When you’re cooped up in your living room for days on end, you start to notice things you hadn’t noted before: yes, dust bunnies under the rocking chair, maybe cobwebs in a corner; but also a bird that, til now, had been invisible in the whorl of patterns in your wallpaper, or a shade of green in your drapes that somehow captures your mood at just this moment. In the enforced pause of quarantine, sequestered in the same space, the things that were background get foregrounded. You attend to your environment anew.
I found myself thinking about this on a recent morning run. On a day when the sun finally teased us with the faint hope that spring might actually arrive, I emerged with my sneakers in a great exhale of winter, ready for some fresh air. As I took my usual route through downtown Grand Rapids, now a veritable ghost town, it struck me afresh: The museums are closed. Galleries are shuttered. Concert halls closed down. Another exhale, a sigh.
Musing on this loss of artistic encounter, I started to look for alternatives and was reminded of the wealth of public art that surrounds us, the wallpaper of our daily lives that too often goes unnoticed.
I paused, for the first time, to consider this image on the side of Streetlight Mission on south Division Avenue, a haven for neighbors who’ve been displaced or are struggling with addiction.
I wondered what Johan had in mind over a decade ago—the Psalms or C.S. Lewis? Then I was curious about its incompleteness. Did Johan run out of time? Leave? Or was there something left for us to fill in, an invitation for us to be the Christlike ones?
I’m a little embarrassed to say that all the times I’ve run past Heartside Park, I’ve never noticed the mosaic that offers itself as an oasis amidst this oasis. (Those flamingos, needless to say, are not indigenous to Michigan. Imagining this park as tropical in February is a sign of the power of the imagination.)
It was the “oasis” that stood out to me: framing this space as a reprieve is its own act of prophetic resistance, since the park is also a place where those displaced neighbors can congregate. In a park that is often avoided by people who are on guard or simply judgmental, the mosaic is an affirmation that everyone deserves a respite of beauty.
Just a little further up the street is Natalia Rak’s 2019 mural Currents to Unknown, a visual fairy tale sponsored by the nearby Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts. Rak’s work is whimsical and lush, a pond of color amid concrete and brick.
On utility boxes that dot the city, folk art celebrates inspiring women, including other artists. Even these humble endeavors are a sign of the way art uplifts, interrupting the dreary, pragmatic, consumerist wallpaper of neon “open” signs and blaring billboards with signs of playful subtlety, inviting us into a bigger story about what matters.
Then, running up Fulton, my homestretch, I pause to finally take in Metaphorest, a massive mural which is a legacy of ArtPrize, our city’s decade-old public art competition. I drive by this glittering collage almost every day but had never really attended to it. Simone Weil once said that “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” On this sunny morning, getting up close to the wall, I’m beginning to understand what she means. There are layers and layers of meaning and making here, fingerprints of the many who contributed, who now live on this wall like an artistic communion of the saints. They’ve been there the whole time. It took a pandemic to get me to notice.
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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith is the editor in chief.