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the little mailbox that could: how an art installation stitched together its community’s fabric

nick blok, caitlin dippo

Public places are where the many strings of a community weave together to become the social fabric. If these places bring people closer together, and tighten the bonds between friends, neighbors, and citizens alike, then the social fabric of a community becomes stronger and can offer support and comfort to its people in times of fear, uncertainty, and disruption.

How do we express this sense of community, which is so valued and yet illusive and difficult to define? How do we combine the communicating power of art (of deep, meaningful dialogue) with the experiential power of place and architecture (of interaction and empathy)?

By using a visual language, symbols that can be can be understood to mean more than they represent on the surface, and constructing an interactive environment with its vocabulary, people can be empowered to literally see the value of community and experience it in action simultaneously.

The symbol of community and unity used here is “birds of a feather.” Birdhouses represent the miniaturized dwelling unit of an individual, living side by side with so many others. The mailbox is another symbol, representing the connection between one’s own property and the public realm beyond it. People who experience this artwork will find a playful combination of these elements.

A mailbox outside of one’s home is the connection between one’s own property and the public realm beyond it. It marks the place where your personal world ends, and the collective world begins. In this place, you may run into your neighbor walking the dog, or wave to the UPS man as he drives by. If you live in a multifamily development you may see your next-door neighbor, or another tenant you’ve never seen before, and say hello. From this location, the mailbox, you encounter the world from the edge of your home. You are exposed to the world, and yet you feel safe. You are not obligated to engage with it, and yet you do so easily. The mailbox blurs the line between home and away, personal ownership and collective community.

This sculpture aims to create a sense of ownership of the public realm in our collective community. A community mailbox creates the opportunity for chance encounters with other neighbors by providing the symbol of a neighborhood meeting place in a space that; while in the public realm, is “lost” in the minds of the citizens who “own” it. People that visit the same library, walk the same sidewalks, and eat at the same restaurants now have the opportunity to “bump” into one another in neutral, accessible, yet activated space. These “chance” encounters between estranged community members are essential for a healthy society and democracy.

This sense of community is projected onto the sculpture through the construction of an aviary for paper cranes. Participants will be invited to contribute to the sculpture by writing letters or notes and placing them into their communal home (mailboxes and birdhouses) using materials kept in birdhouse compartments on the sculpture. In doing so, participants will be building (both literally and metaphorically) a community of thoughts, ideas, and dreams.

Ian Dippo, landscape designer in our Austin studio, applied for and received a TEMPO 2017 Art Grant by the Art in Public Places program to fund his installation. His installation, “The Aviary,” is on display until mid-November in front of the George Washington Carver Museum on 1165 Angelina Street in Austin. There is a free letter writing event this Wednesday, November 1, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm. The installation will then be on display during the East Austin Studio Tour November 11 through 19.