Release Date: February 4,2021
New Collaborative Art Project Invites All Visitors to Downtown Akron to See a Part of Themselves
February 4, 2021, Akron, OH — If you visit Main St. in downtown Akron, you may notice a few new faces in the neighborhood. Stunning portraits blended with expressions of our city's character, combined with abstracted street- and topographic maps have appeared on banners, METRO RTA bus shelters, and in the outdoor art gallery at Lock 3. The work is a collaboration between Alexandria Couch and Micah Kraus called, We Are. The artists were brought together by Downtown Akron Partnership (DAP) to celebrate downtown as a place for all people. The support and collaboration of philanthropic and community partners nurtured the project, resulting in its grand scale.
DAP Director of Engagement and Events Kelli Fetter said, "We saw the banners as an opportunity to welcome people back to Main Street, and to ensure that welcome reaches all of Akron. We chose to showcase the work of local artists, and to put the artists first in the process."
Couch's artwork, consisting of brightly-colored, energetically-patterned portraits depicting varying facial features, ages, and hair styles, speaks to Akron's diversity and invites visitors to see parts of themselves in each portrait. The graphic elements and layouts were created by Kraus, which include bold typographic treatments of words that describe Akronites, such as Resilient, Gritty, and Love. Kraus layered the images with hand drawn abstractions of Akron street- and topographic maps to create a sense of cohesiveness across the project, and to evoke the meaning that people bring to the places they inhabit.
DAP published a request for proposals for the project in the fall of 2019, intending to choose just one artist for the work. When the nonprofit's staff members viewed the work of Kraus, and his compelling sense of design, along with Couch's colorful portraits, they decided to ask the two artists to work together. During the course of their collaboration, Couch and Kraus were able to build on and enhance what the other was doing.
"Collaboration is a little scary because as an artist, and just as a person, I like to have control, and I respect that in another artist as well. But the potential of collaboration is that you can go places you could never reach on your own," Kraus said, referring to the project in an ArtsNow Dreamers and Doers interview in June 2020.
Couch added, "Sharing the same core goals, showing Akron in the best light that we can through our own avenues, made it so much easier to work together on a project like this."
Kraus said, "Our first interaction just took all the walls down. DAP created a really open environment and pushed all the chips over to us and said 'we chose you two, go for it.' That is rare. Often work that's created in a committee situation gets so watered down that it ends up a pale reflection of where it began, and that did not happen in this process."
The project, initially meant to consist of more than 30 nine-by-three-foot-tall banners and holiday lights mounted to light poles on Main Street, was jump-started with a lead sponsorship from Synthomer Foundation, and grew to include the bus shelters and Lock 3 art installation.
"The art is absolutely beautiful. We were pleased to step forward in support of this showcase of cultural diversity throughout our community," said S. Theresa Carter, president of Synthomer Foundation.
Philanthropic support from Akron Community Foundation helped ensure the project could move forward despite challenges to funding caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation also helped DAP complete We Are.
During Phase I of the Main St. construction, Mayor Horrigan embraced the opportunity to enhance both the Main Street and Lock 3 experience by removing the fence that once stood at the eastern boundary of Lock 3.
"As a diverse and welcoming City, it's important for us to both physically and metaphorically remove barriers to inclusion," said Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan. "By taking down the fence which once surrounded Lock 3, we are encouraging everyone to enjoy the beauty and diversity that's available everywhere you look downtown, including at the outdoor art gallery at Lock 3. I've often said that the best thing about Akron is the people, and this new collaborative art project epitomizes that sentiment."
In the spirit of Akron's role in Reimagining the Civic Commons, DAP proposed a temporary installation of We Are to send a welcoming message to the public at eye level, where the Lock 3 fence once stood. With permission from the city and support from GAR Foundation, it became a reality.
As the final elements of Main St. Phase I were coming together, insightful leadership from METRO RTA saw an additional opportunity for We Are. Public transit is an integral part of a thriving city and the new bus shelters on Main St. provided a unique opportunity to blend art with functional public space to improve the continuity of Main St. and the experience of riders.
Akron METRO RTA Director of Public Relations and Marketing, Molly K. Becker said, "When the Main Street corridor project was announced, we knew it created an opportunity for us to maximize METRO's Art in Transit program by incorporating the arts in our new bus shelters. One of our Art in Transit goals is encouraging communities to showcase their unique qualities and add their own expression through art, and DAP did just that. The bus shelter wraps have powerful overarching messages with educational and interactive components that passengers can engage in while waiting for their bus. This project is the result of a valued partnership and a great example of METRO support of the arts."
The shelters also feature opportunities for Akron's youngest citizens to be welcomed and engaged by the artwork through multilingual messages embedded in the art. Phrases like, "Hello there. What colors do you see in these faces?" were translated into Nepali and Spanish with the help of the International Institute and Akron Community Foundation. The idea for integrating learning opportunities into public art was informed by Summit Education Initiative.
Viewers will soon be able find some additional surprises built into the artwork at Lock 3. The artists and DAP are working with Bill Myers of S3 Technologies to design an augmented reality feature that will create the possibility of more interaction with the work. More information about the AR features will be posted to DAP's social media channels in the coming weeks.
As the We Are project expanded, the demands on the artists increased. Support from Ohio Arts Council ensured that the artists were fairly compensated for their contribution to the community. Both the process for developing the art and the fair compensation of the artists were guided by recommendations from Akron's Cultural Plan, led by ArtsNow.
With so many contributors, managing the project became a sizable task. Of the work, Kelli Fetter stated, "Facilitating an all-in experience is far better, even with many twists and turns, than working alone. The team at Puzzle Creative was an excellent partner in fabricating the finished product. I have the deepest respect for the city's traffic crew led by Rick Davis, who repeatedly endured Akron's winter weather to get the installation just right. I'm very proud of what we have all accomplished together."
The banners will remain on view for two years, after which time DAP plans to replace them with designs from new artists. The downtown organization hopes to recycle the old banners by commissioning local artisans to create bags from the used vinyl.
Sponsors of the We Are project include Synthomer Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Akron Civic Commons, Akron Community Foundation, GAR Foundation, Ohio Arts Council, the City of Akron, ArtsNow and The Bowery.