McLean underpass art project moves forward

By Brad Gilmer

[singlepic id=144 w=320 h=240 mode=web20 float=]In the summer of 2008, the Cooper-Young Community Association Beautification Committee began discussing ways to combat the graffiti that had become increasingly prevalent in our neighborhood. While Cooper-Young prides itself on its art and diversity, most of the graffiti that was going up in the district mainly consisted of “tags” or signatures of the taggers with black spray paint. Graffiti is certainly an accepted art form; however, the tags in our area were generally in the form of simple vandalism that could be confused with gang-related tagging. This resulted in anger among our residential and commercial neighbors, not to mention decreased property value. Our neighborhood works hard to maintain its quaintness and its place among Memphis’ most respected historic districts. Graffiti in or near the gateways to the community, on businesses, and even on residential fencing and homes was taking away from the charm of Cooper-Young.

For months, the committee examined the issue and, eventually, devised two plans: one for the short term and one for the long. First, we would create a task force to document instances of graffiti and paint over it. This would provide a short-term solution and, perhaps, discourage tagging in the neighborhood. Secondly, we would explore public art options. Most urban culture and graffiti experts agree that graffiti artists respect public art and will not vandalize it. Through the hard work of a few devoted neighbors, particularly Andy Ashby, our short-term plan was a great success. By removing tags on a regular basis, graffiti seems to have been greatly discouraged in the district. Nevertheless, we wanted to follow through with a more long-term solution.

When tackling part two of our plan—the public art option—we really needed the help of professionals. Memphis is lucky to have UrbanArt to promote public art. Public art can come in many forms, including murals, public graffiti walls, and installations. Many factors must be considered in deciding what best fits a community. One of the most important considerations is simply space. After consultation with UrbanArt and considering the space available, we decided to first explore mural art near a gateway to the community. We have the beautiful trestle on Cooper, which remains free from graffiti, so we decided to find another gateway into the neighborhood on which to focus. The underpasses at Barksdale and McLean, south of Central, are two other popular entrances into Cooper-Young, and both had been two main havens for tagging. We chose to start with the underpass at McLean because it had a higher traffic volume and serves as a gateway to and from three historic districts. Moreover, the underpass is really a unique structure in and of itself. If successful, we hope to move on to the Barksdale underpass and other gateways into the neighborhood.

Once we established the McLean sight as our target, we looked for local artists to design a concept for the first mural. After considering several candidates, we chose Memphian Carl Moore to undertake the project. Mr. Moore is an established artist. His work combines bold colors, broad lines, and strong imagery in a simplistic form that will translate well onto a large space. The McLean underpass is an interesting structure as it has a built-in skylight between the two trestles overhead and roman archways throughout the underpass that create twenty separate picture windows on the walls. We wanted to fully utilize the architecture of the space. Moore’s concept envisions a separate symbol of Cooper-Young or Midtown in each picture window, which, when combined, will show the assortment of people and things that make our neighborhood home. He has carefully considered the available natural light and shadows so that pedestrians, bikers, and those passing by in their cars will be able to enjoy the mural to its fullest extent each time they pass through.

We presented the McLean mural concept at the February CYCA General Meeting, and it was greeted with excitement and great anticipation by the approximately fifty people who attended. Many wonderful ideas, suggestions, and questions were offered by those in attendance. Now that the concept and draft design has been presented to the community, we will now seek the necessary approval from the City to proceed forward, including clean-up and repairs of the site. In the meantime, we will begin fundraising efforts. The project is anticipated to cost between $10,000 and $15,000. Our goal will be to complete the project sometime this summer or early fall. We plan to raise money through corporate sponsorship and private donations. The new farmers market coming to Cooper-Young has expressed a desire to work with us in developing fundraising ideas, and we hope others will soon join. Many people, businesses, and organizations have already volunteered equipment and labor when the time comes.

This is a very exciting project, and we hope that it leads to more public art projects in the neighborhood to showcase our amazing community. Please stay tuned for future updates and opportunities to help.

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