How do we care for this world? I think we all know that caring about the environment isn’t just about wilderness areas and alternative energy. It’s also about beautiful lived spaces—public squares that entice people to congregate, wide sidewalks to favor pedestrians, smart passages of light through buildings, an awareness of the rivers or woods or fields that our buildings supplant. And it’s also about honoring human-made beauty in our communities. It’s about creating space for art.
Anthropologists often evaluate civilizations—troubled as the rubric and even the concept of evaluation may be—by their art. We admire a culture that has time and resources to support the creation of things which have a beauty above and beyond mere functionality, be it a totem pole or temple or painting. So… what nonfunctional beauty does our culture in the United States allow or honor or foster?
I’m not just talking about beauty tucked away inside museums or books, but beauty made for public spaces. Overlooked spaces, in particular. The strip malls and institutional corridors we move through are decorated with advertising, for the most part. Bright signs that might have beauty, but are designed to hook and sell, not reflect and prompt.
“Percent for Art” programs, which the U. S. has in 27 states and territories, have brought art to many cities and buildings, but it’s still most often a top-down affair. Big projects with big budgets decided in a complicated dance of artist and corporation, writer and government.
That’s okay. There are still ways to make things happen, and small projects can have a meaningful impact. Community gardens. Artists transforming garbage barrels or electrical boxes, making them expressions of culture as well as functional necessities.
These are the conversations that drove the creation of Broadsided Press. We wanted to be enablers of local, public, serendipitous encounters with art and poetry. To that end, since 2005, Broadsided has offered free monthly, original collaborations between writers and artists that people can download, print, and post in their neighborhoods.
This year, we were proud to launch the third year of “Broadsides on the Bus” in Moscow, Idaho, a project in partnership with the Moscow Arts Commission. Why Moscow? Because it’s the home of Broadsided editor Alexandra Teague, because it’s a community that encourages public art and has a lively arts commission, and because it has a great public transit system.
It just happened that this year the biennial conference for the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) was held in Moscow, so we widened the project to bring ASLE members into the fold.
Members of ASLE were invited to submit poems, and the work poured in—the excitement for the project among members was palpable. It’s strange, after all, for conference-goers to drop into a community and have very little connection to it, particularly a conference of people interested in place and culture. “Broadsides on the Bus” brought together the local and the far-flung. It was in keeping with the environmentally minded conversations that thrummed through the streets.
Poems were selected by Broadsided Press editors, then a local jury selected work by local artists to pair with them. The resulting collaborations rode the bus during the summer. There were launch parties. There were readings. There were exhibits of the original paintings.
More importantly, whoever stepped onto a bus in Moscow had an opportunity to consider the wildfires burning in the state through the lens of a poem by Derek Sheffield plus art by Christine Alexandre-Zeoli. They could meditate on the interior life of a factory-raised chicken compared to its wilder counterparts through a poem by Stephen Siperstein plus art by Chris Pavlik. Cecily Parks’s poem about the dynamic between wild and tame, fox and field, was given orange skulk by Maria Theresa Maggi. Kristin George Bagdanov’s poem and Katherine Clancy’s art explored the tectonics that shift within our bodies. And Moscow’s first poet laureate, Tiffany Midge, took us deep into the local bird life of the Spring Valley Resevoir along with a painting by Ryan Law. The collaborations were a window into how we view landscape, how local impressions of light and color can be in conversation with writers from other landscapes.
Of course this project stands on the shoulders of public transportation poetry projects large and small all over the world. And we can all do more. This summer, I read about an art project on the side of a building at the University of Sheffield. A poem about the glories of clear air was printed on paper covered by a photocatalyst that eats pollution. What brilliance. What a doubly transforming power.
Header image, fox in field, by Maria Theresa Maggi. Photo of Elizabeth Bradfield by Cotton Coulson.