Though Rochester is arguably too hasty in tearing down its old structures and institutions, we have a problem jump-starting our new identity. But in a town where major civic projects are held up for years — or never come to fruition — Rochester has seen the rapid unfolding of one of the major new street art festivals in the United States: Wall Therapy.
"The project began with just four artists and a vision for making Rochester a destination city for inspired mural art," says Ian Wilson, Wall Therapy founder. "In four years, it's happening."
During this time, 40 of the most renowned street artists have come to Rochester to paint some 70 murals. As the momentum continues to pick up more attention from big names in the worldwide street art community, the small community of Rochesterians who appreciate the medium also rises in number. "I think since the advent of Wall Therapy, there's a broader appreciation for art of all kinds that are in the public space," Wilson says.
At the same time, the project has also created opportunities, both locally and elsewhere, for local artists. Each year, a percentage of the featured "Wall Therapists" are Rochester-based artists, who have since enjoyed broader audiences for what they do, and have gained connections with artists and promoters from other cities and countries.
This year's announced roster is yet again an exciting one, featuring eight out-of-town muralists and three Rochester-based artists, all working within the theme of portraiture. Germany-based Addison Karl creates highly realistic, colorful faces, expertly rendering universal expressions and quirky faces formed with kinetic diagonal hash marks. Conversely, New York-based Alice Mizrachi takes a more illustration-like, stylized approach, her faces and figures constructed of highly saturated hues and characterized by strong lines.
Italian artist Alice Pasquini's work is even more illustrative, transforming walls into sketchy, tonal vignettes seemingly pulled from storybooks and reverie. U.K. artist David Walker strides the border between chaos and structure, carefully forming the faces of pensive women out of colorful splattering and with light and dark shading. San Jose-based artist Sam Rodriguez creates gestural portraits of people whose features are often partially obscured by complex geometric patterning and explosive lines.
Baltimore-based Ernest Shaw Jr. paints lovingly-rendered portraits of African-American heroes with thoughtful expressions, solo or in sets of faces. Canadian artist Jarus covers walls and train cars with painterly portraits of pretty ladies. The legendary street artist OMEN 514, also based in Canada, creates haunting shades of humanity with hatch-mark contours and tonal shading as intangible as smoke.
This year's selection of local artists include three artists who are strong at their game, but don't have backgrounds in painting murals, specifically. All three of the chosen local artists, Caitlin Yarksy, John Perry, and Shawnee Hill, "have created great work with people as their central subject," says Wall Therapy lead organizer and co-curator Erich Lehman. "Ian and I felt strongly that their skills, demonstrated on 4'x4' and greater canvases, could scale up easily to wall size, and all three accepted with enthusiasm."
Wall Therapy 2013 muralist and Rochester-based tattoo artist and painter, Adam Francey, had never painted on a wall prior to last year's event, "and he knocked it out of the park," Lehman says.
Wilson says the community is showing more enthusiasm each year for Wall Therapy and its annual July festival. "Over the past two years the community has supported us in an amazing way, through our crowd-funding campaign," Wilson says. "Which was very surprising — when we set out to at least partially fund Wall Therapy through crowd funding last year, we set the goal at $30,000, which was pretty steep. But somehow I knew that we'd make it. I felt good about the possibility of having a successful campaign, based on the feedback I got from people throughout the community."
Both the verbal and the monetary shows of support encouraged the team to expand the roster the way they did last year. In 2011, Wall Therapy hosted four South Africa-based artists with a handful of local collaborators. In 2012, they hosted eight out-of-town artists from all over the world, and three local artists. Last summer, Wall Therapy saw a massive jump to 18 announced artists, nine local artists, and a handful of unannounced surprises, as well as the three artists invited for "Fall Therapy" — a series of smaller mural creation events held throughout the end of the year.
An additional factor that weighed in on the expansion, Wilson says, was the incredible group of volunteers who rallied around the Wall Therapy endeavor. "With so many extremely capable, smart people on your team, there's not a whole lot you can't do," he says.
If last year's successful funding campaign was a milestone, telling organizers how much this project means to this community, this year's campaign was another feather in the project's cap. In preparation for this month's festival, the Wall Therapy team conducted crowd funding once more, setting the goal again at $30,000. Private individuals stepped up to match donations several times.
"We reached our goal and then some. We surpassed it by 20 percent. That was almost like the community was screaming loudly how much this project is wanted," Wilson says.
In addition to the monetary show of generosity from supporters of the project, hospitality has been a crucial factor. Individuals have lent spare apartments, rooms, or whatever they could to accommodate artists. They have provided meals, and they have taken the time to show the visitors the city during down time. "Part of the story that the artists take with them is the people here who essentially take care of them," Wilson says. "Part of the reason they recommend us to other artist friends is that they know how warmly they're received, and how they're taken care of while they're here."
Having heard about Rochester's festival through the street art circuit, artists from other cities and countries have begun reaching out to Wall Therapy organizers directly, inquiring about how they can get involved. It started last year, Wilson says, as they were building the roster. Folks were emailing the Rochester organizers, impressed with the festival and having heard high recommendations from their friends who had been involved.
In 2012, there was a lot of feedback from the Rochester community about some of the work. Not all of it was glowing, particularly about the sometimes misunderstood couple of murals by Belgian artist ROA — one mural of sleeping bears (in the St. Paul district) was in some cases interpreted as sexual, another mural, of a chick and egg (on Flint Street), was thought of by some as being symbolically violent.
"What I realized during that time was, even though we, as a group of organizers and team members, are more or less informed about this kind of art, that there was a larger piece that was missing from the community education side," Wilson says.
Community exposure of this kind of art on this scale was lacking. Wilson says he learned that we're never doing anything in a vacuum. "We're out in city space, which is shared by all of us who live here. We have to be mindful that sensibilities and tastes and preferences vary. And that's just a fact," he says. No one is "the final arbiter on aesthetics. But at least if we start talking about art in the public space, then maybe the secondary gain would be a greater appreciation of spaces."
Another driving factor in the project is this idea of what an increased awareness of our spaces can bring about. "Initially, the message was to encourage the small, but important segment of our community, the at-risk youth, to believe in something," Wilson says. "Whether it's themselves, their family, community, just believe in something."
The 2011 mural on Troop Street, called "Believe" — featuring work by Cape Town artists Mak1one, and Freddy Sam, and local artists Snoe, Oz, Zone, Taste, Kurt Ketchum, and Shawn Dunwoody — was Wall Therapy's first effort, "and it was designed to communicate that message in an ongoing way," Wilson says.
But the project ultimately plans to inspire, and motivate, all of Rochester. "If you attempt to get the youth to believe in something, imagine trying to motivate an entire city to believe that it can be more than it is," he says. Wall Therapy seeks to initiate a sort of open dialogue, through art, about what Rochester's future is.
"We have an amazing city that we live in, and its best years are ahead, not in the past," Wilson says.
Wall Therapy has stepped up to be a big part of the revitalization of Rochester's downtown, helping to get people more engaged in the city's future. "The city is the nucleus of all of the activity that happens in the region, arguably," he says. "So a strong Rochester is a strong region. A Rochester that attracts visitors from around the world, who take our story with them when they leave, is a great thing for all of us. We all benefit when Rochester does well."
Erich Lehman — who also owns 1975 Gallery — says that there have been many amazing experiences surrounding the street art festival. Among these he counts the opportunity to work with, learn from, and forge friendships with artists he admires. Learning more about Rochester has drastically altered his relationship and role with this city. "I'm no longer just a resident; I am one of Rochester's biggest cheerleaders and I want people to see why I love this city," he says.
"I've also had so many life-altering experiences sharing the murals with people of all ages, from youth through adults," Lehman says. He toured the murals with 5th-7th graders from Rochester Prep. "Their questions and enthusiasm blew me away, and I was thrilled that after two hours, many of them kept asking to see more murals and asked thoughtful questions about each mural."
In addition, Lehman has noted an increased dialogue about art in the public sphere in Rochester. Residents from different neighborhoods travel outside of their comfort zones to see areas of Rochester they likely have never been to before. "It is slowly serving to unify neighborhoods as they all become part of a city-wide public art gallery," he says.
And on a global scale, Lehman says people in more than 104 countries tune in to see what Rochester is doing, as the festival and related events have caught the attention of renowned street art photographer Martha Cooper, various important art blogs, and The Huffington Post.
Wall Therapy's organizers began curating off-season mural-making in 2013, with the August visit by Germany-based duo Herakut and various "Fall Therapy" visits. This year, they've grown even more ambitious, hosting the graffiti-focused Writes of Spring weekend festival in April. And most recently, they hosted German artist Hendrick Beikirch, AKA "ECB," and Puerto Rican artist Alexis Diaz, last June. Beikirch painted a massive grayscale portrait of a fisherman on River Street in Charlotte, and Diaz's painstakingly fine-detailed work of a fish-man can be seen on the Sun Fish Market building on King Street.
Many of these artists are so jet-set, it's hard to say when they will be where. Wilson says he heard that Diaz was finishing up at a festival held in Montreal, and Wall Therapy seized the moment of proximity and invited him to come paint in Rochester immediately afterward.
Last year's mega project, which between announced and unannounced visitors, included what turned out to be thirty-something artists, was a goal met in terms of volume of murals created in a short period of time. Wilson doesn't foresee that scale as something that will be repeated, but rather a goal that was checked off the list. Now the team is looking forward to easier-to-coordinate, more streamlined, more intimate gatherings of artists and more tightly curated subject matter.
"It was time to do something different," Wilson says. "One thing that we could do differently, that would help us stand out amongst the sea of mural events that are sweeping the world, is to curate a theme," and select artists based on their specialty in portraiture.
Drawing on walls may seem like a young punk's game, but graffiti is an ancient phenomenon found in cultures all over the world. The mark-making drive is innate, inherent in humanity, Wilson says. Street art too is nothing new, and has been one of the most democratic, immediate forms of communicating with one another. "Street art is one of the most accessible forms of art anywhere," Wilson says. "It's not hidden in a home or the hallowed halls or a museum, or behind some kind of curtain or velvet rope. It's out there in the streets, in a shared space."
Despite the long span of time of this form of art, it still feels fresh and new, Wilson says, because there's really no rules in terms of composition, construction, or technique. "You can create a piece of street art which is a couple of centimeters, or it could be twelve stories high. It's so freeform that it will stay fresh," he says. There are street artists who have been commissioned to paint airplanes. Now you have "street art" soaring a mile up in the sky. There are no formal constraints to that creativity, no bounds, and as such, it's a sport among artists, many of whom strive to come up with the next new way to create.
"Ultimately, we're just a group of folks who love, live, and breathe art and for whom failure on this project is simply not an option," Lehman says. "We put a lot of time and oftentimes our own money in when need be to make sure that everything is the absolute best it can be."
Week of events: Wall Therapy 2014 will take place Friday, July 18, through Sunday, July 27, centered in the Susan B. Anthony Neighborhood.
Visiting Wall Therapist Alice Mizrachi will work with a small group of students from Rochester Prep for a few days during the week to create their own mural. Details to be announced.
Friday, July 18: Kick-off gathering at 1975 Gallery, 7-9 p.m.
Wednesday, July 23: Artist talk open to the community, details to be determined.
Thursday, July 24: Floor Therapy DJ dance party at the Bug Jar.
Wall Therapy will also launch an initiative with Geocaching and its massive network of members to bring more people of all sorts to all the murals throughout Rochester through a series of Geocaching Adventures, one for each year of murals. Watch for more information at wall-therapy.com.