When I meet up with Laurie Frick at “Data Tells a Story,” her vibrant mural installation along the Lamar Boulevard Underpass, she is carrying yard tools: a battery-powered leaf-blower, a pair of loppers.
“Data Tells a Story” stretches down each 500-foot-long side of the underpass, where the railroad passes over Lamar Boulevard just north of Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin. Since the mural was installed in late September, Frick has periodically trimmed the weeds that pop through sidewalk cracks or grow in the low, narrow concrete median.
“I think if a (public) place looks cared for, then people are more likely to respect it,” Frick tells me.
Frick has garnered plenty of respect — and buzz — for her mural installation. The project is the first TEMPO Refresh, an initiative launched last year by the city’s Art in Public Places program which invited an artist to re-imagine an existing public artwork.
Temporarily re-imagine, that is. As the name suggests, TEMPO signifies temporary.
Frick’s piece is due to be up until the end of August, a $50,000 commission from the city’s Art in Public Places program.
“Data Tells a Story” is an overlay, of sorts, onto “Moments,” a 2003 piece by Carl Trominski. The signature element of “Moments” is enigmatic panels, positioned at varying angles, coated with reflective signage paint and posted along the underpass walls.
Frick, who has an engineering background, uses datasets to drive the compositions of her abstract artwork and so for “Data Tells a Story” she created colorful, drippy lines that undulate across a brilliant turquoise background, each a representation of Austin tourist statistics. One side of the three-block-long mural charts the reason why people visit Austin, the other what they do during their visit. (Tourism was the prescribed theme of the project.)
A staggering 25 million tourists come to Austin each year.
“And all those people come here for the same reasons many of us enjoy living here: Music, food, spending time with friends, enjoying the outdoors,” says Frick, who last year was a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome.
For Trominski’s blue signs, Frick turned to the popular murals around town that in the selfie age have become popular tourist destinations: The “I Love You So Much” mural on South Congress Avenue or Daniel Johnston’s quirky “Hi, how are you?” near the University of Texas. Frick mined Instagram to create a color palette based on posts of each mural and then gave the color schemes to Sheri Bingham of Iron Thread Design who in turm created distinctive, patterned fabric covers that slip over each panel. Below each covered panel Frick painted the street address of the corresponding mural — her mural’s loop back to other Austin murals.
Trominski was an emerging architect in 2003 when “Moments” debuted. It has been his only foray into public art. Originally, Trominski envisioned the rectangular blue panels as visual markers that punctuate the movement of travelling in a car along Lamar Boulevard as dips below grade and under a railroad bridge. Solar lights would illuminate the stretch of road under the bridge with a cool blue light, and a color block pattern along the underpass walls, in subtle shades of blue and green, would suggest the impression of being underwater. “Moments” was envisioned as a conceptual and multi-media public installation in an unusual spot in the cityscape, at the time an adventurous departure for Austin’s public art program.
But in reality “Moments” never really had its moment.
Almost immediately after installation vandals stole the solar lights and they were never replaced. Likewise, the very subtle pattern of color blocks became a graffiti magnet and the city’s solution to mitigating the tagging was to simply cover it with grey paint, obliterating the original design in the process. And what wasn’t painted over faded and peeled.
Indeed, the city’s lack of funding for maintenance of its public artworks has also meant “Moments” signature reflective blue panels over the years became dull and shabby. One panel fell off altogether.
That “Moments” is actually a work public art mostly disappeared from the public’s conscious. Occasionally that fact would be rediscovered whenever local media, stumped for news, would spin out a “how much money did the city waste on this” feature.
Nevertheless, whether immediately understood as art — or mistaken for a highway department signage paint test — “Moments” is arguably Austin’s most maligned public artwork.
Perhaps understandably, Trominski eschews public comment on it though he embraced the city’s TEMPO Refresh project.
Frick lives in a neighborhood not far from the underpass site and drives the stretch of Lamar Boulevard regularly.
“I’ve always been a fan of Carl’s piece,” she says. “I like the rhythm of the signs, the way they’re all at different angles. It’s about flow, it’s like being underwater, and you’re at the center of the artwork as you go by.”
Frick hired artists Blue Way and W. Tucker to manage the painting of her vast mural, and during the three weeks of installation, dozens of motorists would honk and wave. Some yelled out “thank you” as they drove past.
“People would come by and tell us that their whole experience of this previously dingy place hand been transformed,” says Frick, of the installation process.
Strangers have sent Frick email to express how much they enjoy the brilliant blue artwork, and it is gathering quite its own social media trajectory. Around the holidays, a construction company took staff photo for its Christmas card in front of Frick’s mural, and sent her a copy. “I get feedback on it from the most surprising people,” says Frick.
Sue Lambe, Austin Art in Public Places manager, said the choice of Trominski’s piece as the first TEMPO Refresh is because the context of “Moments” had changed so radically since its installation.
The abandoned Seaholm Power Plant still hunkered over the southwest quadrant of downtown in 2003. Now, pricey condominium towers and the new central library mark the so-called Seaholm District, a slick — and densely populated — mixed-use urban development.
“In 2003 there was very little foot traffic in this location, and vehicles were able to travel at the speed limit,” Lambe wrote in an email. “Now there is more cycle and pedestrian traffic and people in vehicles often have plenty of time to take in their surroundings, particularly during rush hour.”
Frick pointed out that she painted her data lines with dripping tendrils in order to reward the viewer trapped in congested Lamar Boulevard traffic. “You can see the detail when you’re in stuck in your car — or walking by.”
Over coffee at a nearby Starbuck’s, Frick muses about the creative freedoms that ephemerality brings vis-à-vis the very public impact “Data Tells a Story” has had.
“There’s less stress artistically with a temporary project — you’re not as caught up in worrying about making choices because whatever creative decisions you’re making are not permanent,” she says.
Though she has created many installations for architectural spaces, this is Frick’s first foray into municipal public art.
“The feedback that (this project) has had has been so surprising — so widespread. It sounds so obvious, but it’s really different to have a piece of mine that’s so public, that so many people see and respond to. I’m still surprised by it.”