Lyons’ Storefront Theater is one of four community public art projects in northeastern Nebraska led by the Center for Rural Affairs. Former Lyons resident Adele Phillips created the project and secured a $200,000 grant from Artplace America. Phillips invited Matthew Mazzotta, her former architecture graduate school colleague, to create the projects. The Byway of Art project involves four community-specific permanent public artworks and has been under development since the summer of 2014. The projects have already taken place in the small, rural towns of Decatur and Lyons; projects in Macy and Oakland are yet to come.
I was fortunate enough to experience the second of the four realized projects -- the outdoor storefront theater on downtown Main Street in Lyons, population 851. On Monday night, November 2, hundreds of people gathered in the sanctioned-off Main Street. The event began as the facade of a building opened up and dropped down to the ground to reveal seats that rolled out like old-school gym bleachers. The crowd cheered and individuals scrambled to secure one of 80 spots on the bleachers. The rest of the audience sat on extra fold-up chairs and blankets, munching on popcorn from local vendors. But the best was yet to come. Rolling down main street came a vintage red tractor pulling a trailer with the stretched movie screen. The crowd erupted in joy again as the tractor parked and positioned the screen directly across from the bleachers. The film "Decades" was projected onto the screen across Main Street, a community-collaborative film directed by local filmmaker Bill Hedges, about the history of downtown Lyons. The storefront theater was created in response to feedback from the residents of Lyons. Many voiced the nostalgic wish that Main Street was more of a meeting place, like it once was.
The project, fully immersed in community involvement from conception to completion, is a prime example of how public art can operate on a level that empowers community and enriches cultural landscape. Public art can consider innovative strategies relating to community economic empowerment by attempting to establish a sustainable identity. Matthew Mazzotta is of a number of artists whose public practice is at the intersection of cultural planning strategy and community participation. Mazzotta is also part of a small, but growing movement, of artists engaged with design, architecture and urbanism, forming an experimental investigation into the conceptual assessment of our aspirations to live in harmony within that often contradictory landscape.
This field of public practice, which currently includes powerhouse artists Andrea Zittel, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Theaster Gates and Rick Lowe (to name a few), has been going strong since the political feminist work being created in Southern California since the 70s. One of the most influential artists originally working in this field is Suzanne Lacy, who wrote the landmark book, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, in 1995. Lacy coined “new genre public art” as “visual art that uses both traditional and non-traditional media to communicate and interact within a broad and diversified audience about issues directly relevant to their life.”
Matthew Mazzotta's work "evolves from an interest in exploring the relationship between people and their environments, as well as between each other. His practice is conceptual and manifests as participatory public interventions that aim at bringing criticality and a sense of openness to the places we live. The work triggers social situations that open space for dialogues around issues of ‘becoming’, understanding that there is much more to us than our surroundings give us credit to ‘be’. The objects, situations and spaces he creates as community projects and participatory interventions, ask us to relate to ourselves, and each other in unfamiliar ways, in hopes of finding new perspectives on how we see ourselves in this world."