The nonprofit Art on Wheels is always on the lookout for big projects, the kind likely to capture the attention of the community.
And because this is the 21st century, the easiest way to get the public to weigh in is with online polls. So when Art on Wheels founder Kevin Orlosky was trying to decide between three community projects last year, he turned to the public.
The resounding answer was the Community Cubes project, designed to provide auxiliary seating at bus stops using cubes cast from the contents of Richmonders’ pockets, effectively a community art project to benefit the community. The project began on a small scale, but in order to be truly impactful, Art on Wheels needed more funds.
It got what it needed through CultureWorks’ 2019 annual grants program, which supports professional artists as well as nonprofit organizations with operating budgets of less than $500,000. “At CultureWorks, we believe that to have a vibrant community, arts and culture must be by and for everyone in our community,” says its president, Scott Garka. “Our cultural equity and building capabilities grants are an investment in that belief.”
This year’s grants support an eclectic array of projects taking place between July 1 and June 30, 2020, that focus on two distinct areas. Building capabilities grants support the overall growth of an organization or artist to help them reach strategic goals, while cultural equity grants support initiatives that reach or serve underrepresented populations. Art on Wheels’ Community Cubes project fits squarely in the latter category, with its $10,000 grant being used to focus on cube-making for and in the East End and South Side of Richmond.
Last fall, Art on Wheels began setting up slabs of clay at high-traffic events like the Richmond Folk Festival and invited the community to become the artists.
“We ask people to press something they have with them into our clay molds,” Orlosky explains, mentioning objects such as key chains, bottle openers, pocketknives, Lego toys and plenty of jewelry. One man had a lock-picking kit in his wallet and the miniature tools were used to make an impression. The only items the group doesn’t allow are those that would be ruined by contact with plaster. Once the objects are pushed in to form the mold, a cast is made and the impressions become one side of the cube.
Because the cubes will eventually be functional public art, they are fashioned of colorized plaster — purple, blue, yellow, orange and red — that’s been fortified with polymer for durability. Four of the castings form the sides of the cube and a flat top of the same material provides the seating, which will be located in areas where the impressions were taken. Recent events have gathered impressions from people at the Night Market in Shockoe Bottom and a community field day at the Peter Paul Development Center in Fairmount. Facebook and Instagram are used to let people know where they’ll be taking impressions.
What’s quickly become apparent is that many of the people who share an item for casting also want to share the item’s back story.
“One guy brought a wooden sculpture of a dog’s head and told me the story of how the dog is a local celebrity at a lot of the breweries,” says Art on Wheels’ Kathleen O’Connor, who adds that many couples do their wedding rings together as a statement. “Some people did a piece of jewelry from a deceased family member and talked about how meaningful the person was to them.”
Once those molds are cast, the Art on Wheels crew fashions seats to be returned to public spaces to serve as community art, but first there’s the matter of getting the city to sign off on that. “We plan to get permission to leave the cubes at bus stops,” Orlosky says. “But getting that permission, that’s a process.”
The plan is to unveil the Community Cubes on Oct. 16 at Strangeways Brewing next door to Art on Wheels in Scott’s Addition and then address locating them in the East End and South Side once the group has secured approval.
In the meantime, the CultureWorks grant has made the difference between doing a couple of cubes and being able to do six or seven and really make a statement.
“This project allows people to have a bit of themselves as part of public art, giving them ownership of the art,” Orlosky says. “It makes everyone a community partner because everyone contributed.”