On any day of the last two years walking the High Line, you could easily find David occupying his pitch by the lawn or rather your attention being grabbed by the outdoor painting studio/gallery of miniature paintings mimicking a small city of its own with tall structures reaching for the sky.
This is the iThinkOutsideMyBox [iTOMB] project where passers by can make a small painting of their own to add to the collection now exceeding 20,000 original works by a wide public, people of all ages and so far around 80 nationalities. The Chelsea district in the streets below is well known for its art galleries, but slowly there is a wider scene of uncommissioned Street Art prolifierating on the walls facing the park which snakes through the district on a disused rail structure three stories high. The perfect environment for a community art project and iTOMB is gaining a reputation as one of the most successful park ‘acts’ by engaging the public in public art.
iTOMB is enjoying its first gallery opening this month as a part of the “SHOWTIME! Underground Arts” at Armature Art Space in Brooklyn where the mobile studio was set up in the gallery garden and the paintings made by the public exhibited inside.
On meeting David, I couldn’t help wondering about the human side to the story, why would someone chose to champion such a long-term community arts project with little funding ….and what is it like to spend so much time in the same place in a public garden?
The project crystallised in Zuccotti Park during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest against social and economic inequality.
‘In the beginning I simply sat painting inside a cardboard box that had ‘I think outside my box’ on it as an activist statement. People would come to me and say ‘that looks like fun, can I paint too’ and the idea grew from there.
Two achievements sprung from there, the more immediate iconic image of David in his box captured the interest the world’s press in covering the Occupy campaign, but also this provided the seeds for the longer term project.
In its infancy David took the project to every major park in NYC, including Central Park of course, but the High Line was to become everyone’s favourite place to paint.
‘The First Amendment concerns Freedom of Speech, the freedom for any person to express themselves freely in public and what better a place to encourage this behaviour than in a park.’
‘To begin, it elevates the concept from what some might call ‘street art’ to ‘arial art’, being three stories in the air. This means its clean, quiet and we paint to the sound of birds instead of honking horns in the streets below. I can’t imagine it working as well as it does anywhere else.’
‘Many of the participants are surprised we have no instructions or theme to execute. It takes them a breath or two to clear the mind and let the brushes do the thinking for them. Sundays seem to bring the best results â€“ by then people have gotten a lot of the New York washed out of them and are ready for a break.’
‘I think the reason why it’s such a successful project for public engagement is it gives people the chance to be themselves, no reservations, no guidance, no expectations, no judgement.’ It should be said the iThinkOutsideMyBox project is completely independent of the High Line organsation and they receive no funding from any other government body. This begs the question how is it possible?
‘Private donations are key, however we are currently applying for US non-profit status so we can work with various grants and residencies offered through the arts community’.
And to the question what is it like to occupy the same spot in a public park like the High Line for years, engaging with such a wealth of people, literally watching the world go by, I was surprised to find David less forthcoming, a little mysteriously answering ‘There’s no such thing as a bad day for me. Even if we have no painters, the worst I could ever say is that I went to the park and painted while the word rolled by’.