Going Public

By Lynn Conlee

In 2003, a group known as the Creative 100, consisting of some of the best minds in the United States, gathered in Memphis and joined forces with 50 area artists to develop guidelines for attracting creative minds to urban areas. The resulting Memphis Manifesto became the cornerstone plan for cities far and wide in their efforts to form what national columnist Neal Pierce called a “creative ecosystem” that cited creativity as the driving force of a thriving community. Fast-forward seven years and the Memphis Manifesto found itself at the center of a $50,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grant to fund public and digital arts projects for Rhodes faculty, staff and students.

In the ensuing two years, seven projects directed by Rhodes faculty and staff have taken shape in a variety of forms, all with one goal in mind: to link the college’s artistic efforts with those of a wider community so that the creative arts could flourish. The Public and Digital Arts Program originated in an effort by Dean Michael Drompp, and soon began to make its way into the city’s churches, onto the walls of a local middle school, online via recordings of campus events and a database of public art, into theater textbooks and anthropology texts for children, and as a story of immigrant life. But the road to creative progress was anything but staked out when a committee chaired by Professor Bill Skoog, chair of the Rhodes Department of Music, began determining how the grant money should be awarded. 

“From the very beginning, our meetings consisted of: We don’t know what to do with this. This really is—in the truest sense of creating art—chaos and we’re supposed to somehow create form and bring it to our colleagues,” Skoog explains. “It was not without a compass, but it was really like Columbus, and here is the ocean, and we think there is land over there. Let’s go looking for it.”

The committee—consisting of Skoog; Liz Daggett, assistant professor of Art and director of the Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts (CODA); Dr. Scott Garner, director of Fellowships; David Jilg ’79, associate professor and chair of the Department of Theatre; and Rashna Richards, assistant professor of English—met three times in an effort to define the parameters of public and digital art for the purposes of awarding grants. A subsequent sequence of public forums for the campus community helped generate feedback that refined the grant’s guidelines even further and in spring 2011, 17 proposals were submitted. Seven of the projects were awarded grants.

Working Together

The old trunk that sat underneath assistant professor of Music Carole Blankenship’s piano had clearly seen better days. It had miraculously survived a house fire. Ultimately, it was discarded, but not before the priceless content of sermons by the Rev. Dr. William Herbert Brewster was diligently removed and organized in preparation to be digitally archived. Brewster was an African American Baptist minister, composer, dramatist, singer, poet and Memphis community leader. These sermons, an addition to Memphis religious history, will likely attract scholars for years to come. Funds from the Public and Digital Arts Program helped make the archival project possible. Blankenship and associate professor of Religious Studies Tom Bremer first began working with the Brewster archives around four years ago when both taught during the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, a summer student research program on campus. The project, along with similar ones connected to Memphis-area religious music, continued with funding through the Mike Curb Institute for Music. 

“When Mike Curb, the musician and record company executive, established the Curb Institute at Rhodes, there was a lot of talk about the ‘Tennessee Music Miracle,’ and what was missing from that conversation was the church, which is very central to this whole thing, but there wasn’t any interest in that. With our common interests, we thought, ‘Let’s start an archive that focuses on music and religion,’” Bremer says. 

Applying for the Public and Digital Arts grant “seemed a logical thing to us,” adds Blankenship, “because we knew we needed to digitize and make these things available to people. And our focus right now is to get that to work.” 

Likewise, Curb Institute director John Bass saw the grant program as a way to purchase portable recording equipment and training for a team of fellowship students to provide recording services to the campus community, which could then be shared more broadly with others. The students worked with local recording engineer Jacob Church ’04, who was already handling campus concert recordings for the Music Department.

“We saw the funding as a way to create an educational opportunity for students and to provide a service on campus that wasn’t previously available,” Bass explains. “The idea was to have the students shadow Jacob and train for a semester and then work on campus as recording engineers on various projects. Part of the grant goes to fund Jacob’s increased duties. The other part goes to buy needed equipment. Through the grant we’ve been able to create a portable, but pretty powerful and versatile, recording system with a laptop computer, ProTools recording software and some very nice microphones. It’s perfect for our needs because it can be taken to various rooms to record all kinds of events.” 

For a reasonable fee, the fellowship students can be hired to capture student recitals, lectures, classroom presentations or discussions—any event that warrants documentation. Thus far, the Curb team has recorded all the Communities in Conversation lectures established this year by Dr. Jonathan Judaken, the Spence L. Wilson Chair in the Humanities; a Curb-sponsored panel consisting of Mike Curb, musical historian Peter Guralnick and Knox Phillips ’67, son of Memphis music legend Sam Phillips; concerts by the Rhodes Jazz Band; and the annual Battle of the Bands sponsored by the Rhodes Activities Board. 

A major undertaking that the Curb students tackled involved a tribute to Dr. Brewster in January. Community of Faith Christian Church contacted Bass about recording the service and Rhodes’ Crossroads to Freedom Digital Archives students videoed the event. Blankenship was on hand to provide information about the Brewster archive project. Bass describes the program as having been a “learning experience and an opportunity for various programs on campus to work together.” The students worked through spring semester to edit the performances, which required syncing audio to different video cameras. 

“The students are getting training and real-world experience,” says Bass. “The grant provided seed money to purchase the equipment, which was the first major hurdle. Going forward, through fellowships we will be able to provide a service to the community and record the many wonderful things that happen at Rhodes.”

Community Art

On the lower level of Cypress Middle School, in the Springdale community north of campus, a room called the Red Zone is home to an after-school program for students. Today, what were once one-color cinderblock walls leap out with vivid blues, yellows and pinks—the brilliant tones of a round-the-world mural created by associate professor of Art Erin Harmon’s Mural Painting 366 class. Funding from the Public and Digital Arts grant paid for the supplies the class of 15 used on the Cypress mural and on a temporary, site-specific mural installed during the spring semester around the construction site for West Village, Rhodes’ new residence hall due to open this fall.

Harmon got the idea for starting Rhodes’ first mural painting class when her advanced painting students collaborated with the Mathematics and Computer Science Department in spring 2009 on a mural for Ohlendorf Hall. “We collaborated with the Math Department in order to treat them like a client and design something that was specific to their needs,” says Harmon. “It was a great experience. We had a lot of fun, and for students, painting murals is an opportunity to paint largescale. We don’t have a facility that allows them to make giant paintings, where you’re using your physical body instead of your wrists.”

The Cypress Middle School mural, titled “Imagine the Places You’ll Go,” covers four conjoined walls along the back side of the room and represents each of the earth’s continents. A detailed portrait of a historical figure and colorful graphics of well-known symbols from each continent highlight the land masses in between blue-toned waves of ocean. A festive public unveiling in late April drew members of the Rhodes and neighborhood communities together for a reception. It is this community connection that Harmon appreciates most about public art projects like the mural.

“I definitely want to teach the class again,” says Harmon. “It’s been a very positive experience for me and I feel very lucky to be at a school where we have this kind of support.” In early May, the Tennessee legislature adopted a resolution honoring Rhodes and Harmon, along with Daggett and CODA, for the film “Far Away, Next Door” that featured Cypress students.

From Walls to Web

While the mural tells the story of our geographic world, another project funded by the grant tells the story of those whose migration from continent to continent offers compelling details that come alive through digital media. Associate professor of Modern Languages Felix Kronenberg received grant funding to create the website “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” which features a storytelling mosaic of digital narratives about immigrant life in Memphis.

Continuing its reach around the world, the grant was also used to develop an online Introduction to Theatre in India textbook. Associate professor of Theatre David Mason, who received the grant, says, “College and university theater programs are increasingly interested in internationalizing their curricula. This free, online text is designed to help nonspecialist teachers at the college and high school level introduce elements of Indian modes of theatrical performance into their courses.” 

From theater to engaging young people in the arts, the Public and Digital Arts Program also funded the website and database, the “Memphis Arts Project,” a developing comprehensive public arts repository under the direction of Karen Brunsting, Rhodes’ visual resources coordinator. And Anthropology/Sociology professor Susan Kus received grant funding to create a book series designed to engage young readers’ interest in anthropology. 

While this particular Mellon grant served as seed money for these seven projects, Dean Drompp and Bill Skoog hope that future similar grant proposals will continue to help the arts at Rhodes gain more community exposure and bring the Rhodes arts community even closer to kindred ones off campus. Speaking of his conception of the grant, Drompp comments on its achievement: “In a way, digital is public, but I didn’t want to limit the projects to digital. I wanted them to be anything that could draw attention to the arts and link them—and our arts people—to broader communities.”