For Joe O’Connell, story comes first.
“A lot of my art has benefited from being located in communities where people have a lot of stories,” the Arizona-based artist said. “What makes communities [unique] is how their stories are different.”
And O’Connell has a leg up on most modern raconteurs: he is also the owner and creative commander of a 14,000-square-foot artistic bastion just a lug nut’s toss off Interstate 10 in south Tucson.
A guru of public art for over two decades, O’Connell is one of a handful of artists who will be splashing some of Aurora’s central arteries with color and context in the coming months. Creative Machines, O’Connell’s 20-employee company in Tucson, was the first selected by the city late last year to outfit one of Aurora’s eight planned light rail stations with an artistic display. The Creative Machines team received unanimous approval from the city’s Art in Public Places Commission for a $300,000 contract to install a permanent project on the Colfax Bridge Station, which will be located at the corner of I-225 and East Colfax Avenue.
The increasingly varied and multicultural face of Aurora is what will define the upcoming project, according to O’Connell, with a particular focus on the city’s expanding population of African immigrants and refugees.
“I thought Aurora might have something interesting to say both to itself and to outsiders because of the large number of people who have relocated from around the world — particularly Africa — seeking asylum,” he said.
That tale of migration from Africa to the Mountain West is one O’Connell knows well — his adopted son’s birth father is from Angola. O’Connell said that raising his son in Tucson has provided a ruminative look into the poignant and increasingly amorphous issue of race in the United States.
“By race and appearance, (my son) is African American, as are many immigrants who settle in Aurora, but he has a very different history than what is typically ‘African American,’” he said. “I hope that this personal connection will help me listen more intently to whatever people (from Aurora) choose to share with me.”
While Colorado has only seen the arrival of about a dozen Angolan refugees in the past 30 years, the state’s total number of African refugees and asylees has steadily swelled in the three decades the state’s Department of Human Services has kept track. More than 2,200 refugees arrived to Colorado in 2014, with the highest percentage hailing from African nations. Nearly 10,000 African emigrants have come to Colorado since 1980.
A combination of African, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian yarns will be prominent in O’Connell’s Colfax project, which will be called “Stories Interweave.” And though the work is still in the design phase, the installation is set to feature eight to 12 suspended structures that project images and words at night. O’Connell has included projections in some of his several dozen projects around the world, but he said the pursuit of the medium in Aurora was more of a necessity than a decision.
“There were an amazing number of constraints on this project from the start: nothing could be attached to the ground, nothing could be attached to walls or other surfaces, surfaces could not be painted or have printed material attached to them, and the list goes on,” he said. “I’m not complaining — constraints are what make art interesting.”
In order to accurately portray the citizens of Aurora, O’Connell plans on reaching out to them directly. He wants residents to email him their stories of exodus and triumph at [email protected] He’s also slated to man a booth at the Aurora Arts Festival: ReUp — June 28 at Fletcher Plaza off of East Colfax Avenue — to give residents a better idea of what they will see installed in their neighborhood.
O’Connell is currently the only artist contracted with the city for an art project on the I-225 line, though officials are in final talks with artists from Napa, Calif., and Philadelphia for another installation at the Iliff station, ccording to city documents. A city ordinance requires that 1 percent of the total budget in city construction projects that exceed $100,000 be used for public art.
The Regional Transportation District has set aside an additional $525,000 for public art along the I-225 corridor.
“A person could look at this and say they’re making out like bandits, but much of that goes to engineering fees,” O’Connell said. “It has a lot of liability, so you have a lot of insurance, a full-time engineer on staff, an architect on staff and then external companies that also do engineering. And we’ll have to close the street while we install, hire police to divert traffic and pay for permits. We really take the long view to engineer stuff that will sit outdoors, and it really is just like other civic infrastructure, so we want to make sure stuff works.”