PRESS RELEASE — The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) is modifying the skyline of Grand Rapids again. Work is about to begin, by an internationally known artist, on the city’s next public-space mural. For years, UICA has curated its exhibitions beyond its galleries and into the community with the Exit Space Project, an initiative that features projects in multiple public locations throughout the Greater Grand Rapids area. To date, UICA’s Exit Space Project has brought more than 15 public artworks to West Michigan.
The next mural to join the local landscape will be located at 26 Ionia Ave SW, in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. The south-facing wall of the building will be painted by Natalia Rak. Rak is a Poland-based artist that uses brightly colored paint to craft multi-story murals on the sides of buildings. Rak’s subjects are predominantly larger than life situations that evoke mystery and metaphor, often using concepts or images from famous fables or stories. One of her most well-known murals, titled The Legend of Giants, features a young girl – standing four stories tall – in vibrant traditional clothing, pouring water from a watering can. The mural incorporates a live tree that appears to be the recipient of the girl’s watering efforts. The Legend of Giants was created in 2013 as part of the Podlaska Oktawa Kultur (Octave of Culture) International Festival of Music, Art, and Folklore in Białystok, Poland, and has been imitated and replicated many times all around the globe.
Residents, workers, and visitors to downtown will notice Rak starting to cover the brick wall with a base coat today or tomorrow and will watch the progress as Rak’s latest vision comes to life throughout the coming days.
All across the country, towns of all sizes have been adopting the benefits of murals and public artworks. Several cities have committees, groups, and commissions that aim to promote local talent or bring in outside artists to engage the community and turn empty city walls into large public canvases. The result of their efforts has been shown to have long-lasting effects on neighborhoods.
UICA’s Exit Space Project not only expands UICA’s impact throughout our region but also connects the community to visitors and visitors to the vibrant neighborhoods in and around Grand Rapids. “Public art is, on its surface, beautiful artwork; but the value of art in the public space is its ability to create conversations,” said Katherine Williams, Community Programs Coordinator. “Public artworks to make areas feel more welcoming to visitors and more walkable for everyone. Often, experiencing art in your own community creates more than a conversation, it builds connections and gives people a sense of pride in their city, their neighborhood, and themselves.”
Here, in Grand Rapids, the Exit Space Project was started in 2013 by local community members, and friends of UICA, Erwin Erkfitz and Brandon Alman. The West Michigan program was birthed out of a desire to activate a peculiar wall space positioned above an actual exit staircase – exposed to the street with floor-to-ceiling windows – and to give street art another place to thrive in Grand Rapids. That particular space, within an emergency exit at UICA’s northwest corner, continues to house a constantly changing collection of impermanent street art. That one exit space also kicked off the concept of collaborating with artists to install large-scale art in public spaces through an experimental project dubbed “Exit Space Project.”
Since its start in 2013, UICA’s Exit Space Project has funded artists’ creations of over 15 public-space murals, and Rak’s mural won’t be the only mural added to that list this year. At least one additional piece, a painting by Dave Battjes, is slated for installation at the base of the I-196 exit ramp at Ottawa Ave NW later this summer.
“We are thrilled to work with regional, and -now- international, contemporary artists to transform these public spaces,” shared Miranda Krajniak, UICA’s Executive Director. “It’s also been a rewarding experience to see the communities give input and feedback – and to watch people participate in these art pieces in their own neighborhoods – that communal effort has strengthened our passion for this project.”
This mural project is coming together through the combined efforts of UICA, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc, and Grand Rapids Sister Cities International. One of the reasons Natalia Rak was selected as the artist for this project is her connection to the Grand Rapids Sister City, Bielsko-Biała, Poland.
When asked about the inspiration for her mural in Grand Rapids, Rak said, “I was inspired, in part, by the shape of the specific building. The one half being high and the other half being lower – it was a more complex shape than many of my previous walls. I thought an image of water would fit the space well and allow me to create something beautiful while permitting me to be organic and have fun with the process. I also wanted to play with proportions and show elements with an unnatural contrast – in this case, a swan and a girl with relative sizes not normally found in real life. Plus, I still have a childlike curiosity, so some of this piece is, simply, fun and whimsical.”
The work on the mural has been going on, behind the scenes, for months, but the paintwork will begin as soon as today, July 9. This Exit Space Project is expected to take about two weeks to complete.
“The process is very important to me,” said Rak. “Even though I have a plan before I start, I find inspiration in the process. I like to let some parts of the work just appear through the exploration and the time spent working on the project. Painting should be fun, and I’m always trying new things and learning while I create each piece. I’m bringing some techniques I learned in Berlin, and some from Spain – and some from playing with very liquidy paints on canvas in my studio. Plus, I’m sure I’ll try some new things here, too.”
Grand Rapids residents and visitors are encouraged to stop downtown and watch the progress throughout the two weeks. Rak’s mural, yet to be titled, is expected to be completed by July 22, 2019. A Ribbon Cutting Ceremony is scheduled for July 23, 2019, from 5:00 – 6:00 pm. The public is invited to attend the ceremony, free of charge, and view the finished work, as well as enjoy Polish-inspired refreshments and light snacks.
For more information about this and other UICA exhibitions and programming, visit uica.org.