Editor’s Note: The following interview occurred before the coronavirus closures, so some of its details have been altered by circumstance. In fact, Totem Books, where the interview took place, is now closed because of the virus. However, Schipani’s commitment to the mural projects in Flint continue, and are sure to be picked up as soon as possible.
By Jeffery L Carey Jr.
Last year, due to tireless efforts by Flint’s Public Art Project Executive Director Joe Schipani, 104 new murals transformed the visual landscape of Flint.
After moving to Flint 15 years ago from Detroit, where he grew up, Schipani said, ”I moved here because of my partner, but I fell in love with the place. I more or less fell in love with the people.”
“Working in the community, there are a lot of really great people here and they’re just so caring and so passionate,” he said, asserting that his experience in Flint is in contrast to the disconnect there seemed to be living in Detroit and Farmington Hills.
“It’s really neat,” he said of Flint. “You almost have this small town vibe in a big city.”
In addition to the 104 murals painted last year, Schipani said, some murals were painted in 2018 and another miscellaneous 25 to 30 were here before. He refers to some of the very old ones as “ghost murals” — advertising remaining for businesses no longer here.
“The ghost ones are very interesting,” Schipani said.
A central partnership in the mural endeavors, Schipani said, was COlabs, a visual art consulting firm and collective of individuals from all aspects of the arts, including several people who spent many hours in Flint on the mural projects.
Content on many of the city’s new and old murals is available on the new PixelStix app. The images and their content come up when you click on it, he explained, which tells you about the mural and the artist. The PixelStix app also takes users to the artist’s website where it includes a bio and potential art to purchase, as well as, information on the business or building which hosts them.
Another interesting feature of the app is that a viewer can report vandalism done to the property, illegal dumping, or even if a street light is out in the area, Schipani noted. PixelStix also will include events taking place in local areas.
One example is the mural on the north side of the Totem Books building (see banner photo above) painted by Nomad Clan. Nomad Clan is the collaborative team of Cbloxx and AYLO, an internationally-acclaimed, street art muralist duo based out of Manchester, United Kingdom. Information about the mural, Nomad Clan, and its location come up simply by holding the cell phone in front of the PixelStix plaque attached to the building.
The PixelStix plaques are going up gradually on every mural, Schipani said. Each mural will have a plaque, with the app officially live between March and April, but in the meantime it can be downloaded to see possible tours on what is being designated the Flint Mural Trail.
More murals are in the works for 2020, but “we’re doing it differently this year,” Schipani said. “Last year they were sort of randomly scattered,” he continued. “This year we’re taking the lessons we learned and trying to do it a bit better than last year.”
Schipani described how he had artists coming and going and living at his Carriage Town home from April through October last year. “These were artists that came in from all over,” he said laughing. “I pretty much had someone just living at my house. I had over 60 artists stay at my house last year.”
A week-long finale for this year’s projects is in the works, he said, and project staff have many plans. He said they envision going into the business district to put up eight to ten more murals, in conjunction with additional programming.
“We’ll do like an artist meet and greet one night and then we’ll work with the city to do planning and then we’ll do racial healing circles with the Community Foundation one night, and an artist panel discussion.”
The finale will culminate with a neighborhood art parade, he said. That event, if it happens, will be co-sponsored by the Michigan State Police and Walmart.
So far for this year the Flint Public Art Project has received 100 applications during their call for artists. Those eager to be part of the project include local artists, people from 25 different states, and people from 25 different countries. “It’s really, really amazing to see why they want to come to Flint,” Schipani said.
There has been a great reaction between local artists and artists from outside of Flint, Schipani described.
The work local artists got do with more recognized artists, Schipani suggested, has allowed them to get noticed on an international scale. This has allowed local artists to stay consistently busy, even during the winter as other cities surrounding Flint have asked for artist referrals to do murals in their cities.
Like many other Genesee County arts efforts, the public arts project has benefitted from the 2018 Arts Education and Cultural Enrichment millage approved by voters that brings in about $8.7 million/year for ten years. Many local arts efforts have benefitted, including Buckham Gallery, Whaley House, Flint Handmade, and the Flint Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Out-county arts nonprofits in Fenton, Flushing, Clio, Swartz Creek, and Grand Blanc.
According to Schipani, last year the Flint Art Project received $30,000 from the millage. This year, he said, $24,000. The goal now is to make up the difference from last year with other sources.
“Wal-Mart is one of our big funders,” he said, “and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and a pool of other funders, plus a lot of private donations with Totem Books supporting us quite often.”
Schipani said that a lot of their help comes in the form of paint instead of cash. “There’s different ways of making up the difference,” he said.
Over the past few years, because of the arts project and an Artist in Residency program offered by FPAP, five artists have come to Flint. “It was funded for two years,” Schipani said. “Our first artist is coming in April and we do a different call for artists depending on the projects and what we’re looking for. So we have a few programs planned for next year.” This funding he said makes you skip a year and so they are working on getting funded for another two years.
In addition to his work on the Flint Arts Project, Schipani is also the co-author with Roxanne Rhoads of a book titled Haunted Flint. The book’s blurb entices readers to join the authors on a chilling tour of Flint’s most haunted locations.” Schipani said he spent close to seven years researching the material for the book.
“I am also working with Kady Yelloww, Flint’s new director of placemaking,” Schipani said. “I am really proud of her; she applied here after coming and helping me with the mural project.” The two of them are working on a new book scheduled to come out next year.
It’s a mural book–“It’s not just going to be a coffee table book; it’s going to have a lot of information in it also,” he said. The book will feature international artists and their work in Flint with Flint artists’ work equally interspersed. He said he and Yelloww hope the book will get local artists recognition outside of Flint and get them working on the same level as the international artists.
According to Yelloww, Schipani is too modest and is not new to the arts. “He has an incredible background in theater and performance art,” she said. With more than four years of experience in the street art game she said, “He’s really top notch.”
“He’s having a really incredible curatorial process. Murals are not new to development and beautifying and reenergizing communities,” Yellow said. “They can go wrong, it doesn’t always go right and actually it goes wrong a lot in different places.” Yet, Yellow boasted, out of 104 murals only one in Flint resulted in a complaint.
Schipani’s work has drawn national attention, Yelloww said– he is being flown around the country to speak at conferences, including a recent appearance at the University of Pittsburg Carnegie Library.
“How do you fly people in from around the world and put up 104 murals for less than a quarter million dollars? Unprecedented,” Yelloww said.
“He does it not because of economic reasons; he’s doing it out of passion and love. He does it because he loves his town. This is his home.”
Banner photo: one of the earliest murals, painted on one of the walls of Totem Books (Photo by Darlene Carey)
EVM Staff Writer Jeffery L. Carey, Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. EVM Staff Writer and photographer Darlene Carey can be reached at email@example.com.