Saturday, January 23, 2010

Big art in a small town alley

“I can’t just stay in one place and expect myself to grow,” explained muralist Sarah Dickens, as she assessed the needed repairs on a project site. “Nobody grows where they are completely comfortable. I guess I’m good at making myself really uncomfortable!”

Dickens’ discomfort is Yellow Springs’ delight, however, as the village gains another striking display of large-scale public art from this talented painter.

A former village resident, Dickens is back in town for the month of July to embellish two of her earlier murals in Keith’s Alley behind Current Cuisine. She also plans to complete the mural on the back of the Little Art Theatre which she started in the fall of 2006. Dickens didn’t like leaving the project unfinished but inclement weather intervened. Pursing her goals to travel and paint, she spent 18 months doing commissioned work in Hawaii. The experience broadened not only her resume but her scope as an artist as well.

“The theme was going to be Native Americans,” Dickens explained, pointing to an unfinished section of the “big art” in back of the “Little Art.” “But when I came back from traveling I looked at the wall again and wasn’t satisfied.”

The new theme will be “Dying Languages and Those Who Preserve Them.”

“Language is a big topic in Hawaii,” said Dickens. “There’s Hawaiian, Hawaiian Pidgin, Japanese, Philippine, Maori, Samoan and mixtures of each.” Instead of limiting her focus on the issues of the indigenous peoples of America, Dickens decided to include other nations as well.

“There are some plants and flowers and animals that have never been discovered by Western scientists,” said Dickens, “and there are certain languages that have certain words for whole explanations of these plants and animals. These words are going to be lost unless somebody takes the time to preserve them.” The rare flowers featured in the mural are from various parts of the world. “They will symbolize the fragility and beauty of these endangered tongues as well as the need to preserve them,” she said.

Adequate funding is a constant issue for the 26-year-old muralist who supplements her career with other facets of her creativity including full-body painting, graphic design, digital collage, and gilding (the art of applying a thin layer of gold to surfaces). While in Hawaii she provided a series of fine art installations as well as three large public works for the community of Maui.

“Public art is something that I feel compelled to do,” said Dickens, whose public art is often done free of charge. “For me, it’s more satisfying than any other work.”

Dickens’ local works, to date, are the “Jungle and Stars” mural on the apartment building behind Current Cuisine commissioned by owners John and Sigalia Cannon, “The Clear Story,” a jazz/blues mural directly across which features a poem by Gail Taylor, two murals on the sides of the Springs Motel commissioned by owner Eric Clark, and the ceiling inside The Emporium. This month Dickens will also be working on a mural for Anne Bohlen and Warren Watson. This mural will feature a celestial Charlie Parker which will be visible from Limestone Street.

Dickens appreciates all the building owners who allow her to use their building as a canvas. Donations for supplies and artist support are gratefully accepted and can be made through the Little Art Theatre.

The local work needs to be finished by August so Dickens can return to Colorado where she will further her studies in green design. Combining a passion for public art with sustainable design, Dickens would like to install a small panel of solar lights that would illuminate the artwork in Keith’s Alley in the evenings, making it accessible for viewing at all times.

As Dickens sees it, Keith’s Alley is an outdoor gallery and you don’t need a ticket to get in. “I want this work to be available to everyone — insomniacs, early birds, the rich, the poor, anyone, anytime,” she explained. “Art is important. It makes a difference in the quality of life we live.”

Originally published in the Yellow Springs News.

Susan Gartner is a freelance writer and photographer for the News.