This story was originally published in the August/September 2014 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
If you’ve ever taken a walk across the Walnut Street Bridge and noticed the 55-foot, cylindrical Bluff Furnace on the south side of the river, you are one of over 30 thousand Chattanoogans who are exposed to the work of the Mark Making organization per day. Founded by professional artist Frances McDonald, Mark Making is dedicated to connecting underserved populations with professional artists through the creation of public art works. While the Bluff Furnace is perhaps one of the more prominent projects, it is one of more than 30 public artworks around the city that Mark Making has created in the past five years, including painted murals, ceramics and 3D metal installations.
After years of working in New York City as an artist, McDonald began to question how her work was contributing to the community. She later returned to her hometown of Chattanooga, opened a space and began teaching art classes. There she founded Mark Making in 2009 and developed a four-part mission: empowering participants by creating a sense of ownership and citizenship, beautifying landscapes through artwork, educating individuals artistically, and creating teaching opportunities for local professional artists.
POWER IN THE PEOPLE
The nonprofit organization strives to work with community groups that are often undervalued, like teenagers or the homeless, to create powerful, meaningful art pieces. The idea is that through the creation of tangible works of art that are displayed in the city, participants will realize they can make a difference and bring positive change to their community. Since Mark Making’s inception, they have worked with over 1,700 participants directly, offered over 280 hours of art education to community members and put over $60 thousand into the pockets of more than 40 local artists.
Traditionally when creating a project, Mark Making works with a neighborhood or organization and nearby participant population in that area. In the past, the organization has worked with students from the Howard School and Boyd-Buchanan, homeless people, and inmates from the Hamilton County Department of Detention, just to name a few. “We always begin with a written ‘citizen statement’, which serves as a way for participants to identify the issues that are affecting their community and then come up with solutions,” says McDonald. These ideas are then incorporated into the art pieces.
While the connection between public artwork and citizenship may not be immediately clear, McDonald firmly believes that the two are intertwined. “If a student identifies trash as a problem affecting their community, we try and think of ways that the student can help be a part of the solution, perhaps by picking up two pieces of trash per day,” explains McDonald. “Then if an adult sees that child picking up trash, they then inspire the adult community to be part of the solution as well. It begins a cycle of contagious citizenship. When all of these lessons and ideas are put into the art, which is then actually displayed on the side of a building for the whole community to see, it’s much harder to forget the meaning behind the artwork,” says McDonald.
Next year, Mark Making will launch a program called Magic Markers with a focus on skill building instruction, like how to handle art supplies correctly, or point brick and masonry, as well as art instruction like proper painting technique, specifically targeted to teenagers. “The program will function like the Boy Scouts of America with levels of achievement that can be appropriately compensated monetarily,” says McDonald of the future program. “We want to build a corps of teens with marketable skills who can serve as our assistants, earn some steady income, have a line on their resume and a contact for a reference.”
McDonald hopes to be able to reach even more people in the years to come, which recently prompted a search for a larger space that would allow for more classes, offices and workspaces to hang art pieces in progress. She immediately thought of a neighborhood she had visited several years earlier. “In 2009, I went to the corner of Glass Street and North Chamberlain Avenue to look at a possible mural site and was immediately enchanted with the neighborhood. Something about the “small town” feel, the topography and a positive feng shui there made me want to be a part of it, “ says McDonald.
Though the area has high unemployment and crime rates, McDonald also emphasizes the positive elements of the neighborhood and notes that there are many community members and organizations like the Glass House Collective who are already interested in bringing life back to Glass Street. “There are strong neighborhood associations and many mothers who are interested in raising safe families here. East Chattanooga may have a bad reputation, but it felt poised for change,” says McDonald.
Following her instinct, McDonald secured long-term leases on 2501 Glass Street and 2510 North Chamberlain Avenue. “Our move here will put us in the heart of one of the neighborhoods we actively serve,” she says. “A more ongoing service is needed in the neighborhoods where we work with the populations,” says McDonald. She hopes the move to the Glass Street location will allow them to accomplish this goal, as Mark Making will be able expand its outreach to the community.
ROOM TO GROW
With over 3,400 square feet of warehouse space that is currently undergoing renovation, Mark Making will definitely have room to grow. Adjacent to what will be the Mark Making headquarters is another warehouse space with almost 5,000 square feet that is also being renovated and will be leased out to artists, craftsmen and start-ups. “We are looking for those who have a give back mentality and want to be a part of a changing neighborhood,” explains McDonald. She emphasizes that rather than displacing the current residents of the area to make way for revitalization, she really wants to work with the people who have lived in the Glass Street area for years in efforts to make their neighborhood the best it can be.
Teal Thibaud, Communications Director for The Glass House Collective is glad the nonprofit is their new neighbor.
“They have a proven track record with the community,” says Thibaud. “They will animate the street.”
“There are wonderful people here who have raised families for generations and care deeply about their neighborhood,” says McDonald. “We want to join with them to attract more business that can offer employment to others who seek it, particularly the current residents of the neighborhood. Our goal is to help East Chattanooga be a stronger stand-alone community that partners existing residents with an infusion of new opportunities.”
Community members can make tax-deductible contributions to Mark Making to help fund exterior improvements that include green spaces and murals to the new warehouse spaces. Visit www.markmaking.org for more information.