Artists & Neighbourhood-Building

“If someone says, ‘I want to change the world. Where do I go?’ I answer, ‘Stay right where you are. Don’t run away. Dig in.’” –Pete Seeger

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Culture-based initiatives have been essential to urban revitalization and urban renewal programs in Canada. The arts ensure a community’s habitat reflects who residents are and how they live.    –Creative City Network of Canada

Any discussion of what we want a city to be must involve the arts; every culture develops some form of art. Philosopher Susan K. Langer has said,

“art is the epitome of human life, the truest record of insight and feeling… the strongest military or economic society without art is poor in comparison with the most primitive tribe of savage painters, dancers or idol-carvers. Wherever a society has really achieved culture… it has begotten art, not late in its career, but at the very inception of it.”    M.F. Andrews (ed.) Aesthetic form and education (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1958)

It has been said that artists educate and inspire citizens and stimulate creativity in our communities. It is artists who often play an important role in bringing dead and dying neighbourhoods back to life. An influx of place-based art is transforming some of Hamilton’s most run-down neighbourhoods. My old Toronto neighbourhood at Dundas and Ossington was a wasteland until the artists moved in. Buffalo’s Silo City is gaining new life thanks to artists in search of authenticity. It’s no secret that artists can be an important catalyst for change.

Artist-driven urban renewal has been met with so much success that it is now common for cities to specifically target artists to revitalize struggling neighborhoods.  For example, Cleveland’s Gordon Square, historically the economic cornerstone of Cleveland’s West Side, experienced a severe decline in the 70s and 80s. However, through the efforts of the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, the Gordon Square Arts District was established and the arts community stimulated the revival of the district.

In addition to creating a strong community, an arts community can  also help contribute to the physical makeup of the city.  The state of a city’s public space can make a city feel welcoming or downright unfriendly.  The arts play a very important role in making public urban space aesthetically pleasing, thus improving the city as a whole.  A public space that is welcoming will promote a safer environment where street life thrives.  (Artists, the Urban Crusaders)

75W.Main

The Black Lantern Experience (BLX) art space is located at 75 West Main St. in Welland’s oldest commercial structure, the Tuckey-Lee building, built in 1856.  Since the summer of 2013, BLX has operated as a gallery, hosted weekly “open art” nights on Tuesdays, organized poetry and literature readings, and put on “one-night-only” art shows. These art shows have become so popular, they’ve outgrown the art space and are now being held in larger downtown establishments, thus further stimulating Welland’s struggling but developing economy. This is easily one of the most interesting creative endeavours the Rose City has seen in years and it is bringing a new vibrancy to a previously quiet stretch of West Main St.

Josh Grant-Young (newsinportcolborne.com) has referred to BLX as “one of the lairs of a force laying claim to the creative powers necessary to exorcise the region of a collective apathy and malaise.” He describes the arts group in this News In Port article

Those affiliated with BLX bring a shockingly refreshing new style to local art. As a growing group of talented photographers, fine artists, graphic artists and enthusiasts of all stripes, BLX represents an anarchic renaissance for the post-industrial towns which dot our region. The primary credo of this loose but affable coalition of artists aims to reclaim the soul of a town considered by many to be long dead.

I could go on to quote from that article, but you should really just read the whole thing.

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BLX artists are wreaking havoc on the malaise that has crippled the Rose City for far too long. (Photo collage by Craig HotRod)

The founder of BLX is James Takeo, a tattoo and fine artist with a love for Welland. His Adventures in Rose City history blog has documented everything from Welland’s secret parks, historic buildings, past mayors, and the local legends who have called Welland home. Recently, Takeo’s paintings have depicted Bridge 13 (the Main St. bridge) and notable figures from Welland’s past. Some of his bridge paintings can be seen below…

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Rust-Belt Fatalism, by James Takeo

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A Bridge Between Us, by James Takeo

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L3B-L3C, by James Takeo

Welland’s Community Improvement Plan (CIP) has noted the gallery’s presence on West Main St. and explains that one of the things that makes a downtown great is “a strong sense of place: public art, gateways, iconic buildings, heritage preservation.” All four of these things are embodied in the gallery. The Black Lantern Experience seeks an environment in which art – especially public art – is promoted and protected. “I am a confirmed believer in ‘local art on local walls’, as well as an advocate of ‘public art by any means necessary,’” says Takeo. “I believe in the social responsibility of artists. We not only reflect and mirror the  environment and community we live and work in, we also contribute to it.”

City-building isn’t an exact science and impoverishment can’t simply be “prettied” out of the city with art. Artists, however, have an important role to play in restoring a sense of place that downtown Welland has been lacking for too long. We all might do well to heed the BLX manifesto: be cool, do art, have fun.

Kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight: more pieces by BLX artists for your consideration…

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Craig Elcich’s Doors of Welland, a haunting commentary on how this city has abandoned its downtown

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Nebula by Baxo, a distincitive style of art he calls “Aluminism

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Lucky73′s wool-spinning at the Central Fire Hall on Division St.

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T. Lee Kindy’s wool-spinning at Bridge 13 on Main St.

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