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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 3, NO. 6 -- OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2001
 

Artist Bill Cochran Links New Urbanism With Public Art to Promote Diversity

By Karen O'Keefe

William Cochran is a participatory public artist who applauds the principles of new urbanism. In his work, Cochran focuses on creating an opportunity for a large-scale collaboration with the public in a way that illuminates our humanity.

"In my view, new urbanist thinking pays a lot of long-overdue and important interest to the physical structure of a community, reconfiguring it with sensitivity to how it effects the social structure of the community, and how it operates in reality," says Cochran (46). "New urbanist thinking has been very critical to changing the perception of diversity from a minus to a plus -- from a drawback to an amenity.

"People have internal resistance to diversity because they think that those who come from different backgrounds are not like them and don't share the same values. The arts -- and in particular -- participatory public art, provide an avenue for the universal discovery that the core values people share are the same.

"I think participatory public art is quite complementary to new urbanist thought. It is a community- building art form that directly engages the public in a vast cross-cultural, cross-generational collaboration," Cochran says. "Participation in public art provides a way to celebrate, to highlight, to engender, and to strengthen diversity."

Cochran's best known work to date is the Community Bridge in Frederick, Md., an internationally acclaimed trompe l'oeil work that was five years in the creating and involved the participation of thousands of people in the Frederick community and -- via Internet -- around the globe. Today the bridge attracts more than 50,000 visitors a year, making it an economic development tool.

The bridge is concrete and crosses a creek that is the city's traditional, racial and economic divide. Cochran painted all the features, major and minor, and most of the finished stonework. He had 10 assistants at various points, in addition to several creative consultants.

The joining of the two neighborhoods by what now seems to be a beautiful stone bridge, gracefully aged, dotted with ivy, studded with carvings and etched symbols, sends a message, Cochran believes, about the importance of community and the fact that what appears to be cultural and ethnic and economic division that cannot be bridged -- is just illusory.

Our essential humanity, Cochran believes, joins us all. "Our [public art] vision," he explains, "is to draw thousands of people to downtown urban sites to help strengthen the city core, build bridges of understanding between groups of people and create a cultural amenity that sparks other cultural development.

"We live in a disposable society. One of the things we can't afford to do is throw away our urban areas and the people that live in them.

"We have ideas in Community Bridge from all over the world. The project just kept growing. The more it took root, the more we expanded it."

"I use trompe l'oeil in my work as a metaphor because a lot of what we take seriously in the world is illusion," says Cochran. The things that divide us, for instance -- we think they are real -- but they are not.

Community Bridge, was spearheaded by Shared Vision -- a non-profit organization founded by Cochran and his wife, Teresa, dedicated to funding, facilitating and promoting excellence in works of visual art in public places that directly involve the public in their creation. The Community Bridge project was funded by a public/private partnership.

The artwork is internationally acclaimed and has been described as "unbelievably beautiful" and "a monument to human communion" in media ranging from e-zines to new age, engineering, urban design, art, religious and government journals. The bridge has been described in children's publications, newspapers, and on wire services. More praise has come from public art experts, the academic community and non-profit organizations. In May, the bridge won the "Core Values Project of the Year" from the International Association of Public Participation.

In an unprecedented effort, thousands of private citizens were involved in the making of Community Bridge. Most were drawn into the project by a simple "Question": "What object represents the spirit of community to you?"

That Question was asked on television, and on radio shows - including the nationally syndicated "David Brenner Show." The Question was asked in a mailing to every home in Frederick County, in chalked sidewalk murals, on the Internet, and of every student in every public and private school in Frederick County.

For six weeks in spring 1995, the Question was asked on an electric sign in front of the Hampton Inn on Interstate 270.

The response was phenomenal. Thousands of answers came from all segments of the human population. Nearly 1,000 of the specific responses are depicted in the mural, "carved" into the stones. The most popular answer was a depiction of clasped hands -- very often a black hand with a white hand.

"The bridge demonstrates the role art can play in community. "The creativity of the individual is engaged and people realize that they have the power to make many choices," says Cochran. "A large-scale work of participatory public art in the middle of a community provides an important focal point, a sense of community identity and pride -- but also an economic engine.

"In new development, the lifeblood will always be the important gathering places that have cultural meaning to the public and to those from outside. That's how a 'sense of place' is created. Participatory public art really operates on three levels -- cultural, social and economic.

"However, not all public art," says Cochran, "will play this role. There are many works of public art that are excellent examples of art, but they represent a private vision. So you can't make a blanket statement about public art -- that it creates sense of place and operates positively on social, cultural and economic levels. Some public art creates a lot of ill will. Whether it is good art or not, it doesn't build community.

"What we're talking about is a model of participatory public art in which the public itself is involved. Where there's a sense of inspiration and vision that happens right from the outset, and where people unite to build this sort of grand statement that tells an authentic story about its environment, and has a resonance on a universal scale.

"The Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work found that cultural activities, by fostering participation across the divide of social class and ethnicity, make a unique contribution to overcoming exclusion and to fostering revitalization. This is a very important statement.

"I feel the new urbanist model needs to take more advantage of the specific opportunities that the right kind of public art and culture provide," says Cochran.

Cochran finds an even greater sense of urgency in his work strengthening human bonds and community in the aftermath of September 11th. "Paradoxically, the bonds that tie us together, that sense of community and shared humanity are most visible after an event of unequaled horror.

"What people have in community -- their shared humanity -- becomes touched by moments like these."

For contact, directions or more information on William Cochran, Community Bridge, or Shared Vision, visit http://bridge.skyline.net or call 301.696.2839.