LAST WORD FIRST:
By Lynn Sanders-Bustle
August 1, 2012
Reflections on a stain and a call for collective imagination
Stain: a colored patch or dirty mark that is difficult to remove
All that remains of the brightly colored tile and mirror mosaics at what was once Acadiana Outreach Center at the corner of Buchanan and Second streets is a textured stain — a stubborn and painful reminder of public art, a community effort, and more important the community that once frequented and lived on the Outreach Center campus. Without warning or public discourse the mosaics were removed months after purchase of the property by the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority. At the very least this column seeks to pay tribute to the mosaics and the many participants responsible for raising them, to provide some context for the creation of them, and perhaps most important to make a call for collective imagination that inspires the practice of tolerance, trust and respect in future actions related to public artworks and more important the lives of community members.
For those who are not familiar with the Acadiana Outreach Center, it was a fully functioning resource for those in need that featured a day shelter called The Well; shelters such as the Naomi and Joshua Houses; a warehouse used for storage, art making and woodworking; and a store, named Wellmart. If you were tired, hungry, in need of a shower, a bed, some counseling or an I.D., the center helped connect you with resources that could slightly dampen the blow being without can inflict.
The mosaics were located on the side and front walls of what used to be The Well and on the back wall of an administrative building. In fall 2005, community participants, including UL art education students, me — UL art education professor at the time — and Acadiana Outreach Center residents and volunteers, designed and raised the first mosaic on the side of the The Well. Despite the challenge of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, participants collected and prepared tiles, cut mirror, and designed and molded handmade clay medallions. They also personally grouted artworks and hand-painted texts featuring meaningful quotes to be embedded in the mosaic. The design evolved from a series of workshops and conversations with outreach center participants. Despite the resulting stress of the storms, the outreach center continued to provide those in need while participants worked alongside one another gluing, grouting and polishing each tile. It was during these days spent at the site that participants of all socio-economic stripes, backgrounds and lived experiences shared stories, listened to music, hauled sand, mixed grout, told more stories and watched with pride as each mirror and tile was polished to sparkle in the sun. On one particular day that just happened to be Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, a Vietnam veteran and a World War II veteran ended up on the same scaffolding gluing up tiles and sharing memories. This pairing was not orchestrated, suggested or staged. It just happened. And such were the opportunities afforded those who visited or worked on the wall. A short chat, a suggestion, a discussion about family, food or religion, or a quiet moment with no exchange. For each person something new was learned and knowledge was shared. Whether skillfully erecting an impromptu tent to shelter workers or learning how to apply adhesive, each participant had the opportunity to contribute knowledge. Knowledge comes in many forms. It was while “pushing the wall” — a phrase donated to us by a frequent visitor — that artificial social separations softened. It took close to two months to complete the mosaic as a few participants braved the first strike of cool weather to glue on the last tiles.
Then, during the summer of 2006 as part of a summer retreat hosted by the UL art education program, Louisiana Art Education Association members assembled in Lafayette to create a mosaic on the backside of a wall directly across from the mosaic. In fall 2007 a second mosaic was constructed on the front of The Well. This effort was led by an advanced art education student as part of an independent study. Again, significant contributions were made by current and former UL art education students and outreach center community members and visitors. But this time the community of participants widened to include contributions by J. Wallace James Elementary School students, UL AmeriCorps volunteers and church groups. Visitors even came from out of state to work on the mosaic.
Some might say the mosaic was just a piece of art. Some might say they liked it. Some might say they didn’t. Others might not care. Some might see it as an eyesore. Some might not even see it. Some saw it as an impediment to downtown development. I try to imagine how its demise was rationalized and what could have been its downfall. Was the imagery too abstract or the texts which include words like “strength,” “courage,” “hope” and “imagination” uncomfortably unattainable given the circumstances? Were the tiles imperfect and some mirrors crooked? Were some unable to see the beauty in the imperfections or the human stain? I wonder if anyone even bothered to ask who made it or how it was created. Just how much inquiry was done?
Perhaps what’s most notable here is that the care of the mosaic in some form or another was not considered or imagined by those who had the power to protect it. Possibilities for preservation or re-presentation were never discussed nor were its caregivers contacted. All that was needed was a phone call. It is much too late to save the mosaic through healthy dialogue, but rather than spend more time and effort exploring the nature of its demise perhaps more value can come in energies directed toward future actions. Perhaps this destruction signals a need and offers an opportunity for the community to truly consider what and whose artworks will be valued and to closely and continuously reflect upon those qualities that make communities strong. Ironically, creators of the mosaic explored this topic during early planning sessions using visual images from magazines to co-construct collages representing “strong communities.” They took the time to do their homework.
Public art-making can help make communities stronger through collaborative efforts to bring lived experiences together making visible that which matters to each member as they participate in concert. Public artworks can tells us something about how it was conceived, created, viewed and valued. Consequently its stewardship or care can tell us a little bit about communities as caretakers of residents’ efforts. I offer the following as my contribution to imagined future dialogues and the respectful care of human treasures: I suggest that the community set up mechanisms for the protection of public artworks. Such mechanisms would allow time for inquiries that include asking questions and talking to artists, participants and people in the community so that multiple voices can be heard, ideas collected and perspectives gained. Then information can be used to imagine creative possibilities for preservation and development.
Recently selected by the National Art Education Association as the 2011 Higher Education Art Educator of the Year, Lynn Sanders-Bustle is an associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in art education from East Carolina University and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from Virginia Tech. A former professor at UL, Sanders-Bustle is married to Rickey Bustle, ex-UL head football coach who now serves as offensive coordinator at Southern Miss.
in case you missed it