Surge of public art adds energy to downtown Cedar Rapids

Spray paint artist pays tribute to cyclists in Cedar Rapids with massive mural
Spray paint artist pays tribute to cyclists in Cedar Rapids with massive mural
Published: Oct. 1, 2022 at 10:29 AM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — As artist Janson Rapisarda put the finishing touches on a mural on the side of Hall Bicycle Company, bicyclists pumped their pedals, speeding by his work on the trail that cuts through downtown Cedar Rapids.

Rapisarda, known as CERA, has painted a two-story mural marking the 50th anniversary of RAGBRAI — the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa — next summer. It also commemorates the local bike shop’s 125th year in business in 2023.

The project is one of several new additions this year to the public art collection in Cedar Rapids.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette reports that as the urban core shakes off COVID-19′s toll on downtown life, the uptick in public art is sparking energy in the heart of the city — helping to make Cedar Rapids a visual arts destination, celebrate the community’s identity and provide points of interest for visitors.

A public art master plan adopted by the City Council this spring is guiding the efforts to prioritize public art as an element of place-making and a way to capture the characteristics that make Cedar Rapids unique. The plan considers the city’s efforts to elevate public art as well as the private sector’s role in expanding the presence of art in the community.

“The last five years, we’ve verbalized our commitment to investing in public art and now we’re starting to realize the fruits of those labors,” said council member Ashley Vanorny, who sits on the council’s Development Committee and is a vocal proponent of public art. “It really takes people deciding that it’s going to be a priority for it to start becoming one.”

From murals to sculptures, the plan envisions improving cross-cultural understanding and connecting people through public art, no matter the medium.

The plan’s key goals are:

__ Continue to enhance and broaden public art throughout Cedar Rapids

__ Encourage local and regional artists to create public art

__ Cultivate partnerships to support public art

__ Create a sustainable administrative and funding structure

__ Implement a maintenance plan for the current collection and future additions

“A document like this can really set us up for success with our public art,” Community Service Coordinator Stephanie Schrader said. “It sets the framework for what public art can aspire to be in Cedar Rapids, helps us identify opportunities and it lays out an ongoing maintenance plan to ensure sustainability of our public art in the future.”

Public art helps enhance the city’s built environment, offering people fun, colorful things to look at while they venture around town, Schrader said.

The city has attracted artists from around the region, nation and beyond to create some pieces, but the plan also looks to support local artists and develop resources to train emerging artists.

Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt said the plan aims to push the boundaries of where the city thinks about adding public art, such as in parks, and stakes out public art as a city priority so private-sector partners can also step in.

“Public art isn’t something the city can just do by itself,” Schrader said. “We want to work with the community, whether it be students, aspiring artists, people with an interest in art. We’re all pedestrians in the community and we’re all out and about in the community.”

Jesse Thoeming, executive director of the Downtown District with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, said as he’s traveled around the globe, the thing that sets apart a unique neighborhood or district is public art.

The Downtown Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District has supported the new RAGBRAI mural and others around downtown, including Swiss duo NEVERCREW’s ConnectCR mural, a project with local not-for-profit Murals & More.

That piece, also on Second Avenue SE, captures several iconic images of Cedar Rapids within a multisided crystal. It’s a nod to the community effort that fueled the $20 million ConnectCR project that will transform Cedar Lake and build a pedestrian and bike bridge spanning the Cedar River.

He agreed the city can’t do it all, nor can the Economic Alliance or Murals & More, but they can work in tandem toward the same goal of creating a more vibrant community by broadening public art.

“The role that (public art) plays is so hard to define, because you can’t put an economic impact value number on a piece of public art that inspires …” Thoeming said.

‘The voice of the people’

COVID-19 delayed the city’s progress on public art by a couple of years, Vanorny said, but now Cedar Rapids is seeing a boom in new additions to the collection.

“At the end of the day, nothing is impossible for Cedar Rapids and what we could be,” Vanorony said. “We just have to imagine it and then put a hand in to expand the bandwidth so we can accomplish it.”

The newest addition is the one on the side of Hall Bicycle Company, 419 Second Ave. SE, a business that’s locally owned and has remained a staple of downtown Cedar Rapids since its opening in 1898. The mural faces the downtown bike trail along Fourth Street.

On View Gallery, owned by local artist Bex Hurn, worked on the project along with the Downtown SSMID.

Rapisarda, who is based out of the Chicago area, said when he got into drawing the mural, he wanted to make sure it showed joy. He wanted the people in it to be around each other — not necessarily racing, but enjoying each other by camping and celebrating with fireworks. A sunrise and moonrise show both night and day.

“I want people to see it and feel warm,” Rapisarda said. “I want people to see it and feel happy and just find joy in other people.”

Especially in the Midwest, Rapisarda said cities can be bleak, particularly in the winter, with large streets and open areas that can be desolate at times. Public art can be a positive thing and push people to take joy in the small things, he said.

“I think that we have this mentality of, ‘OK, so I have to get to work, or I have to get to an appointment,’” Rapisarda said. “So the point is to get from point A to point B, and we’re like, ‘It’s all about how fast we get there … and how comfortable we are on the way there.’ But I think there’s something really beautiful to be said about we get to make a place, we get to highlight the place that is there.”

Ryan “Yanoe” Sarfati and Eric “Zoueh” Skotnes, based in California, recently completed another mural downtown. They were selected to paint a mural on the Five Seasons Parking Ramp on First Avenue NE.

For this public project, planned in partnership with the Advocates for Social Justice group, the two were selected out of 73 submissions from the city’s call for artists to create a piece highlighting social and racial justice themes. The pair created “Together We Bloom” using photographs of hands of people they know and flowers that depict a species native to Iowa.

“Our hope is that any viewer who comes upon the mural can see themselves in the mural,” Skotnes said. “We have old hands, young hands, hands of all races, hands that look like a hard worker, hands that look more feminine. We tried to incorporate everything into this so that people could relate to it.”

As the two have implemented large-scale murals in cities around the U.S., Sarfati said the endeavor seems to create a boom in art among younger generations. After engaging with artists in Columbus, Ohio, following the completion of a mural there, he said several people went on to become large-scale muralists themselves.

The narratives fueling a project change each time and based on the community, Sarfati said, but each new piece seems to have an artistic impact on each city.

In Cedar Rapids, he said, it looked like an arts district is beginning to take shape.

“Public art is the voice of the people,” Sarfati said.