Once more, the vacant lot on the corner of Habersham and 34th streets is buzzing with activity.
Baseball cap sideways, artist Troy Wandzel spraypaints flowers along the bottom of the cinderblock wall, calling out to passersby to have their portraits painted inside the blooms.
He’s painted around 20 faces since setting up shop, and anticipates around 50 will fill out his vision of a “crowd” as a field of flowers. Residents from the surrounding Thomas Square neighborhood have stopped by to sit under his paint–spattered canopy. Others have driven across town for the privilege.
The texture of the wall has proved daunting for the prolific Wandzel, who usually works in his studio off Price Street. “I’m having to rethink how I apply paint,” he grins. “It’s getting me out of my comfort zone.”
Happy as he is that his colorful meadow of smiles is filling in, he believes the most important aspect of this project is the process itself.
“The most interesting part of this is the interaction with the community,” he muses, brandishing final touches on a forehead here, a cheekbone there. “This is about the conversation that goes on.”
The theme of engaging a community into conversation through public art continues to echo through the city. It’s one of the founding principles of SeeSAW, the organization that petitioned the city’s Site and Monument Commission to create a public mural policy last November. But that doesn’t mean the discourse is always delightful — sometimes everyone has to get out of their comfort zones.
Following the week–long creation of Katherine Sandoz’s dreamy abstract marshscape on the Habersham wall in January, SeeSAW founding members Matt Hebermehl and James “Dr. Z” Zdaniewski teamed up with activists Meghan Luther and Francis Allen to create two separate installations of Candy Chang’s “Before I Die,” one on MLK Jr. Blvd. and the other on along the Waters Avenue corridor.
These interactive blackboards revealed much about the people who confessed their heart’s desire upon them, but also irked a few folks living near the more residential Waters mural who didn’t appreciate the occasional inappropriate content.
The residents complained to the mayor and city council, some of whom murmured at a recent workshop that perhaps public art isn’t such a hot idea.
The artists were heartbroken, as their intention for “Before I Die” was to provide a space for people to scrawl their personal truths. For the most part, it worked.
“It was cathartic, there was so much love and loss up there,” says Hebermehl of the raw emotions on the Waters board. “The complaints took away from what the rest of the neighborhood experienced.”
For the most part, the Site and Monument Commission and its parent organization, the Metropolitan Planning Commission, have been behind SeeSAW’s mission. In spite of the “Before I Die” controversy, the SMC passed its approval of Wandzel’s petition at its June 7 meeting.
(In addition to the required 10–day posted sign, all property owners within 200 feet were hand-delivered letters notifying them of the project.)
Any decisions concerning the amendment of the new mural policy have been deferred until September.
The shake–up seemed to strengthen this informal group of painters — Wandzel, Sandoz and SeeSAW founders as well as a revolving cast of others like Jose Ray and Adolfo Hernandez.
“A lot of us have been bouncing around each other’s studios for a couple of years, doing collaborative work, having a dialogue,” says Hebermehl. “What happens is we end up relating the work back and forth.”
This mutual admiration is evident on the wall: Though the original petition for the Habersham wall called for revolving content every three to four months, Wandzel chose to add to Sandoz’s work rather than paint over it, using flowers to symbolize Sandoz’s recent gallery show, “Flower Power.”
“Troy and I have been working together since forever, but I had no expectations of his plan,” says Sandoz of the transition of her Turtle Island landscape into an underlayer for his new work. “I’m thrilled.”
Wandzel sees the layering of the mural as vital.
“Now we’ve got this progressive voice happening, the story of the action here,” he explains between brushstrokes. “It’s visual record of the process. It’s a living, breathing thing.”
As if on cue, up walk Occupy Savannah fixtures Brett Dykes and Arthur Strickland, passing by on their daily sojourn to Emmet Park. They sit under the canopy and Wandzel begins to paint them into the wall.
The artists and activists, just introduced, chat easily about community, culture and the city itself.
“See?” says Wandzel. “The conversation continues.”