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  • Writer's pictureJimmy Keller

The Most Powerful Art Surrounds Us: How Artists Use Their Voice Through Buffalo's Public Art

Buffalo NY

Driving through Buffalo as a kid, I remember being impressed by the faded oversized blue lion painted on Delaware Avenue. Looking up at that lion, I saw strength. I noticed the confidence in the lion’s painted expression and how it radiates power watching over the community. 

Inadvertently, I saw the power in art.

Public art stands for something that differs from art displayed in galleries, museums, and private collections. It lives in the community where it can be viewed by anyone, at any moment. On the way to work, you see murals. On your walk through a park, you can experience a sculpture. It does not reside in a box that is hidden from the streets, it simply exists among us like the trees and the sky. In this way, it holds an unmatched significance.

The power that public art possesses is similar to the weather. As the snow falls, we bundle up. Some might contentedly gaze at the delicacy of each flake while others might curse out the weathercaster. The weather is a constant in nature and in our environment. It always exists and in return we react accordingly, mostly based on our personal preferences. The same is true for public art. 

Artists have a responsibility with their creative visual voice that spreads beyond the walls of their studio. Many artists in our surrounding area acknowledge their potential influence and take advantage of it in a public way. They respond to local and national issues through pieces that create a community dialogue, bringing us together. 

In the past decade especially, artists and art programs have transformed spaces creating welcoming areas around Western NY. My connection to that lion as a child continues to live, but is now stronger than ever through the additional projects that have taken over the region. We are currently experiencing a local and international explosion of public art that is impactful beyond what the art world has previously seen.

The Rise of Recent Murals

Adeyemi Adegbesan (AKA Yung Yemi) is a Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist that highlights the achievements of Black culture beyond what history has taught. His Afro-surrealism mural titled Queen City on the corner of Main and Utica in Buffalo has impressive details, emphasizing colors, and modern take on history, which gives this community something to look up to, physically and metaphorically. This piece accentuates the achievements of local public figures Annette Daniels Taylor (artist, author, professor), Jillian Hanesworth (Buffalo’s first poet laureate), and Curtis Lovell (musician, healer). This mural becomes a symbol of pride for Buffalo’s community. 

After visiting the Buffalo area, Adegbesan said, “I was deeply inspired by the interconnectedness, the dedication to community, and the will to create and hold space for others.”

Billy Hare moved to Buffalo 13 years ago and immediately realized the diverse culture through the artwork. To Hare, murals like Queen City “contribute to a more inclusive narrative, enriching our collective identity and promoting empathy among its residents. Public art in Buffalo not only beautifies our surroundings but also acts as a catalyst for dialogue, celebrating our community’s richness and fostering a sense of unity.”

Hare isn’t alone. According to One Columbia for Arts and Culture, a non-profit organization, 73% of Americans say that art helps them understand diverse cultures more effectively.

Contemporary art is defined by the influences it possesses from the current events, issues, and topics that shape our lives. I personally find myself asking, “How can the art that I create today make our community a better place tomorrow?” This is a dramatically large task but it is a weight on artists’ shoulders in which we have a responsibility to bear, especially on a personal level. 

On May 14, 2022, a single terrible act of racism was transformed into love from the entire nation and most importantly WNY. Neighbors united in sorrow and remembrance after the Tops mass shooting. Meanwhile, a mural was being planned on London Street in Buffalo to commemorate the loss and establish a new hope for that community. 

Jon Harris, writing in the Buffalo News, stated “While Connors and Heard [the artists] were the effort's key coordinators, the duo brought together many community members to get it done.” As people walk by, they are reminded not only of the loss on that day, but also how people came together in an embrace of solidarity. 

Art expresses complex vulnerabilities that amplifies and humanizes topics to a place that gains imperative recognition. Racial injustice, climate change, or traumatic abuse for example, reasonably exist as subjects and concentrations for artwork because of the creative voice artists acknowledge, hoping their work effectuates conversations in a worthy direction. 

One Columbia for Arts and Culture states 70% of Americans believe the “arts improve the image and identity” of their community. The Buffalo waterfront and Riverworks has been reinvented within the past decade with new sculptures and art installations, putting a concrete desert on the map. Music is Art Festival takes over the area for a weekend and active locals take to the paths looping around permanent sculptures and installations.

A New Look at Local Sculptures

Casey Riordan Millard’s sculpture Shark Girl was one of AKG’s (formerly known as Albright Knox Art Gallery) first public art initiatives back in 2013. It has become a symbol for Buffalo since it moved to Canalside in 2014. Many using the sculpture for a good selfie might overlook the installation's deeper meaning though.

With many viewers not even realizing it, by sitting beside Shark Girl as if a friend, they are acknowledging the significance that the piece holds. The AKG writes “Shark Girl can be seen as Riordan’s diversionary tactic or as her mechanism for confronting the challenges of contemporary life. Shark Girl’s yearnings and desires for normalcy and acceptance trigger equal parts laughter and empathy. The boulder upon which she sits gives viewers an opportunity to bring the work to life by taking a seat and initiating a friendship.” 

By welcoming Shark Girl into Buffalo with such open arms, this sculpture is experienced in a way that acknowledges the potentially unknown meaning. This is the reason it lives among the public. When artworks have the intention to educate, elevate awareness, and inspire the community at large, a greater audience can mean a greater impact. 

Viewer potential and awareness is limitless with public art because it doesn’t live inside the walls of a gallery nor is there a cost to appreciate it. Homeless Jesus is a sculpture at the bus stop of Main and Church in Buffalo. It is a controversial sculpture that was actually passed up by cities such as Paris, but lives with replicas of the original Toronto piece spread throughout the world, including at the Vatican. 

Public artwork such as Homeless Jesus by artist Timothy P. Schmalz, holds power in a way that can be witnessed by anyone. It says something that can’t be said any better through words, but rather the controversy, recognition, and influence without boundaries creates a piece that contains monumental meaning. 

Western NY has an advantage when it comes to understanding the importance of public art because we are so culturally diverse and welcome creative expression like no other region does. This is true especially due to the monumental support from the numerous art organizations, museums, galleries, and major artists in the area. We are fortunate to be able to experience artwork in our everyday lives and need to continue to expand on this powerful strength of ours in this region.

“Art creates spaces that people share, whether neighbors or strangers, alike or dissimilar, Buffalo-raised or from far-flung places. A work of art gives us a moment to pause and reflect, and, when experienced with another, an opportunity to meet and connect,” wrote the AKG. Since the start of the public art initiative in 2013, the AKG has rolled out 59 public artworks across WNY. 

Museums and Galleries are an integral element to the contemporary art scene. There is no arguing the importance that these spaces will forever carry as they evolve with the art scene. The difference lies in the exposure and purpose that an artist wants to convey with their work that transforms common spaces, infusing our everyday lives with a creative inspiring environment. Just as oil paint might be right for one artist and rusted metal for another, public art plays a different role than museums and galleries. It manifests itself in the community, welcoming the world’s opinions and thoughts.

Use The Voice You Have

Important artists have something to stand for. They understand how their artwork can change history and manipulate actions in a way that transforms understanding of diverse cultures, issues, and local communities. 

The world is struggling and artists can invent solutions with their brush. The power which lies in paint and sculpture can facilitate awareness. The world consists of hatred and artists can remind us that love and community can overwhelm that darkness. We are in constant need more than ever for artists to implement their voice on a world that cannot stand without coming together, without initiatives of conversation, and without highlighting our current strengths on a local level. 

I know there are more artists who have something to say to the masses through public art and it is their time to rise. We have come so far reaching the point where we are now and it has proven impactful in our local development. We need more artists like Timothy P. Schmalz and Adeyemi Adegbesan. This is the art and these are the artists that the community will grow with. Today, it is up to us all to decide: What will future creatives learn to stand for?


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