The area near the Las Vegas Wash trailhead is an ugly little spot of land.
The dirt patch is bordered by a utility box, a manhole cover and a wire fence. An overhead pedestrian bridge deprives it of sunlight.
The location is strictly utilitarian, visited only by pedestrians who cut through, tromping on grass where empty bottles and snack bags litter the windswept landscape.
In other words, it’s the perfect spot for art.
“I think it’s great that it’s a terrible spot,” artist Randy Mendre says. “Because whoever needs to use that overpass and goes through there, maybe that puts a smile on their face. Art should be anywhere and surprise you. It’s not for tourists. It’s for that neighborhood to see that someone pays attention to them.”
Mendre is preparing an impossibly vibrant sculpture for installation at this spot on North Lamb Boulevard, one of four he has created as part of a public art initiative coordinated by Las Vegas’ Office of Cultural Affairs.
The Contemporary Public Art Program provided about $10,000 for each of 10 murals and sculptures to bring art to Las Vegas’ public spaces. Five are installed across the city. The remaining five, including Mendre’s “Swizzle” at the Las Vegas Wash, are to come.
When the city puts out calls for artists, Mendre almost always applies.
The Las Vegas sculptor creates custom works for clients in Palm Springs between constant planning of larger-scale passion projects he’d like to create for the public — with the right funding.
“My motto is to go big,” Mendre says. “If a budget is $10,000, that allows me to go bigger with materials, the concept, parts.”
“Solar Walk,” is a series of nine sculptures that together represent the solar system. They’re sized just right to allow kids to wander through the planets.
“I made the sculpture so kids can understand where we are among the moons and asteroids and know that’s our planet,” Mendre says. “Maybe it’ll spark a kid’s imagination in art or science.”
While Erik Burke was painting a mural of two miners near the Bonneville Transit Center downtown, two representatives from the Office of Cultural Affairs walked by and said they’d love for him to be involved in a future project.
Two years later, he submitted a design for the three bay doors of Fire Station 103.
Burke played with the images of the three moving panels to create the impression of gambling in “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
“Firefighters are constantly gambling with their line of work, putting themselves in harm’s way,” Burke explains. “Having the three moving walls, and the different permutations throughout the day, the images are overlaid to be reminiscent of slot machines.”
After painting it in January, the mural received so much positive feedback that he was asked to paint the six bay doors of the headquarters.
Burke used the visual of cactus as a metaphor for the firefighters.
“They have a tough exterior and are resilient and breathing heat. But inside of every stern, jagged cactus is a nice cool center with water, that can survive on its own,” Burke says.
After completing the second mural, he went on vacation to Italy, where he observed how centuries of art in public plazas inspired people to spend time outside walking, eating and talking.
“I like being a part of that,” he says. “I’d like to see American culture go that way.”
Before moving to Las Vegas, Bulgarian artist Valentin Yordanov studied art in Romania and practiced in Vienna. He’s found something special in the Las Vegas arts scene.
“The art scene is very friendly and open to new people,” he says. “The city and Clark County have amazing public art projects and places where people from our community can see amazing art done.”
Yordanov’s primary medium is paint. He draws inspiration from his travels to convey what he describes as a “geometrical urbanistic” way of seeing the world.
“When traveling, I take photos or drawings. I take all these different images and put them together in a composition. In painting, you lose the locations because in the layers it disappears and becomes one place.”
For the Contemporary Public Art Program, he worked for the first time with metal sculpture, manipulating the technicolor bars to create the same overlapping and interconnecting lines he uses in his painting.
“Urban Dynamics” and “Urban Symphony,” both of which will be installed later this year, use negative space to organically integrate Las Vegas’ desertscapes into bright dimensional sculpture.
“I’m kind of a studio artist,” Yordanov says. “In 2012, I did a public project in Las Vegas. And people stopped by to ask questions or say they like it. It’s a great way to communicate with the community and get involved.”
Bobby Zokaites had been mulling over the idea for an abstract sort of hoodoo for years, waiting for a financial partner to help produce it.
His family has a history of outdoorsmanship. His parents used to take him caving when he lived on the East Coast.
After moving to Arizona and exploring the Southwest, he became fascinated by desert land formations, seeing the familiar shape of stalagmites towering in broad daylight. He grabbed on to the architecture of hoodoos, the tall spires of rocks, and began to explore ways to construct one.
Zokaites has been a large-scale sculptor for about 15 years, and many of his pieces boast bright colors and textures and evoke a childlike quality that inspires play.
“Even semi-permanent sculptures become landmarks for a year,” Zokaites says.
His 15-foot-tall metal and shrink-wrapped hoodoo will be installed later this year.
The value of public art
Ally Haynes-Hamblen, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, says public art has quantitative value. She cites studies that show how abundant cultural resources contribute to public health and well-being, that providing funding to artists creates jobs and that the demonstrable investment in communities through public art can positively influence property values.
But more important, she says, is the qualitative value that public art can have on a community, sparking conversations among neighbors who may work together to discern the meaning of something abstract in their neighborhood.
While downtown Las Vegas has a high concentration of public art, she hopes that installing art throughout the city will disseminate those benefits.
“There are a lot of examples throughout the U.S. where, when a sculpture is installed or a mural is painted, the community rallies behind it and it becomes a mark of distinction for that neighborhood,” she says. “I think feeling that sense of pride is the greatest value for public art.”
A (sculpture) “Solar Walk” at N Buffalo Dr & W Deer Springs Way
Randy Mendre’s “Solar Walk” is a series of nine sculptures, assembled to create the Solar System
B (sculpture) “Fore” at S Durango Dr – Angel Park Trail Entrance
Randy Mendre’s “Fore,” at the Angel Park Golf Course, is a take on golf balls.
C (mural) “Right Place, Wrong Time” at Fire Station 103 – 190 Upland Blvd
Erik Burke swapped out the typical images of slot machines for those he felt were specific to a fire station, replacing diamonds and cherries with Joshua Trees, fire and water, and the silhouette of a firefighter.
D (interactive installation) “Overcast” at Charleston Heights Arts Center – 800 S Brush St.
Brett Bolton’s “Overcast” is an interactive projection installation that viewers can interact with. When guests wave their arm over the basin, they create a “rainfall” on an arid desertscape with lights. “Overcast” explores how humans can transform our landscape.
E (sculpture) “Sun and Water” at South Valley View Boulevard and Alta Drive.
Randy Mendre’s abstract portrayal of sun and water draws inspiration from its location near the Springs Preserve.
F (mural) “6 Ways to Draw Attention” at Fire Station HQ 1 – 500 N. Casino Center Blvd.
Erik Burke’s mural on headquarter’s six bay doors uses the imagery of cactus as a metaphor for firefighters.
G(sculpture) “Swizzle” at (installation date TBD)
Randy Mendre’s “Swizzle” takes inspiration from Las Vegas. The arrangement of narrow, cylindrical pipes reminds Mendre of Old Vegas’ bartop canisters of swizzle sticks. It also takes the form of a fantastical sort of cactus.
Contemporary public art
The City of Las Vegas Arts Commission, which operates through Cultural Affairs, has coordinated with local artists to transform public spaces for over 30 years.
The Contemporary Public Art Program is new, and the first year’s installations will rotate out after 12 months to make room for 2020’s artworks.
Randy Mendre, Valentin Lordanov, Erik Burke, Bobby Zokaites and Brett Bolton submitted proposals for the program.
A panel of community stakeholders selected the applicants, assigned proposed installation sites and approved the awarded amounts of $10,000 for most artworks.
Laura Machado, a visual arts specialist for the Office of Cultural Affairs, worked directly with the five artists.
“I’m a huge proponent of public art,” Machado says. “I think public art improves the well-being of the community, it unifies the community. Arts in general are really valuable to a city.”
Machado collaborated with a team of people in the city’s departments of public works, planning, and parks and recreation to determine locations throughout the city to host the artworks.
“For the six wards, we looked at maps for areas in need of public art … that would be a great blank canvas,” Machado says. Locations include parks, building facades, galleries and street corners in many neighborhoods.
“Open areas were good candidates,” Machado says. “Areas that are kind of residential and near community centers or libraries, we looked for ways to infuse the area with visuals.”