Two strangers looking at the same piece of art share a special bond. It’s one of John Natsoulas’ favorite things about the public art – the process of walking up to a sculpture at the same time as someone else and exchanging opinions. It doesn’t matter if the observers agree or like the piece at all. It’s the human connection. But Natsoulas, owner of the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts in Davis, is taking that one step further. Further into the future, that is.
In a collaboration with Monto Kumagai, an area software developer, and a bunch of artists who donated their time and talents, Natsoulas last year unveiled the Davis Transmedia Art Walk. The path loops around downtown and parts of the UC Davis campus, and features more than 50 pieces of art. Works of art – such realistic murals, abstract sculptures, a mosaic bench in the shape of a dog – are embedded with radio-frequency-identification technology chips, which viewers can wave their smartphones over to see multimedia extras about the piece and its creator. Natsoulas toiled for years to bring public art – and the ability to share experiences both face-to-face and through technology – to Davis.
“It’s about giving back to the community,” Natsoulas said. “And it really has changed people’s lives.” After giving up on getting funding from the city, Natsoulas turned to private business owners – and their storefronts – to erect sculptures and murals across downtown. He assembled the Davis Mural Team, a group of 12 artists, who volunteered throughout summer 2012 to create 35 works of public art and initiate the art walk. Natsoulas paid for the paint, forklifts, scaffolding and other installation costs, but he said the artists gave much more by creating the works – a single mural could be commissioned for as much as $60,000.
Kerry Rowland-Avrech, the Davis-based artist behind the murals “Splash,” “Windows” and “Royal Dance,” called it a true team effort. One artist would design a mural and other artists would return to finish it. “It’s amazing,” she said. “For 10 straight weekends, we were sitting in 100-degree heat, painting.”
Then there’s the “transmedia” aspect, courtesy of Kumagai. The technology chips are his own patented creation. They can be linked to videos, photos, comments and other digital features. In the case of the Davis Art Walk, the chips send users to interviews with artists or videos of the piece in the middle of its creation. Art-walkers can leave comments – or original poems or songs for the creatively inclined – for other art walkers to find later.
“They’re like virtual storytellers, digital graffiti,” Kumagai said. With a smartphone and a quick application download, the chips work in a fashion similar to Quick Response codes. But the latest phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S3, already have technology that expands options for interaction by transmitting information to devices through simple touch or close proximity.“Eventually, all phones will have this technology,” Kumagai said.
The technology and the art walk in general are about making the arts more accessible to the general public. Not everyone can pay for, or have the ability to drive to, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, for example. And others don’t even think about art, which is a shame, according to Rowland-Avrech. “Having things that are beautiful or thought-provoking can bring you out of your little world a bit,” Rowland-Avrech said. “And that’s so important now. Our lives are so busy and complex, it can be tough going out of our way to access art and culture.”
Many of those who donated their time were motivated by personal connections to Davis. Natsoulas grew up in Davis and has lived there for 27 years. Kumagai is Natsoulas’ friend from childhood. Finley Fryer, an internationally known artist for his monumental installations at the Burning Man festival in northern Nevada, went to UC Davis and lent out the Art Walk’s very first sculpture, “Stan, the Submerging Man.” He’s the colorful plastic giant in front of the Natsoulas Gallery. “It pulls full circle to have a bunch of work in Davis,” Fryer said.
Though nowhere near as rapidly as in the summer of 2012, the Davis Mural Team is still adding to downtown’s facade. The Odd Fellows Hall recently got a fresh coat of paint and Watermelon Music is in talks for being next. Meanwhile, the sculptures populating downtown are still on loan. Fryer mentioned moving some of his works, including “Stan, the Submerging Man,” if they aren’t sold within the next year. Natsoulas isn’t too worried: He knows a lot of artists who could donate new pieces. “That’s the beauty of it,” Natsoulas said. “It will change.”
The Davis Transmedia Art Walk is a 3-mile loop that takes about 11/2 hours on foot. The John Natsoulas Center for the Arts, 521 First St., Davis, (530) 756-3938, gives weekend group tours with advance notice. A self-guided map is available at the gallery or Yolo County Visitor’s Bureau, 604 Second St., Davis.