UW News

November 17, 2010

Just an artist on a Harley, traveling and talking about art

View a preview of You Call That Art?!

John Young has a vision of what happens when Joe Citizen encounters a piece of public art, especially if it looks more like the Broken Obelisk than the George Washington statue.  Joe, Young thinks, is likely to turn to his companion, jerk a thumb at the piece and say, “You call that art?”

Which is why, when he decided to put together a TV program about public art, Young named it You Call That Art?!. The program debuts at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 22, on KCTS-9.

John Young stands by the archway at Meridian Avenue and 50th Street, one of the public art works visited as part of his new show, You Call That Art?!.

John Young stands by the archway at Meridian Avenue and 50th Street, one of the public art works visited as part of his new show, You Call That Art?!.

Young, a UW professor of art, will host the program, which is appropriate, since he has specialized in public art and about a dozen of his own pieces are placed in the Seattle area.

“Theres very little effort going on to educate the public about art,” Young said. “The TV show is all about trying to demystify public art for the common man.”

The show is, in fact, an offshoot of a course that Young has been teaching at the University for years. Officially its called Field Study in Public Art, but because it involves getting into vans and touring local public art, the students call it Van Go. Young takes them to particular pieces of public art and talks about the arts origins, what the artists have said is the intent and who funded them. Sometimes the artist meets them on site and talks about his or her work.

Seattle, Young said, is an ideal place for the course, because it boasts more public art per capita than any other American city — more than 400 pieces outdoors and perhaps 1,600 inside buildings. The proliferation is the result of the multiple arts commissions that cover this region. Theres the city arts commission, called the Office of Arts and Culture; the King County Arts Commission, which is 4Culture; the Washington State Arts Commission, which includes the pieces built on the UW campus and the federal arts commission, the National Endowment for the Arts.

John Young asked passers-by to dance using the dance steps on Broadway, a public artwork created by Jack Mackie.

John Young asked passers-by to dance using the dance steps on Broadway, a public artwork created by Jack Mackie.

“Any time a building is either built or remodeled, the Washington State Arts Commission is responsible for administering a percentage of the budget for art,” Young said. “So between one-half and one percent of a construction budget has to be allocated to the acquisition of art.”

The “Van Go” course is so popular with students that it quickly fills with seniors every time its offered, so it seemed natural to try to extend the format to the general public. With that in mind, Young and a filmmaker named Mark Titus put together a five-minute pilot. KCTS, Young said, thought it was a “fabulous idea,” and said they would take it if Young would develop a full show.

“So we developed a 25-minute episode on no money at all,” Young said. “It was completely bootstrapped. Tim Lorang, who used to work at UWTV, and Peter Rummel, whos an award-winning camera man, and I went out and just did it. It took a year. KCTS liked it and now its going to be broadcast on Nov. 22.”

You can see a preview of that show on its website. In it, Young takes the viewer to see the archway at Meridian Avenue and 50th Street and the dance steps on Broadway. The whole show covers 14 public art pieces in the Seattle area.

Young said that each show will cover a traditional figurative piece, a more abstract piece and a controversial piece. The traditional piece in the first show is the George Washington statue on campus.

“Hes a traditional, figurative memorial,” Young said. “Theres been a 20,000 year history of humankind making memorials, so we cover that.”

The more abstract piece in this show, a Henry Moore sculpture downtown, is called Vertebrae and is a bunch of bone shapes.  The controversial piece is Michael Heizers Adjacent, Against, Upon in Myrtle Edwards Park, which consists of three giant concrete slabs, obviously manmade, and three corresponding granite boulders quarried from the Cascades and delivered by barge.

Young defines controversial as “something that has caused a political or social provocation or one that people walk by every day and dont think its art. Hundreds of people jog by Adjacent, Against, Upon every day and they have no idea its an artwork.”

The artist to be interviewed on the first show is Chuck Greening, who created the archway leading into Meridian Park, near the Good Shepherd Center. He wont be interviewed on the site of his work, however, but in an artists bar called the Two Bells Tavern, 2313 Fourth Avenue.

And thats where the premiere for the show will be held, at the same time the first show airs. Anyone is welcome to join Young and his production team, which includes Lorang, Rummel and his daughter Hayley, who has a degree in film. There is no admission charge.

Whether this show turns into a series depends on the response to the first one, Young said. If the response is good, then KCTS will help him and his crew raise money for four more shows — one more in Seattle, one in Portland, one in Vancouver, B.C. and one in Eastern Washington.

If those prove popular, KCTS will be the host station for a national TV series. Young already has chosen 19 cities to visit — he hopes by motorcycle.

“I dont want to come off as an overeducated, elitist art professor,” he said. “This is a guy on a motorcycle — a Harley. This is designed to say, you dont have to go to college to understand art necessarily, but here are some strategies you can use to begin to understand it and know where your tax dollars are going and what the artist meant.  The bottom line is that you the viewer learn how to interpret the art on your own terms.”