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Artists Turning West Palm Beach Into Giant Outdoor Museum

Over the past week, a swarm of local and international artists have been working in parks and vacant lots in West Palm Beach, transforming the spaces into a giant outdoor museum. 

It's part of a larger strategy by the city’s planners that goes beyond aesthetics.

“I came out here to install a 25-foot metal paper airplane.” said Los Angeles-based welder Griffin Loop. “It’s based around the message of setting intention to launching it into action.”

Loop is 6’2” and around 190 pounds, clad in black skinny jeans and a black t-shirt. And he was climbing all over his steel creation Thursday like a finicky mountain goat -- polishing edges to a lustrous shine, making sure all the panels reflect the South Florida sun just so.

Credit Peter Haden / WLRN
Los-Angeles based welder Griffin Lupe installed a two-ton, 25-foot replica paper airplane in Jose Martí Park in West Palm Beach.

His sculpture is a two-ton metal version of a paper airplane you may have folded in class. He’s installing it in a grassy patch of Jose Marti Park near the corner of Flagler Drive and Second Street in downtown West Palm Beach.

About two miles to the north, local painter Ron Burkhardt was busy in a vacant lot. But he wasn’t working at an easel. His canvas is usually used for international commerce -- not art. It’s a shipping container. It’s one of seven local artists are painting. The brilliant colors in geometric shapes really pop in the midday sun.

“This is turquoise. This is magenta. This is a deep pink. Very South Beach,” said Burkhardt.

And, Burkhardt says, the colors will last. “All this paint is either Valspar or Benjamin Moore,” he said. “It’s all exterior house paint. So this makes it really durable.”

That’s important, because Burkhardt’s painting will be on display for a year. So will Loop’s giant airplane and 28 other works of art in public spaces around West Palm Beach.

The idea? Turn the whole city into a world-class outdoor museum, accessible to  everyone year-round. It’s called CANVAS.

“We signed an access agreement with the city giving us the right to be able to create these installations on these parks,” said CANVAS founder and curator Nicole Henry. “Eventually West Palm Beach will become a giant outdoor museum.”

Henry is a West Palm Beach gallery owner. The idea for CANVAS was borne not just out of her desire to have get more art in public places in the city, she said.

“It’s a way for people to engage with art and watch the artist in their process so they really feel like they’re part of it,” she said. “And also creating an area where people could congregate.”

The project is part of West Palm Beach’s focus on using art and culture to forge its own identity among arts communities in South Florida — like Wynwood in Miami and the FAT Village Arts District in Fort Lauderdale.

“We’ve really seized on art as a really powerful tool to make us authentic and original,” said Raphael Clemente, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority in West Palm Beach. “People factor those things in when they make decisions about where they go, where they invest, where they spend their money and their time. It has to have the prerequisites of safe, clean, accessible. But once you get to that, who are you and what’s your character and personality as a place?”

Seven years ago, the city started partnering with local artists to transform the public spaces, according to Clemente. And not beautiful central plazas.  The ugly, hurry-past-it places:  Parking deck stairwells. Vacant storefronts. Under-the-bridge concrete pylons.

“It’s like a magnet,” Clemente said. “We started seeing people coming just to look at street art. And we thought, ‘Let’s see where we can go with this.’ And we decided to kind of formalize the art thing. Not just the street art, but this incredible collection of cultural destinations.”

Every two years the city randomly surveys residents and visitors about impressions of the downtown area. Clemente says the positive impressions are increasing, with respondents citing aesthetic beauty as a top draw.

Another big draw? Natural beauty.

“There’s a very synergistic relationship between those two,” Clemente said. “When you throw in palm trees and water and blue sky, now it’s kind of that whole new level. It’s pretty killer.”

The art in the CANVAS Outdoor Museum will mix with the palm trees and sunshine for the next year.

To learn more about CANVAS Outdoor Museum, visit http://canvaswpb.org.