheboygan.
Artists and the community benefit mutually from efforts like Sidewalk Stories, Horst says. The initiative allows the community to jump inside the thought processes of artists. For many, it offers a first opportunity to see creative work being done.
"Our goal is that residents apply what they learn about creativity to other areas of their lives, especially when we're working with at-risk youth, or [others] who might feel alienated from the community," she adds. "We're really hoping for a shift in perspective."
For her part, Wallace says she has developed a steadfast appreciation for Sheboygan people and their culture. "Kohler Arts Center is a very unique and important place. It's been really rewarding and interesting working with them, and with the city, and with the community partners," she adds.
According to Horst, the project will culminate next year after the city completes the park renovation. Rather than identifying speakers on each section of sidewalk, one marker will commemorate the participation of everyone involved, to demonstrate that the project belongs to everyone. "That's the idea behind Sidewalk Stories," she says.