Joy ride: Changing perspectives on public art at the Tom Tom Founders Festival

It’s not a flashback, it’s mural artist Mickael Broth’s CAT bus. The psychedelic art on wheels hits the streets as part of the Tom Tom’s City As Canvas initiative. Photo Briona Nomi It’s not a flashback, it’s mural artist Mickael Broth’s CAT bus. The psychedelic art on wheels hits the streets as part of the Tom Tom’s City As Canvas initiative. Photo Briona Nomi

The creative process requires commitment to an idea, openness to feedback, repeated attempts (a failure or two) and adaptation. When approached thoughtfully, it offers space for new ways of understanding the world, engaging in a community and expressing the emotions that otherwise go unsaid. Just ask Paul Beyer, founder and director of Charlottesville’s Tom Tom Founders Festival. Ramping up for its third year, the festival’s infancy has been a case study in the creative process.

Launched in 2012, Tom Tom came into being as an attempt to develop a creative catalyst for Charlottesville. Since then, the festival has rigorously sought community input and worked to engage new partner organizations and businesses in co-programmed events. The outcome thus far is a nimble and adaptive organization that strives to strike a balance between celebrating the arts and innovation that thrive locally and injecting fresh perspectives brought by regional and national talent. Arguably, the most interesting evolution within the festival lies in a new series of events this year, dubbed City As Canvas. Sure, this series consists of traditional arts programming like talks and a student art showcase, but it also focuses in large part on public art and creative placemaking.

Creative what? The National Endowment for the Arts defines creative placemaking as initiatives that “strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, city or region around arts and cultural activities.” In Charlottesville, this has long remained an area of planning that is, at best, disorganized if not overlooked entirely. However, a coordinated effort to re-imagine Charlottesville as a creative destination would generate an increased sense of community pride and improved grassroots neighborhood planning involvement, among other benefits.

Including public art of all kinds (from murals to sound installations or pop-up performances) spread throughout the city, engagement activities that welcome people to interact with art freely, and creative designs that are woven into everything from public parks to manhole covers and bike racks, this sort of effort would bring Charlottesville’s creative spirit into broader view.

Tom Tom’s City As Canvas programming is beginning to meet that need. “The entire City As Canvas project is meant to inspire people to see the city as a stage on which they can create,” said Beyer. “The project’s ‘impact’ ultimately comes down to visibility and participation. Do people feel empowered to reimagine and use public spaces, to become creators of their city? With Tom Tom, I hope the answer is ‘yes.’”

Helping lead the charge for City As Canvas is Richmond-based artist, Mickael Broth, who is one of the festival’s artists-in-residence. A muralist, Broth is also the organizer of Welcoming Walls, a Richmond initiative that seeks to beautify the city’s entry corridors with murals.

Broth does not overlook civic responsibility in leading these efforts. “I worry that much of the mural work I see created in Richmond (and worldwide) is nothing more than decorative, meaningless imagery that doesn’t offer any challenges to the viewers.”

He combats his concern through a unique partnership with the city’s Valentine Museum. All Welcoming Walls artists are given access to the museum’s archives for inspiration and contextualization, enabling historic and local relevance within each mural design. When the opportunity to work with Tom Tom presented itself, Broth signed on to bring his community-oriented creative process to Charlottesville. “The goal of building community and showing the world what your city has to offer seemed to be an obvious overlap in what we’re all working on,” he said.

Near the end of March, Broth and a team of volunteers dove into his first project for the festival: a three-dimensional, bus-sized mural. In fact, the mural actually covers the outside of a 35′ Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) bus. Colorfully decorated with imagery inspired by Broth’s experiences in Charlottesville, the newly painted bus is a jolt to the eyes, a rush of creative inspiration in the left turn lane. “Public art democratizes the creative process and makes it approachable,” said Broth.

It’s hard to think of a piece of art that’s more approachable than a bus that will quite likely drive by you at least once in the coming weeks. And Tom Tom is betting that this changes the way you live in Charlottesville.

“A giant psychedelic art bus rolling down Main Street will change people’s ideas of what is possible to create here,” said Beyer. Certainly, there is a greater need than can be met by this effort alone, but the collaborative approach to creative placemaking and public art exhibited by City As Canvas is a thoughtful and strategic step forward in the ongoing process to define our city.

Broth will paint another mural on the wall at the corner of Sixth Street and Garrett Street in mid-April, coinciding with the official start of the 2015 Tom Tom Founders Festival. Additional City As Canvas programs include a Graffiti Art Battle under Belmont Bridge, Pop Up Parks that re-imagine parking spaces as public arenas for creativity, and Poetry on the Trolley, which will be held on the CAT bus covered in Broth’s artwork.

What types of public art would you like to see more of in Charlottesville? Tell us in the comments.