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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Western discusses connecting with Bellingham through art

Picture public art. What comes to mind? What could one change or add?

Western staff opened this discussion on Wednesday, Feb. 1 with a

question:“How could we better use existing public art to teach students, visitors and community members about the region?”

This question was written across a large chalkboard in the Maritime Heritage Park Pavilion. Panelists, made up of Western faculty, art directors and a guest speaker from the United Nations, discussed the relationship between campus and community public art in an open dialog.

Travis Tennessen, assistant director of the Center for Service-Learning at Western, was one of the organizers for this community engagement forum. Tennessen came up with the question on the board.

“I’m generally interested in how universities and colleges can serve the public.” Tennessen said.

“Art is one of the most powerful medium of communication we have as a species, so if we’re going to build those relationships we need art to be a very big piece of that puzzle.”

Travis Tennessen, assistant director of the Center for Service-Learning

Panelists each had an opportunity to respond to the questions. Allied Arts Executive Director Kelly Hart addressed art variety.

“I think it’s important to have different kinds of art, different themes and [have art] coming from different places,” Hart said.

There are numerous ways dynamic art can be illustrated throughout a city. For Bellingham, any city-owned facility under construction can give one percent of the overall budget towards art for that facility, Hart said.

While many joined in on the discussion of art variety, Western art department professor Jessica Levine emphasized the importance of engagement. Levine is a social practice public artist, one who uses social engagement as a primary medium for artwork. Levine is teaching a class at Western called Social Practice Public Art for the first time.

In regards to the Bellingham area, Levine said her class has been looking at ‘sense of place’ as a concept and community engagement from as many different directions as possible.

“[The class] is working on an activity that will engage the students, the campus and even the town as our capstone project,” Levine said.

She hopes the art activity planned for campus will engage students outside of the class as well.

Once the question was directed toward the guest speaker, all eyes turned his way.

Ibiyinka Alao carries many titles. As a celebrated American Nigerian artist, Alao is an art ambassador to the United Nations from Nigeria and a special adviser to the secretary general on indigenous culture exhibits. He was visiting and speaking at some of the area’s art programs before coming to join in the discussion.

Ibiyinka began by saying he felt humbled to be in a room discussing public art.

“We can use public art to teach children – to teach ourselves – about forgiveness. You can’t legislate forgiveness, you can’t write it into the constitution but you can open people’s hearts by sharing stories like art.”

The Center for Service-Learning plans to have more forums on public art and community engagement in the coming weeks.



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