I'm content to admire the mural from the edge of the small pond, but artist Katherine Sandoz is having none of it.
"Oh no, I'm getting you in the boat," she informs me, leading me to a tiny dinghy and pushing off the leaf-strewn shore with a rubber-toed boot.
Photographer Jon Waits and I have come to the Edgewater Trace apartment complex to witness Sandoz's latest work, a life-sized landscape that masterfully mirrors the morning-lit serenity of the surrounding vegetation. I didn't dress for a cruise, but if she says that floating amid cattails and sea oats provides the finest vantage point of her mural, then it's worth risking an unintentional swim. As an avowed art groupie, I always defer to the artist.
Waits snaps away with his telephoto lens, safely on terra firma, as Sandoz rows the wobbly watercraft to the center of the pond. We face the painting, a horizontal thicket of greens and browns and the occasional surprise of orange that seamlessly blends the pondscape with the grove of pines and oaks towering behind it. If it weren't for the continuous Doppler drone of tires, you'd never know there were six lanes of traffic barreling along the other side.
The 225-foot concrete wall was erected by the Dept. of Transportation along this section of Abercorn as a barrier to the coming Truman Parkway chaos; covered with Sandoz's majestic camouflage, its aesthetic now matches its function.
"I wanted the perimeter to fold into the space," explains the artist as two mallard ducks glide by.
A southside apartment complex may not seem an obvious canvas for one of Savannah's most celebrated fine artists, but Sandoz welcomes any opportunity to stage work in the public domain. The first to dab a brush onto SeeSAW's first city-sanctioned public mural at Habersham and 34th streets in 2011, she is a veteran and champion of how art can transform not just a shared space, but the people who share that space.
"Public art asks you not only to look at it, but what's around it," muses Sandoz as she guides our toy boat back to land. "Viewers are as much a part of the work as the ones who make the work."
She's nailed the power of public art: To simply behold it is to be a part of it. While its agenda can be political, fanciful or completely baffling (have you seen London's blue rooster?), its first purpose is always to issue the primal call of "I am here! And you are, too!" That connection turns strangers into neighbors, apartment complexes into communities and once in a while, apathy into revolution. And it's not just for the artsy parts of town.
It's also not just the makers making it happen. Jeff Kole oversees 10 properties under the Apartment Savannah umbrella and commissioned Sandoz to spruce up the concrete loaf on the back of Edgewater Trace. A former community newspaperman, Kole sees public art as vital and a way to build upon the legacy of his parents, renowned local arts supporters Don and Kaye. Paying an artist to create something for everyone widens the definition of what art is for and for whom; while Sandoz's luscious landscape mural can only be seen from the (lucky!) residents' side of the wall, its very existence changes up the game.
"We saw a chance to turn an eyesore into something appealing," says Kole. "If it ratchets up the dialogue of the validity of public art outside the downtown core, all the better."
Speaking of ratcheting, I've barely gotten my land legs back before Waits and I are atop a five-story waffle of scaffolding outside of SCAD's Montgomery Hall, where another massive mural emerged last week. The refurbished factory on the west side of midtown houses the school's digital design department, and the riot of color reaching into the sky is meant to reflect the sizzle of technogenius happening under the roof.
"We wanted the outside to show the dynamic of what's going on inside," says SCAD Vice President Glenn Wallace, who regularly commissions wall art by SCAD's fine art grads for its buildings.
His efforts often spill beautifully into the public realm, and there's no doubt our heralded art college anchors the city's artistic identity. It's easy to align with Wallace's suggestion that each new installation is "stringing the pearls" of a sustained public art movement in Savannah.
Still, my stomach flips as I observe how the mural serves as a beacon for the surrounding neighborhood from up high. Compared to teetering on this gigantic metal grate in the wind, Sandoz's boat seems like a Disney ride.
"Welcome to the penthouse," grins Matt Hebermehl as I hang on for dear life.
He interprets his giant "Sky's the Limit" as a visual expression of the creative spirit in Savannah, riffing on the canopy of live oaks as a metaphor of how energetic potential stays trapped under the tree line and that we have to push the boundaries of what we can do.
"People have a built-in inferiority complex about this city because it's not New York or Miami. They think they there are limitations, but the point is that shouldn't be," he says.
Working in his signature palette of bold hues and electric flourishes, Hebermehl is inspired by the tradition of Miami's Wynwood Walls and other public spaces reclaimed by those with spray cans and paintbrushes — though he prefers the descriptor "street art" to "graffiti," which tightens the sphincters of city planning commissioners faster than a shot of Maalox.
"Don't say the 'G-word!'" he hisses with a good-natured wink.
He'll duck the credit, but Hebermehl, with help from fellow SCAD grads Sandoz, SeeSAW co-founder James "Dr. Z" Zdaniewski and Troy Wandzel is the godfather of Savannah's public art scene, authoring and implementing the city's first public art ordinance. Since that first "Muralcle on 34th St.", Hebermehl has led several projects with approved temporary life spans, including last spring's Converse-sponsored awesomeness on MLK Blvd. and two incarnations of New Orleans artist Candy Chang's "Before I Die" blackboard project, one of which now graces the cover of Chang's bestselling coffee table book.
The fact that his new mural and Sandoz's are permanent represents a large step up the ladder towards a culture that encourages the entrepreneurial and socioeconomic connections that public art engenders.
"The true power of these projects is that it shows people they have ownership over the community where they live," says Hebermehl, expounding on Sandoz's point. "It's a new way to connect art, business and the people who live here."
According to these artists, it's vital and valuable to be the point of connection that appreciates in awe. But I've always been curious what it would feel like to get one's hands dirty as part of the artistic process, dizzy not because of a shaky boat ride or a vertiginous climb but with the thrill of creation.
I found out six weeks ago when Hebermehl casually mentioned that a local business had approached him to repurpose an unused sign on its property. He remembered that I had written a column about yarnbombing — the act of wrapping an object in fibers, often for the purposes of amiable subversion and nerdy hilarity.
"I was thinking about that story you wrote last year and I wanted to ask—" he started.
I'm not sure what his actual question was but I shrieked, "DONE!"
Before he knew it, I got him to agree to let me oversee Savannah's First Ever Crowdsourced Yarnbomb. Despite the fact that I am the world's worst knitter. (That's no humble-brag, it's truth. I feel sorry for my future grandchildren, who will be receiving striped nose sleeves and seven-toed socks every Chanukah.)
Anyway, it was the collaboration that intrigued me the most: I'm here in this quirky Southern city! You are, too! Let's make something pretty!
A Facebook post soliciting contributions of the simple 9-inch squares yielded enthusiastic response. Blocks of color started showing up on my porch, on my messy desk at the office, in my kids' school cubbies. More than 40 people showed up to the first "stitch n' bitch" gathering at coffee deli, and for weeks a bunch of teenagers, retirees, tired moms and tireless cheerleaders knitted and crocheted, a merry band of benevolent pranksters clicking away on their needles.
We ended up with over 125 squares, each as unique as its creator. I must thank super kninjas Star Kotowski, Michelle Mcrorie, Natasha Gaskill, Kate Greene, Alice Johnston, Monique Belli, Chris Thompson, Connie Pinkerton, Pat Cook, Autumn VanGunten, Sandi Postle and the Tybee Island knitting group Purls by the Sea, my kids, my patient husband and all the others who sutured this project together. Also much gratitude to the crew of coffee deli, who are still probably cleaning up the leftover lint.
We unveiled our collaborative endeavor at dawn last Friday at Green Truck Pub, where we covered not only the old Krispy Chic drive-thru sign, but also the signpost and all three bike racks. Sandoz (who contributed a stack of squares herself, does she EVER sleep?) and Hebermehl were in attendance, and it felt enormously satisfying and deliciously rebellious to see ordinary objects covered with our chock-a-block panels.
Green Truck owner Josh Yates promises he'll keep it up at least through the holidays, so grab a grass-fed burger and check it out.
It was humbling to experience how powerful the permission to create can be: Alone, I am merely a flubber-fingered craft nerd.Together, we are a force.
Yes, there is a vast difference in the skills required to make an intricate mural on the side of building and what is essentially a giant stocking (my "square" came out unmistakably oblong), but in some ways the effect has been the same: A community now exists where there was none before. Though I'd never put myself in the same class, I get it now when talent like Sandoz and Hebermehl talk about how public art invites us to participate in the conversation of our collective experience.
An unexpected flash of color and form makes us think, it makes us smile, it makes us feel seen. What would happen if there was a whole lot more of it where we can see it?