Artists, students collaborate on planned Bluffs’ public art project

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February 29th, 2012

Omaha, NE – A new public art project is planned for Council Bluffs. But this one is starting at the grassroots – with hopes of revitalizing a community.

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Therman Statom, right, and Deb Masuoka, front, sit with Heather Johnson, far right, and a group of students at Kanesville Alternative School, looking over photographs of the students' artwork. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

About a dozen students sat around a table with a couple local artists, poring over photographs of sculptures and various colorful creations. The photographs are the final step in a project they’ve been working on for six weeks at Kanesville Alternative School in Council Bluffs.

“I have the sun one, the big sun, and then I had the one with all the crazy, fun chairs,” said Tessa Sanders cheerfully. Sanders, 17, created a bright model sculpture of something that could, theoretically, be installed on school grounds: a place where kids could hang out during recess.

Some of the students' ideas will be incorporated into the final public artwork, scheduled to be installed by late summer. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“I wanted it to be like the chill zone because for our lunch break, we have nowhere to go because we have off-campus lunch. So we have like nowhere to sit and stuff,” Sanders said. “So that’s why this is also a bigger thing that makes me really excited because then we can have somewhere to hang out, so even for kids in the future, they’d like it too.”

The project, called Building Bridges, is sponsored by the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. It’s an effort to reach out to the community and make public artwork a collaborative process.

Several public art projects have been installed in Council Bluffs in recent years, and some haven’t gone over very well. Rochester, NY artist Albert Paley’s series of sculptures installed along a bridge over I-80 might ring a few bells. It was commissioned by the Iowa West Foundation, and went over, for some, like a ton of… twisted metal. For this project, two acclaimed local artists, Therman Statom and Deb Masuoka, are planning a new piece to be built in Council Bluffs this summer. And before they get started on the designs, they’ve been working with the students at Kanesville to develop their creations and ideas, and hear their input on what defines their community.

Tessa Sanders, 17, created a brightly-colored piece that she hoped could be transformed into a "chill zone" at school. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“They’ve inspired me personally,” Statom said, “as an artist wanting to do public art work out here. I’m not sure what it is to be here. In many ways, this whole process is a way of learning about the region… and sort of getting grounded.”

“I think some artists, they measure the space, they look at the sky, they look at the architecture,” he said. “And I think both me and Debbie are interested in the culture.”

Statom added public art should inspire and artists shouldn’t shy away from controversy. But installing a public work of art that reflects the voice of the city’s youth could make it feel closer to home.

The students also created a project that will be transformed into a mural at the school. Sanders adds some finishing touches. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

For Heather Mauer, an art teacher at Kanesville, the process has gone beyond public art. “They really helped the kids understand that they do make a difference and their voice can be heard,” she said. “And that’s huge. So many of them have no idea what that really can do.”

Mauer said the students felt particularly strongly about creating works of art that could change the way their city and neighborhoods are perceived. “In this particular area, I get to hear kids talk all the time about negative stereotypes of the area. And they want so much to change that,” she said. “And art is definitely a good stepping stone towards that, especially when they put their heart and soul into the designs shows how much they care.”

“And then they talk about this might be some type of a legacy that they leave behind,” she said. “And just the fact that they’re thinking about leaving a legacy is saying something for this whole entire project itself.”

The artists also worked with the students on another project – just for them – a collection of metallic boards that will be pieced together and installed in their school. Outside, Tessa Sanders helped add a few final touches of spray paint to the collection. She said, for her, the project has made her want to stay in school. “I knew I could do it, but I didn’t know how good I was actually at it,” she said, referring to her artwork. “I would try to find time. I’d get my work done quicker so I could come and work on my project. And when other kids would be like, hey, let’s skip, you know. I was like, ‘no dude, I gotta work on my project, so I gotta go to class,’” she said with a laugh.

“It really did have a big impact, it really did,” she said. “It kept me here, I know that.”

The students’ mural will be installed in Kanesville Alternative School soon, and the public art project should be completed by August.

Deb Masuoka said they don’t have a location set yet, but they hope to keep it close to the school, and close to the neighborhood.

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