A look at where you can find public art in the Lansing area
As the weather begins to get warmer and Michiganders venture outdoors, Greater Lansing residents might be interested in taking a walk.
And while there are some beautiful walking trails throughout the area, Lansing and other cities also have an abundance of public art to admire — with more works popping up each year.
Public art has a unique role in shaping a community’s identity, said Jonpaul Smith, a Cinncinati-based mixed-media artist. One of Smith’s creations, a technicolor Virgin Mary statue, sits near Brightwell Behavioral Health in East Lansing.
Smith pointed to Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate statue in Chicago’s Millennium Park — often called “The Bean” — as an example of a public art piece that’s become integral to its hometown.
“You can almost just say ‘The Cloud’ and people think of Chicago. It’s part of almost Chicago’s identity now,” Smith said. “It can foster a community’s identity. If done well, the community has pride in it and you can get a sense of belonging.”
Lansing may not have a singular, iconic work in the same way, but the area has numerous pieces that have become fixtures in their respective places.
Here are some of the best public art works to check out across Greater Lansing when getting outside.
The capital city’s downtown area remains a hub for politics and commerce. It’s also home to several sculptures.
Many of them are on Lansing Community College’s “Downtown Sculpture Walk,” a collection of 27 pieces scattered across the school’s campus and the surrounding area.
One sculpture is Inspiration, a twisting metal structure, north of Lansing City Market by the Grand River. It was gifted to the city for its 150th anniversary by multiple organizations.
Nearby, across the street from the Lansing Center, is Portrait of a Dreamer, a nearly 2-ton aluminum and steel sculpture that faces Lansing’s museum district.
Designed by Ivan Iler and unveiled in December 2017, the sculpture is a bust with gears extending from its forehead. The gears can be turned using a crank at the sculpture’s base.
“I remember going to Impression 5 and the R.E. Olds Museum when I was a kid,” Iler told the State Journal in 2017. “After reading that the reason they wanted something designed and built for the spot was to draw attention to the cultural district, I realized that, even though I had fond memories of these places, I couldn’t have told you where they were.”
There are murals across Lansing, but they’re perhaps most prominent in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.
One of those murals — “Maawed Miijim: The One Who Provides” by Diné Xicana artist Nanibah Chacon — depicts wild strawberries being picked, a sacred act to the Anishinaabe, according to a Michigan State University webpage.
From 2018: International artist Nanibah Chacon creates mural in Lansing’s Old Town
Another mural stretches nearly 68 feet across the outside of Elderly Instruments, a longtime music instrument store at 1100 N. Washington Ave.
The mural, painted by Jennifer Springman, is a tribute to classic stringed instruments and the city.
“Everybody has been so responsive, so appreciative,” Springman told the State Journal in 2015. “I feel like I’ve gotten to be a part of Elderly, even though I’m not a musician.”
Born in Detroit and raised in Lansing, Brian Whitfield is an advocate for the city’s arts scene and a prolific fine artist and muralist.
One of his more recent works is a mural gracing the side of the Allen Neighborhood Center on the city’s east side. The organization provides resources for the neighborhood and its residents, such as support for social programs, food distribution and other initiatives.
Whitfield said his mural — portraying a vibrant neighborhood with people cooking, dancing and communing — is an ode to the nonprofit’s food work.
When he painted it, he said, neighbors would walk by and watch him, while offering words of encouragement.
“There was an enjoyment and kind of entertainment quality to that. Many people would always say, ‘Thank you for making our city beautiful,'” Whitfield said. “They’re proud of Lansing and they really want to see Lansing beautified and pretty, and these murals that are popping up all over the place do that.”
More murals are appearing on the city’s south side, such as one near the northernmost part at the Lansing Public Media Center at 2500 S. Washington Ave. Painted by Chicago-based artist Max Sansing for the 2019 Below the Stacks mural festival, the futuristic mural depicts a Black woman astronaut looking up at a golden key.
Ozay Moore, founder of All of the Above Hip Hop Academy and Creative, organized the festival with artist Dustin Hunt. He said Sansing’s vision was one of “possibility.”
“A young woman, a young Black woman, who’s just shooting for the stars, shooting for her dreams and just really embracing the possibility that is,” Moore said. “And on the side of the public media center was an appropriate home for it, too, because that space … is supposed to be an incubator of talent for Lansing creatives, especially as it pertains to film and video.”
Moore said there’s still not a lot of public art on the city’s south side, but he’s looking forward to more being installed. Lansing is in the midst of an identity shift, he said — one that’s closely tied to its people.
“From the thousands upon thousands of folks who have relocated here as refugees to the city of Lansing for safety and for a new start, to folks who have come here for college and have decided to stay, to local mom and pop shops, the artists … the hardworking blue-collar people. I mean, shoot, Stevie Wonder went to the (Michigan) School for the Blind here. Malcolm X’s family had a farm here. Magic Johnson’s from here,” Moore said.
“We’ve seen a lot of greatness and there is a lot of greatness here, but not often is that all celebrated in terms of being a part of the identity of Lansing. I think it’s always been about the automotive industry … if not politics and (the university).”
More: 7 days, 10 murals: ‘Below the Stacks’ Art festival comes to Lansing in September
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There’s a disruptive nature to mural art and graffiti that can foster visibility, Moore said.
“Writing on the wall is closely connected to our visibility and our story,” Moore said. “It’s like, if I don’t have the time to sit and have a conversation with you, maybe I can put that on the wall and you’ll know what it’s about. And maybe it will spark you to think differently about this area and what you’re driving through here.”
Smith has collected paper ephemera since he was a kid. For his Virgin Mary statue, he weaved those pieces of paper — everything from old concert tickets to soda labels — into a tapestry, before making a vinyl print and covering the statue with it.
The end result is the 7-foot technicolor statue on Coolidge Road in East Lansing.
Smith said he chose the Virgin Mary because of how she represents a soothing figure at the entrance to the psychiatry clinic.
“I want people to be like, ‘Whoa, what is that?’ In a good way, (then) come to approach it,” Smith said. “My large, woven tapestry work, I’ve always said it has like a macrocosmic view, close and far. From afar, the pattern blends together and you see more of just like a color field. But as you get up close, you can make out all of these small details and things.”
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The university city is also home to several murals, including “Life is a Groovy Opportunity,” on the north side of the Division Street parking garage. The mural was a collaborative work by seven Michigan State University professors, recent graduates and student artists.
The idea for the “Eyes are the Windows to the Soul” mural in downtown St. Johns came naturally to muralist Tracie Davis when she looked at the wall of the 223 N. Clinton Ave. building’s Higham Street side.
“The windows just reminded me of the eyes of a person. That was kind of the idea behind the faces,” Davis said. “And then the floral part came with wanting to have enough interest in the bottom half of the mural for the community to paint.”
The process for creating the mural — funded by a Lansing Area Economic Partnership grant — brought community members of all ages and abilities together to paint the design’s lower half.
Davis said the cooperative environment of such events makes for a fun day. It also creates a lasting memory that people in the city can share in.
“The act of getting it on the wall, that’s one thing. But then it lives on with people where they seek it out and they want to get their pictures taken by it or come look at it,” Davis said. “We have a couple murals now (in) downtown St. Johns so … it just creates an experience that lives on.”
Another community painting event is planned for June 12, Davis said. This time, she said, folks are invited to help paint a first responders mural that will grace the side of the city’s fire station.
Have a favorite piece of art that wasn’t on our radar? Let us know! Contact reporter Jared Weber at 517-582-3937 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Public art in Lansing area includes murals, sculptures outdoors