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Arts & Extras: Bridge to diversity

Arts & Extras: Bridge to diversity


Viewed through imagination’s playful lens, the long, sweeping concrete arches underneath the Memorial Avenue bridge in Southwest Roanoke could call to mind the aqueducts of ancient Rome.

The artists preparing to contribute to the city’s “Arches” project expressed an urge to decorate the undersides of those arches a la Michelangelo’s vast painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Yet their real plans are a bit more down to earth.

A new Roanoke public art project intended to celebrate cultural diversity, “Arches” will spruce up the area underneath the bridge where the Roanoke River Greenway passes through and demonstrate how it could be used as a space for performances.

Roanoke Arts and Culture Coordinator Doug Jackson also wants “Arches” to serve as a model for how city neighborhoods can instigate public art projects and engage with art and artists.

“This is kind of a pilot in terms of learning how to do these kinds of projects faster and enable neighborhood leaders and artists in neighborhoods to make improvements and put their thumbprint on where they live,” Jackson said.

“Arches” has three components.

Polly Branch, founder and manager of Acorn Art Galley on Brambleton Avenue, will refurbish and retile the 17-foot-diameter octagonal concrete structure under the bridge that has long been used as a sandbox, to make it a functional and safe home for new sandcastles.

Branch, 55, is the sixth child and fourth daughter of Roanoke sculptor Betty Branch, and has long been an assistant in her mother’s studio. Her own works include paintings and mosaics, including a landscape mosaic on the Memorial Avenue side of the building that houses the Grandin Theatre. Her collaborations with her mother include the bust of Martin Luther on the Roanoke College campus in Salem.

Roanoke Parks and Recreation will empty out the old sand and refuse, and Branch will cover the surface with smooth, multicolored beach pebble rocks, with help from Roanoke stonemason John Tanner. The different colored stones are meant to symbolize the variety of people who make up the Roanoke community.

She has commissioned Jay Burnett, alias “Old Man in the Wood” of Roanoke Farmers Market, to make rakes for smoothing the sand.

Dan Kuehl, 43, a Patrick Henry High School art teacher, will paint six murals on the footers supporting the arches, with help from his students, who also helped brainstorm the concept for the murals. They will look like the exteriors of homes, and they will showcase a variety of architectural styles reflecting neighborhoods throughout the city. The choices of hues will be “more colorful than the standard house just so that it’s fun.”

Kuehl’s previous public art projects for Roanoke include the designs painted on six newspaper boxes that the city converted into Little Free Libraries. His outdoor sculpture “Leaf,” which twisted with the wind and had a mirror built in, stood along the Elmwood Park sculpture walk in 2015.

“A big part of this is I want to show the students they can do something that they love to do to connect to their community,” Kuehl said.

Down the road, over four Saturdays in September, Virginia Children’s Theatre — formerly Roanoke Children’s Theatre — will hold performances under the bridge that share children’s books about diversity and Black history.

“We will provide four different opportunities for anyone in the community, youth, all ages, where they can come to a common space and be introduced to different types of literature about diversity,” said VCT Producing Artistic Director Brett Roden. “These books will be dramatically told by a professional teaching artist from our team, and then there will also be an interactive portion.”

Members of the audience will get to participate in the story, and receive take-home materials, including copies of the books. “We’re just really excited to do a partnership with the city that is free of charge to those neighborhoods that maybe wouldn’t be able to come see one of our mainstage productions. They’re exposed to professional live theater. They’re also exposed to some topics that really need to be discussed right now and dug into,” Roden said.

“Our commitment is to have it all wrapped up by Sept. 30,” Jackson said.

Branch and Kuehl expect to start their parts of the project in earnest in the coming week.

Funding for “Arches” comes from a $10,000 Challenge America grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and $10,000 in matching funds from the city.

“Hopefully by making a little investment in the space, we start to see it differently and then who knows how it snowballs from there?” Jackson said.

“Exactly, that’s the dream,” concurred Branch. “We want to inspire other people’s ideas, how they could build upon it —”

“— in other neighborhoods around Roanoke,” Jackson finished.

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