Public Art Is Popping up in Downtown St. Louis. Who Put It There?

The InSite STL project is behind four art installations at six locations

Jan 31, 2023 at 3:26 pm
click to enlarge Wavy yellow LED lights cover a boxy beige parking garage.
Jacob Stanley
Jacob Stanley's sculpture Ribbons of Light is located on the parking garage of Park Pacific Apartments at the intersection of Tucker and Pine streets.

You may have seen them. They’ve been popping up throughout downtown St. Louis. Brand new public art. On street corners, in store-front windows, on gigantic buildings, even bright-yellow LED lights on multi-story parking garages. 

But these pieces of art didn’t just appear there randomly. They represent a years-long process from InSITE STL to bring temporary public art to downtown St. Louis through the Regional Arts Commission’s Downtown STL Public Art Initiative. 

Now there are six installations of large-scale artwork scattered throughout the downtown area. But they’re not all murals. There are a wide range of artworks, from murals to digital projections to LED lights.

“Public art is not only beautification but encourages deeper thinking, understanding, interpretation, and interaction with and of the environment around you, in this case Downtown St. Louis,” writes Chloe Smith, grants & program manager with the Regional Arts Commission.

The idea, though, isn’t to create long-lasting pieces of art that become embedded into the fabric of St. Louis. The goal is actually the opposite: to create short-lived art, temporary art, that may only last one year.

“This gave the artists the freedom to choose sites and projects that interested them and would not be inhibited by the special considerations that have to be made when a piece is intended to be permanent,” Smith says.

The process began in 2018, with an open call to St. Louis-area artists. InSite STL received over 100 applicants, and the Downtown STL Public Art Initiative Advisory Committee whittled that number down to 10 people. The finalists then had to present their projects, with a budget, samples and Photoshop renderings. 

The Advisory Committee settled on four projects that will dot downtown. Jenny Murphy painted murals in three different ground-floor windows. Timothy Portlock is projecting digital artwork on a Washington Avenue building. The Van Dyck Murphy Studio created a sculpture using a 3D printer outside of the historic Wainwright Building in the courtyard, though their project won’t be finalized for a few more weeks.

click to enlarge Two people walk by an installation a red, clay-based sculpture.
Courtesy of Kelley Van Dyck Murphy
A rendering of the forthcoming Flora Field installation by Van Dyck Murphy Studio.

Jacob Stanley developed Ribbons of Light, an LED sculpture on the parking garage of Park Pacific Apartments at the intersection of Tucker and Pine streets. 

When Stanley first saw the call for artists in 2018, he knew he had to apply. 

“I was like, well, this call kind of sounds like it’s for me,” Stanley says.

Stanley is a sculptor who “specializes in temporary large-scale public art” all across the country, from a bridge in Richmond, Virginia, to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. This form of short-term art allows him to push his craft while dodging the restrictive requirements and permits that come with permanent art.

“If you say it’s temporary, you can be riskier,” he says. “Well, if you don't really like it and people complain, I'll take it down next weekend, and it's up for a week. … On a more conceptual level, I love the spontaneity of it so that you had to be there in the moment.”

Pretty quickly, he developed an idea for his St. Louis project: He wanted to decorate “boring concrete boxes.”

“I specifically sought out parking garages because no one is like, ‘This parking garage is beautiful,’” Stanley says.

He wanted to juxtapose the artwork with the building. He wanted curvy lines that would “soften” these “boring concrete boxes.” He didn’t want Cardinals, Blues or Saint Louis University colors, either. He chose yellow, a color that would grab attention without “screaming I love sports,” allowing the viewers to create their own narratives.

“Light has so many specific connotations, whether that's spiritual, whether that's uplifting, whether that's just shock and awe,” he says. “... It's a good entry point. You don't need a PhD or a degree in art history to appreciate it.”

Kelley Van Dyck Murphy and Jonathan Murphy wanted to do the opposite. They wanted to bring more attention to a 132-year-old building that is often overlooked: The Wainwright Building — considered one of the first skyscrapers in the country.

 “We were really interested in proposing a project that would call attention to this beautiful old building that people often pass by and don't really know the significance of it,” Van Dyck Murphy says.

But Van Dyck Murphy sought to contrast the historic building with a modern form of art. As an assistant professor of architecture at Washington University, she has been working on a research project using ceramic 3D printing. She decided to create a ornamental architecture out of terracotta clay from a 3D printer that would complement the Wainwright Building. 

“I think that's super interesting about the 3D printing with clay. … it's a blend of old and new — or really ancient and new,” she says. “Because terracotta has been around forever that building is from the turn of the century. Then we're using this new technology to create something.”

click to enlarge A clay-based sculpture designed in the form of flowers.
Courtesy of Kelley Van Dyck Murphy
An up-close look at a part of the forthcoming Flora Filed sculpture that will be installed outside of the Wainwright Building.

The designs may seem easy and uncomplicated. Isn’t it easy to just plop something out of a 3D print? Didn’t Stanley just hang up the lights and call it day? 

Far from it. Stanley’s installation, for example, required precise attention to detail. He had to take photos of the building, draw it in Photoshop, figure out how to bend three-inch conduit, zip-tie the LED lighting, bisect the curves with the windows, make custom C-clamps, get ahold of the garage’s architectural drawings, draw the building to scale on paper and then paste the lights over the drawing. 

Then he had to transfer all of this work onto the parking garage. “I had a very big jigsaw puzzle to put together on the actual building itself,” he says. 

click to enlarge A 20-foot-long template of red and blue wavy lines in a workspace.
Jacob Stanley
The 20-foot-long template that Jacob Stanley used to bend the conduit and produce Ribbons of Light sculpture.

It was a windy road. Initially, RAC hoped to unveil the installments by 2020, but the pandemic hit, delaying the process by a year and a half. When Stanley did get started again, multiple setbacks hampered the process. He had to switch parking garages twice and wait on LED lights from China, and when he finally got up there in the fall, he needed two boom lifts to even complete the project. 

But it all came out OK. In January 2023, months after he started, Stanley finally finished the project. Now, there are waves of yellow LED lights covering a previously big beige box building above a Papa John’s, brightening up St. Louis.

“We choose to make buildings cheap and ugly, or utilitarian ugly,” Stanley says. “But we also could choose to make them filled with life.”

This post has been updated.

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