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Painting the town red: Ithaca's blossoming public art scene

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The Community Justice Center isn’t exactly an exciting place on the inside. Formerly the old county library building, the center now focuses on storing old county files and serves as a probation center. However, driving down Cayuga Street it reveals a colorful piece of art on its exterior.

The large mural that covers the entire outer wall of the center was completed last April, and is just one of many forms of public art that Ithaca has begun to showcase to the community. Local artists are teaming up with businesses and initiatives throughout the city to promote public art and inspire a new generation of artistic expression.

One of the leaders behind the city’s budding public art program is Jay Stooks, a local graffiti artist who spearheaded the library mural along with numerous other projects across the city that aim to beautify public spaces with art. Through the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, Stooks also runs the urban art program that works with students at Ithaca High School. These projects, he says, have helped the community accept the different kinds of art.

“I think people around here are a lot more willing and open and have started gravitating towards different styles,” Stooks said. “Public art just adds beauty around the town. It’s something more interesting and exciting to look at than a blank wall.”

Stooks is part of a tight knit group of local artists who work together to produce different projects across the city. According to Ann Krajewski, painter who specializes in portraits, support among the artists directly benefits the community as a whole.

“We [the artists] have to support each other. By supporting each other, we bring visibility to this community,” Krajewski said. “It’s great for the local economy and it’s great for the local morale.”

Using this formula, local artists have collaborated with businesses to kickstart numerous events and projects that have showcased numerous different types of public art.

One of these projects is 21 Boxes, a campaign led by the City of Ithaca Public Art Commission that asked local artists to to help beautify 21 large electrical boxes throughout the city. One of the artists involved in the initiative, a spray paint artist known as “Meal”, said that one benefit of the project was to showcase Ithaca’s artistic prowess.

“I moved here for the arts, and the music and I feel like the music is really prominent in the arts,” said Meal. “I really wanted to elevate the arts so you can see it and bring warm color to our city through creative ways to try and increase everyone’s enjoyment of this city.”

The prominence of the 21 Boxes project has led to more upcoming events that will promote Ithaca’s public art. Ithaca is set to host Unbound from the Underground, an event sponsored by the Tompkins County Library and the Cornell University Library celebrating the 40th anniversary of hip hop. The event, which will take place April 4-7, will include gallery exhibits, a concert featuring Afrika Bambaataa, and a large graffiti mural.

The event will also collaborate with the Cap Matches Color program, which collects old spraint artifacts and attempts to preserve the original culture of graffiti. According to Meal, this movement is becoming increasingly important as the popularity of graffiti art rises.

“Graffiti with its popularity has boomed, everyone’s eyes are sort of opening up to it,” said Meal.  “These graffiti artifacts are really hard to come by, but we have some pretty insane collections. We’re trying to showcase that [history].”

The upcoming Unbound from the Underground is one from a list many examples of Ithaca’s thriving public art scene. A large talent pool of local artists combined with the cooperation from the City of Ithaca has allowed public art to extend to a whole new audience and inspire the work of new artists. Krajewski also said it makes Ithaca unique.

“I think the fact that Ithaca places a high premium on public art is important, public art is for everyone,” said Krajewski. “This is a place to be envied, a place to be visited.”

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