Plaza District’s rotating Plaza Walls exhibit stands strong as an example of successful public art

Sean Vali works on his mural in the 16th Street Plaza District. (Garett Fisbeck)

Sean Vali works on his mural in the 16th Street Plaza District. (Garett Fisbeck)

Now in its second season, the Plaza Walls mural project has already expanded well beyond the initial concept that co-curators Kristopher Kanaly and Dylan Bradway took to the Oklahoma City Arts Commission in 2015.

Not only have they added new spaces to the project, they recently received a three-year extension of their permit. Designed as an evolving public art project, Plaza Walls features 21 rotating murals and has become a top attraction in the district, contributing to the revitalization of the area. A new crop of murals debuted in February.

“It’s grown into this beautiful expression of our community and the artists that are in our community,” Kanaly said.

Artist Sean Vali debuted his new mural in mid-February at the Plaza District’s Live! on the Plaza second Friday art walk, and local artist Hayley Johnson will begin painting this summer. Houston artist Wiley Robertson, known for his iconic “love” murals, which he has painted on everything from warehouses to freeway signs, is also on the schedule. Robertson started painting Feb. 24 and 25. A new mural will debut nearly every month this year, weather permitting. The new locations added to the project include Saints and Everything Goes Dance Studio.

Community transformation

The project got its start when Kanaly and Bradway noticed a dilapidated shopping center and thought it would be the ideal place to practice their mural painting skills. They approached the owner, Steve Mason of Mason Realty Investors, and since then, the project has evolved into a community endeavor in which both veteran and up-and-coming artists can express their creativity and promote their work. It’s also something of a neighborhood improvement project that has helped beautify the area and transform the once-intimidating alley that caught Kanaly and Bradway’s attention nearly two years ago.

“It was pretty scary,” Kanaly said. “It had kind of a homeless camp back there and some weird activity that no one really liked. Steve was frustrated with some of the things going on back there, and it was starting to collect some gang graffiti.”

Kanaly and Bradway invited some friends to join them and then realized their practice space had the potential to transform from an abandoned alley to a public outdoor gallery. They approached Mason with the idea before going to the Arts Commission and through the urban design review process. They established a few guidelines that all of the murals must adhere to, including refraining from displaying sexist, racist, political or religious overtones. Aside from that, the projects must also be positive.

“The project is pretty full, so if we paint over anything, we want to make sure it reaches the same bar as what’s there or excels it,” Kanaly said. “We’re always trying to improve rather than downgrade the artwork, which is really hard, because right now we have some of the top artists in the state who have painted there. It’s going to be really hard to paint over some of the stuff.”

Creative expression

One of the project’s main goals is to provide artists a way to express themselves, especially those who are interested in creating large works but don’t have access to adequate space. Instead of practicing their spray paint art in abandoned warehouses, for example, they can hone their skills along with fellow artists and enjoy a venue where others will see their work. Kanaly also noted the positive impact of public art on communities, including improving quality of life for residents and boosting tourism.

Urban Land Institute Oklahoma recognized the community contributions of the Plaza Walls project by nominating it for its Community Building Effort award at its annual Impact Awards, held in mid-February.

Kanaly and Bradway created Oklahoma Mural Syndicate (OMS), a nonprofit organization, to oversee management of the Plaza Walls project and any new projects the group might add. OMS will also manage Mural Fest 66, a mural project in Miami, Oklahoma.

Plaza Walls also helps artists promote and sell their work. Last year, several of the artists set up booths for the Plaza District’s second Friday art walk, where they’d have smaller pieces that visitors could purchase.

In addition, the organization releases a monthly video that showcases current murals and the artists who created them. Some of those videos get between 10,000 and 12,000 views, which helps raise awareness of the project and the individual artists.

As the project continues to grow, Kanaly said, one major need is sponsors. The organization has artists and murals already booked for this year but needs the funds to cover them. For $500, donors can sponsor half a mural and will have a “sponsored by” feature painted on the mural. Kanaly said several people contacted them about setting up a sponsorship in memory of a loved one.

Artists interested in participating in the project can contact the organization and submit their idea and samples of their work. Visit plazawalls.org.

 

Print headline: Creative Walls, 16th Street Plaza District’s Plaza Walls mural project is going strong, attracting plenty of talent and branching out.

Lea Terry

This article was written by an Oklahoma Gazette contributor. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story's headline in your subject line.

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