Art Talk with Public Artist Carolyn Lewenberg

By Rebecca Sutton
A family sitting in a booth making watercolor shoeprints of their feet
Artist Carolyn Lewenberg works with Rockland residents to create watercolor shoeprints as part of the Sole of Rockland project she spearheaded during her MAPC residency. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Lewenberg

Art Talk with Public Artist Carolyn Lewenberg

In the spring of 2017, Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) hired Carolyn Lewenberg as its first artist-in-residence. For the next 18 months, Lewenberg navigated the agency’s various departments—which range from public safety to clean energy to transportation—and melded her own artistic practice with MAPC’s developmental work in communities across the region. Leading with shared values of engaging residents and building more resilient communities, both Lewenberg and the MAPC came away richer from the experience. 

But the main beneficiaries were the communities themselves. Two of the main projects Lewenberg initiated during her residency were in the towns of Everett and Rockland. In Everett, she developed A Ripple Effect, which offers residents a public space to grow food and appreciate art on a formerly grassy strip of land on a utility corridor. In Rockland, she invited residents to create watercolor shoeprints, which were then transferred into stencils and painted on the ground in locations across the city that residents valued. We recently spoke with Lewenberg about her residency, and why she thinks integrating the arts into public agencies is an all-around win.

NEA: How you think your background prepared you for the MAPC residency?

CAROLYN LEWENBERG: The experiences that prepared me the most were the ones where I was working with lots of different people in communities facilitating an art experience. My art practice has evolved from being mainly about innovative use of materials and skills, to being more about creative problem solving to address a community-defined issue. I shifted my practice more toward "What are the goals of this community?" or "What does this this community aspire toward?" and creating community experiences that will result in artwork in response to that. I think that prepared me for the MAPC experience—my experience using art as something that can get people involved in something, or [that can] create dialogue around something or pose questions. My own guiding values are consistent with the values of smart growth and MAPC, and so working as an artist-in-residence at MAPC with this shared foundation of values felt very natural.

NEA: In what ways did you did you see overlap between MAPC’s mission and your mission as an artist? Did that evolve throughout your residency?

LEWENBERG: I am a values-driven artist. All of my projects begin with a well thought-out and deeply felt set of values that describe why the work is relevant and worth taking the time and energy to make.. But before my residency at MAPC, I never really articulated it on paper—I just [felt it] in my heart. With this residency, I didn't want to come across as willy-nilly. I wanted to be able to have some sort of framework articulated  where people could see the intentionality in my choice. So as part of my residency, I got to spend time articulating what are my values, and what would they look like in action.

In this way I was able to look at different project options, and then look at my values, and see which criteria projects could possibly meet. That gave me the tools for picking projects. It was nice to have that framework so [the organization] knew why these projects were important to pursue, because a lot of the values were shared with the organization. The goal of the arts and culture division is to integrate arts and culture as a part of the planning practice, and so being able to articulate in the language of a planner was a really important part of the residency.

NEA: So why is it important to integrate the arts into the planning process?

LEWENBERG: I think artists speak another language than planners. Planners make a lot of presentations, speak at forums, and write reports with a lot of words and maps and charts and data. I think this information is all super powerful, and can really help communities think about where they're at and where they're going. But I think the format in which the information is shared can be hard for people to [engage with] and then want to learn more. The average community member isn't always moved by it.

So artists can translate that information in different ways that are more engaging, and connect with people in a different way. Planners also need to gather information from residents, to find out what they  love about their communities, what are the challenges, what changes have they seen, etc. Sometimes the traditional ways of getting that information (like surveys, community forums, etc.) don't always get people excited. Artists can come up with different formats that will get people to share, [especially for] people who speak different languages, or who don't respond in the same way to surveys and forums, or who wouldn't go out to those events.

NEA: How did you have to modify your usual creative process while working with the MAPC?

LEWENBERG: Every hour is billable time, so I had to think more about how I spent my time. I tend to be spontaneous in my practice, and planning is a very highly structured environment. So my creative process had to operate within those parameters.

In this residency, it wasn't about finding inspiration in the same ways. It was about rounding up skills and knowledge within the organization, and framing those different pieces of information in a different way, a creative way. I think it was really about creative problem solving, and figuring out how can this information make the most impact. I was piggy backing on other MAPC staffs’ relationships and reorganizing their findings in their planning processes and creating projects out of this puzzle. Putting a creative system on what's already there was a different way of working. It was such an opportunity to work with such smart, hard-working and mission-driven people. The values I was talking about resonated a lot, and that was a really important starting point for figuring how I can piggyback off the work of the other planners.

NEA: What was the most surprising thing for you about working with a public agency?

LEWENBERG: I guess I was surprised by the amount of freedom I was given. The agency didn't have an agenda [and say] "We want you to come in and do these things.” [Instead it was more] “We want you to listen and see what resonates the most, see what you're inspired by, what's a good match with what people are doing and where you're at and tell us what you want to work on.” They weren't telling me what to do—it was more what do you want to do? It was awesome.

NEA: What do you hope that you left behind at MAPC?

LEWENBERG: I hope I left behind a good impression of the potential for arts to catalyze the work, and get MAPC’s planners and staff  more excited and more involved in a different way. I hope I left behind a sense of new enthusiasm for the important work they do. I hope I breathed new energy, or was a conduit to get MAPC’s communities excited about different aspects of the work. I hope I was able to leave behind a new sense of possibility.

NEA: How do you feel your residency benefitted the communities you worked with?

LEWENBERG: Two projects that I was involved in were Everett and Rockland. In Everett, they really want to do more art [following my work with them]. They've been wondering how they can maybe get a town artist-in-residence. I think at first it was a little hard to find the people within city hall who were excited to work with me, but once I found them, and once the project was over, they were like, “Let's do another project!” I wrote another grant with them to do sculptural green  infrastructure projects along their bike trail. They got it, so we're going to do more work together, and they're looking for other ways to incorporate art along the trail and in the city in general. They really see how art in the city and town can get people excited.

Rockland's similar. I was the first artist that the municipal community worked with. There's a community group called Reimagine Rockland that is working on downtown revitalization. I got the high school students involved, and I think that the high school students and Reimagine Rockland are going to work together more. That connection is a seed that I'm excited to be cultivating. Downtown revitalization efforts often don't involve youth and I think that's amiss. Young people are a huge facet to creating vibrant places, and not all city and town governments understand how to harness the creativity and energy of young people. But in Rockland, it's happening. The kids are creating poetry about  transformation and they're painting them on butterfly-shaped sculptural seats I've designed, with shoeprints from community members as the markings on the butterflies. I'm hoping that the connection with the students and Reimagine Rockland will be a lasting connection.

NEA: Why would you encourage more public agencies to work with artists? What's the benefit?

LEWENBERG: It’s a different way for engagement. Artists speak a multisensory language, and their expressions engage people in different ways. There are so many things that cities and towns do, from waste management to parks to senior services. Engaging artists in different ways can support the work, build new audiences, or make a place more inviting by conveying the spirit of the place more authentically—maybe it's physical intervention, poetry reading, concert, an exhibition of art in response to a theme or guiding question. Successful socially engaged artists are skilled  listeners and observers who can find out what's going on in a place, what people value there and what are their visions for how it can serve them better. Artists can be on the ground and take the time to make meaningful connections that will lead to artistic interventions or products that will create authentic positive shifts in the community and empower people who may have felt left out in the past.