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New Commons Project: Whose public are we looking at?

6 mins read
Nick Tobier discusses his own relationship with street art, along with that of anonymous graffiti artist Banksy.

FARMINGTON – The University of Maine at Farmington is once again providing opportunity for fresh discussion on the topics of art, society and activism through the college’s recently launched New Commons Project.

After receiving the prestigious $500,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant last summer, the New Commons Project was created, directed by UMF Associate Professor of English Kristen Case, to offer diverse teaching platforms to communities throughout the state. The “community held resource” has collected more than one hundred nominations of creative topics to include in the agenda, selecting only 12 to present to the public during the 2018-19 school year. The chosen topics range from hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar to the popular TV show The Simpsons and plan to bring together community members in a wide range of ways for discussion, inspiration and study.

This month, the NCP has been looking at the works of mystery street artist Banksy, beginning with a discussion on the “social, political, and artistic context,” of the artist’s graffiti led by UMF associate professor of art history Sarah Maline and ending with the annual Water Bear Confabulum which brings diverse works of art to the streets, alleys and woods of Farmington. Highlighting the month’s topic was artist and professor at the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan, Nick Tobier.

“I am not Banksy,” Tobier started out. “But I believe so much in what he does.”

Tobier discovered his respect and awe for the streets at a young age, when his unruly mop of bright red hair would attract shouts from people passing by. As he began hearing the names “Big Red” and “Lucille” shouted at him on a regular basis, Tobier realized that he was adopting a presence on the street whether he wanted it or not.

Tobier entertained his curiosity of the streets and city life through the lens of a gifted camera. He shared images, captured when he was only 8 years old, of graffiti covered trains and the strangers he encountered. Tobier described a pivotal moment in his decision to study life in public places, when late one night a circus elephant slowly walked by him in the street.

“My first thought was, oh crap, I have to wait for this elephant to go by,” he said.

The thought was quickly followed by a definitive recognition that the streets are much more interesting than the studio art work he had been focusing on.

Since then, Tobier has gone on to create and orchestrate years of public space art pieces- involving sound, lights, costumes, actions, hot cocoa- each with a broader message than the sometimes simplistic presentation.

“The public we live in is our space, but so often others are controlling it,” Tobier said.

Banksy is perhaps one of the most widely known, or unknown, artists to advocate the reclaiming of public spaces. He has brought his art, and shared his often politically-fueled messages, across the world, everywhere from corners of alleyways in New York City to the walls of the West Bank.

“I chose to nominate Banksy as a way to acknowledge and approach the issues happening in our own community,” UMF graduate Michaela Zelie said.

Zelie had been a student in Case’s class when she was assigned to make a nomination, following the guidelines of the project which were to create a video submission.

“I had no idea at the time that it would go this far,” she said.

Zelie said she has found the community in Farmington to be fairly close-minded about many topics, and she believes that exposure to more active street art would be a benefit to the town.

“We get to have such little input on the artwork in our community and it’s not doing anything for our students or our young people,” she said.

Tobier explained his art, as well as that of Banksy’s, as a sort of band aid: it responds to a need and poses a question. But in addition to the often controversial conversations the artists’ work can lead to, it also functions on a much simpler level of bringing the artistic experience out of stuffy galleries and concert halls, and into the common places. Zelie said this is another reason Banksy is important in society- by putting art out on the streets, you eliminate the often intimidating experience of needing to dress up and pay to see it hanging in a gallery. It reinforces the message that art is for everyone.

For more information on the New Commons Project click here.

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