By Aaron T. Stephan
Public Art, by nature, involves a complex overlapping of goals, concepts, and voices. These often opposing factors pose serious questions about how to create a successful public artwork. How can an artist create a work that not only appeals to the general public, but also maintains an individual voice and vision? Where do these concerns meet? Can a work be progressive within the public realm? Can public artwork challenge its audience and be accepted by that same audience? These difficulties, inherent in the public art process, present a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles—ranging from sensitive public negotiations to navigating the norms of engineering.
At the same time, these challenges can feed the artistic process in surprising and rewarding ways. Within the minefield of public opinion, corporate concerns, and public policies lies precisely what many artists strive to achieve—artwork that creates a rich, interesting, and thoughtful dialogue with the public. This is something that is difficult to achieve through market-driven galleries and artworld-centric museums. At the same time, this process often opposes standard notions of what it means to be an artist. Picture your average unkempt and uncouth artist in a boardroom surrounded by local executives and politicians, and you get a pretty good idea of what I mean.
Regardless, these challenges are exactly what makes public art most appealing to me. Boom is a prime example of how these challenges can result in a truly enriching art-making process. This complex project has involved a diverse array of groups and individuals including family members of P. D. Merrill, the FAA, MDOT, Portland’s zoning committee and public art committee, and local neighborhood groups. Through the patient efforts of these thoughtful individuals, the process of the creating Boom has provided an experience (and hopefully an artwork) that has been enjoyable, thought provoking, and eye opening. Even before the work has been completed, it has provided me with an invaluable experience that will influence many future projects. For my talk at the PMA, I hope to address these issues and explain the process of creating Boom.