Last night, I took a bike ride downtown. It was dark and cool outside, one of the last remaining summer nights before flannel season here in Meadville, PA. My destination was a new public art piece just installed at the Snodgrass Building on the corner of Market and Arch streets. As I surveyed the tall flowers dimly lit from the nearby street light of Rite Aid, I thought about the two days leading up to the completion of the piece.
A small group of volunteers met for about 8 hours to install the piece on the freshly painted façade. With tact nails, ladders, drills, and a mechanical lift, we were able to get the 52 aluminum pieces up with relative ease. Putting together the pieces was a joyful occasion in itself. Any progress was met with a grin from the team of enthusiastic skilled volunteers: Doug, Mario, Diehl, Amara, Eric, or Mike.
Thanks to the visibility of the location, along with the assistance of Facebook and The Meadville Tribune, our work was met with instant feedback. Cars honked and drivers shouted, “It’s beautiful.” Individuals stopped by and explained, “I had to get a picture.” This cavalcade of positive comments continues days later as I navigate my daily grind around Meadville.
Unlike echinacea or bee balm (two flowers adorning the mural), this project did not spring up overnight. Under the direction of veteran artist Amara Geffen, the “Snodgrass Relief Sculpture” took years of planning.
Geffen first arrived at the concept of a mural in 2018 after the structure adjacent to the Snodgrass Building was raised for a parking lot, leaving an empty grey void behind. The Snodgrass Building is a 100-year-old staple of the Meadville cityscape. Originally a doctor’s office, it is now owned by the Crawford County Coalition on Housing Needs and managed by the Meadville Housing Authority with units reserved for individuals with low income. Amara and I met with these residents at the beginning of the project to learn about their experience living there and hear some of their ideas related to a possible mural on the back of the building.
Citizen participation is an ongoing theme of working with Geffen. A sorcerer of her craft, she expertly navigates the input of professionals and civilians as she leverages networks old and new across Crawford County. These connections help to create a project imbued with the experience and history of the very individuals who will later gaze at its brilliance.
Geffen designs her pieces with purpose and diligence. On the days of the installation, she brilliantly balanced the seriousness of an engineer with the playfulness of a child. We all watched her laborious vision realized, piece by piece.
Throughout the installation, my mind was fascinated by the work, the cheers, and the sweet smell of fish from McClure’s Fish House nearby our staging grounds. Yet my subconscious held the truth of the moment: Things are not okay. Our world is on fire, and unity seems like a word from a bygone era. I see people every day nearing or hitting their breaking point, unable to cope with the pressures of waking up and performing “okay.” The usually hollow “How are you doing?” has taken on an unexpectedly serious tone as friends respond with deep uncertainty rather than a canned “Good. How are you?”
Through this deeply troubling time, I feel the need to reflect upon a relatively small endeavor that I was genuinely proud to be a part of. Of course, my life and the lives of my friends and neighbors may not be hugely impacted by this burst of color on Market Street. But that does not mean we shouldn’t allow ourselves a simple moment of gratitude, a cause for collective celebration amidst global anxiety.