Road Trips, Public Art, and Storytelling
Not too long ago, I embarked on a 12,000-mile road trip throughout the western United States. The goal — to see as much publicly accessible (outdoor) art as possible (and make some art of my own). Our starting point was Seattle (where we lived at the time), and the trip was broken up into two primary segments: summer in the northern states, then winter in the southwest. My husband, dogs, and I piled into our pickup truck and hit the road.
Public art tells self-reflexive stories about a community’s culture and values — these works represent how the people see themselves and how they want to be perceived. So, we visited hundreds of artworks across eleven states to get a well-rounded understanding of the way public art functions — both for the people who live there and for visitors from the outside.
Some types of stories emerge repeatedly — especially around the area’s natural features. Almost every place we visited had artwork that celebrated their native flora and fauna as well as the unique qualities of the local landscape. In smaller, rural towns, a visitor can reasonably expect to see — in real life — the natural features pictured in the art. In contrast, big city nature-based art typically acts as a memorial rather than a celebration.
The underlying story in many of these pieces has to do with the way we exploit the lands we choose to live on. We choose them because they're beautiful, or have easy access to water, or the ground is fertile... and then we proceed to kill everything in sight. We love nature — just not enough.
"Art You Can Sit On" is public art with a theme in Idaho Falls. There's a collection of these all around town, each one by a different artist. This one features a rattlesnake. Others look like deer, geese, horses, potatoes, and pawprints.
The desert tortoise (an officially designated threatened species) and other Mojave Desert animals are featured in sidewalk mosaics in Twentynine Palms, California. According to the Nevada Fish & Wildlife Service, the desert tortoise can grow to 15 inches long, has a lifespan of 50–80 years, and lives 95% of its life underground.
Public art often relates to the place’s economy. Almost everywhere has art that highlights the predominant industries in the area. They simply educate visitors about what kind of economic drivers exist in each place.
For instance, Santa Cruz, California is known for oceanside farming and as a surfing destination.
Ely, Nevada honors its ties to ranching and the mining industry. At first these works can seem like unbiased accounts of economic activity in each area, but when considered in their broader contexts, subtler narratives come to light.
Large cities have ties to a wider array of economic sectors, so their industry-oriented public art is usually tied to specific neighborhoods where the work is done. One of my favorite pieces in Los Angeles is titled "Pope of Broadway," by Eloy Torrez. Located in the historically Latino (but now gentrified) downtown commercial district, it was originally painted in 1984 and restored in 2017. The business owner who originally commissioned it said he wanted a mural that featured a successful Latino in the film industry (Branson-Potts, 2017). You can hear directly from the artist in the video below:
In general, though, literal connections to the economy are less important in places like Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Seattle. Aesthetics are prioritized more in large cities than smaller ones. Instead of touting specific industries, cities indicate their wealth by displaying bigger, more expensive, abstract [i.e. inoffensive] artworks that often become identifying landmarks, and by commissioning famous artists to increase their global caché.
Abstract pieces like the one pictured here are less about the community itself and more about letting the rest of the world know this is a world-class city. Nevermind the fact that nearly identical floating nets by Janet Echelman are in cities all around the globe, including Seattle; West Hollywood; Hong Kong; and Sydney, Australia.
As we expected, diversity is celebrated more in big cities’ public art displays — presumably because cities’ local populations are more diverse. El Paso is a city that, as a bordertown, takes pride in its blended identity as American, Indigenous, and Latino. Despite the one-sided picture of El Paso that’s often presented in the mass media to the rest of the U.S., the public art there gave me a much more nuanced view of the local culture. The mural pictured below, called "El Paso Port-All" by Werk Alvarez, is located at the border crossing with Juárez, Mexico, and celebrates Mexican and American collaboration and friendship.
In February 2021, Phoenix Black Lives Matter activist, Gizelle Knight, organized 28 murals for the 28 days in Black History Month (Below: Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael, photo by Meg Potter in the AZ Central).
Gallop, New Mexico's population is largely Indigenous, so Native American themes appear often. This long steel arc with cut out silhouettes depicts a timeline how life has changed since Europeans arrived in the New World.
Tehachapi, California, is a place where the public artworks — perhaps unintentionally — display narratives that highlight the area's ongoing colonialist attitudes. On the one hand, there are a number of pleasant murals that depict fruits and vegetables canned with attractive vintage labels, airplanes, and freight trains. There are others that portray wealthy White settlers wearing their finest clothing. One shows Native American women sitting in clusters, weaving baskets outside thatch huts, as if Indigenous people are a thing of the past.
Another painting in Tehachapi (above) memorializes a multi-ethnic Mexican-Indigenous-Chinese horse-catcher who is described as a gang member. The rhetoric of Tehachapi's public art collection signals a clear power differential in which White residents have the loudest voice in how their town is represented to the world. The choice to feature a single narrative about a non-White community member, using derogatory language, reduces him to a representative of all the non-White people in the area. Viewers don't get to see the full picture of how people of non-European descent have contributed to the local culture. When I see things like this, I know there's more to the story.
One of the things I like about public art (aside from everything else!) is the variety. Each artist has a different interpretation of things, so each piece tells a different part of a larger story. When I go to any town or city, I consider it my free outdoor art tour, and it teaches me far more about the character of a place than any official description from a visitor's bureau.
Branson-Potts, H. (2017). Downtown's 'Pope of Broadway' Mural Featuring Actor Anthony Quinn Fully Restored by Original Artist. Los Angeles Times. Accessed from https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-pope-broadway-anthony-quinn-20170124-story.html
Potter, M. (2021). Gallery: These New Murals Celebrating Black History Month are Located in Downtown Phoenix. AZ Central. Accessed from https://www.azcentral.com/picture-gallery/entertainment/arts/2021/02/08/black-history-month-murals/4411092001/
All photos ©Danielle Foushée unless otherwise noted.