A Sculptor’s Quest to Art-iculate His CommunityShare
Artist Jeffry Chiplis blazes urban pathways with neon trail signs.
* articulation: Old French, early 15th-century, “a joint or joining; setting of bones”.
“CITY OF LIGHT” is not an image that typically springs to mind when traversing the gritty, post-industrial terrain of Cleveland, Ohio.
Look a little closer. And smell the neon flowers.
Over the last three decades a sculpture-sowing Johnny Appleseed has deposited nearly a hundred vivid splashes of “light poetry” across the rustbelted landscape — wry and unexpected trail signs marking out a new set of foundational bones for an Art-sparked community renaissance.
From his home base in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, Jeffry Chiplis forages through the city seeking discarded chunks of still viable neon tubing — retired decorative strips and abandoned commercial signage that generally end up in a landfill.
In Chiplis’ hands, the survivor remnants are painstakingly reassembled into new installations that, when re-lit, form eye-catching visual montages peppered with Zen-like aphorisms and layered ironies.
Twenty-first century Burma Shave signs, if you will — spectral wayposts glowing with sultry radiance and what fellow Cleveland artist Douglas Max Utter describes as “somewhere between the biblical writing on the wall and the skywriting of the wicked witch of the west, but condensed, like a tattoo.”
Chiplis spreads his unsigned creations throughout the community. They appear in bars and restaurants and outside office buildings, on the sides of retail businesses and libraries, in parks and private homes, cemetery entrances, bridges, otherwise nondescript yards and vacant lots.
He suspects his youthful wanderings through woods and deserts may have imprinted a lifelong fascination with landscape patterning. After securing a BFA in sculpture at Indiana University, he arrived in Cleveland “looking for something to make Art with and get new ideas about things.”
That something was Recyclable Neon; the new idea was the notion that Public Art inherently requires public participation.
It’s an activist aesthetic that reapportions the entirety of the civic sphere into an unbounded expressive canvas … thorofares and open space are transformed into a de facto public gallery where people hang out, wind down, engage in the routine of daily civil-ization guided by a network of quirky neon tendrils.
Chiplis’ one-man community re-mapping project is in tandem with the mission of SPACES, the artists’ collective and gallery he helped found during the late 1970s.
Now a mainstay of the region’s culture cultivators, SPACES has presented the work of over 9,000 Artists and organized hundreds of community Arts events from the annual Monster Drawing Rally to the upcoming mobile exhibit Would You Pull an 8-Ton Truck for Cleveland? that features a truck converted to an old time movie projector showing images of working Clevelanders … as the truck is hauled through the streets for three days, thousands of people will literally pull together in a symbolic action of sharing, commitment and challenge.
Living the Arts life in Cleveland is neither for the faint of grip nor prosaic of imagination.
In fact, as American communities increasingly utilize the Arts in their economic revitalization strategies, a debate has been enjoined as to how far to follow those who advise the implanting of a Creative Class in every municipality struggling to transition to a recession-proof (fingers-crossed!) Innovation Economy.
It’s a debate centered on what urban policy researcher Richey Piiparinen has termed “the Creative Destruction of Creative Class-ification” — i.e. “objectifying your city as a product as opposed to a people” while accelerating the process by which “bits and pieces of ideal cities have been incorporated into real ones”, a phenomenon chronicled by author Jonathan Raban in Soft City.
For his part, Jeffry Chiplis just keeps doing the work of the community Artist: laying down his light poetry in forms that no longer dot the landscape but subsume it.
Chiplis’ latest is an argon-gas creation titled “The Greater White Mountains and the All Argon Hills” and extends a panoramic 60 feet, every inch of which will be on exhibit Mar. 6-10, 2013 at the SCOPE Art Fair held at Moynihan Station Post Office, 33rd and 8th Avenue, New York City.
“There’s still a lot of neon left to rescue,” he says with a quick smile fusing caprice and implacability. “And a lot of Cleveland left to cover.”
** Photos by Steven B. Smith