By: Madeline Walsh
August 11, 2014
What would San Francisco be without the Golden Gate Bridge? New York City without the Statue of Liberty? A small English town, Bracknell, Berkshire, is finding out for themselves. Since it’s initial installation in the 1960s, sculptor William Mitchell’s mural depicting the town’s history has been a cultural cornerstone of the community. Although the piece is awkwardly placed a story above street level, the people of Bracknell truly realize its importance in their town. Slated for a full-on facelift, Bracknell will be de-installing Mitchell’s mural before demolishing buildings in the area. The town plans to reinstall this historic frieze in a refurbished area.
As an artist, William George Mitchell is best known for his innovations in concrete and folk-inspired sculpture. He began his career as an apprentice, and later attended both Southern College of Art in Portsmouth and the R.C.A. school of Woods, Metals and Plastics. Much of Mitchell’s career was spent with the London County Council Architects Department, where he was able to collaborate with other artisans and engage in urban planning and development. Some of Mitchell’s more famous works include the Egyptian Escalator in the London Department Store Harrods, parts of the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and even the San Francisco Bay Area’s own rapid transport system BART.
The commissioned frieze in Bracknell, Berkshire employs an aesthetic and style highly popular during its inception in the 1960s and 70s. The mural takes a literal approach to developing the town’s local narrative. Each scene references the town’s historical Roman roots and lists incursions by Danes, Jutes and Saxons. Mitchell intended to add value to the town and instill a sense of local pride through public art. However, the artist’s biggest regret regarding the piece is centered around its poor placement.
He said, “It was a great pity it was put on a height like that, maybe for the best intentions, but it would be much better in a school or play garden or somewhere on ground level.” Mitchell elaborated saying, “ People say ruffians might get around it [the mural] and paint on it, but that’s what happens and it would be better if one was familiar with it.”
This raises an important question still considered by urban planners and artists alike: How can public art actively engage people if it is out of reach? The unattainable nature of fine arts has become a defining characteristic of the genre. With many famous historical and contemporary paintings secluded to expensive galleries and prestigious museums, art is made physically and socially unattainable. This tradition has nurtured the misconception that art and culture should only be accessed by specific groups; that art and culture only belong to specific groups.
Mitchell addresses this issue by explaining his personal views on the topic: “I think it [the Berkshire Mural] should go in an area – and not because I made it – where you do not have to use psychological thinking to interpret it.” These ‘ordinary’ spaces Mitchell brings to mind, are perfect for public art. Removing work from white walls and putting it on the street allows for organic inspiration and conversation that happen around art. As Mitchell understands, making art part of a city is crucial to its cultural development. For example, Mitchell’s sculptural murals found in San Francisco and Oakland’s BART stations perfectly integrate art into people’s’ everyday lives. These murals provide continued exposure to art that is free to be in the world, and experiences more opportunities to engage people’s minds.
The culture surrounding institutions like galleries and museums has systematically trained people to switch into a “critical thinking” mode. This space-based behavioral change starts young on field trips and group excursions. Children and Adults, are often encouraged to passively engage with art instead of tapping into its potential to sway their emotions and thoughts. Public Art is highly important to counteracting this stagnant activity. Although city spaces contain their own contexts, they are prime for processing art. The city is devoid of the behavioral rules and pressure often found in prestigious institutions. Art in public spaces allow more people to look at art and be impacted by art as themselves with authenticity. When art is seamless integrated into everyday life, people are able to affect social change and make the most profound impact.