Some people may look at the alley behind Brent Douglas Flowers in downtown Eau Claire as just wasted space between buildings.
Not shop owner Brent Stelzer. He envisions a world of possibility in the skinny strip of grass, gravel, brick and asphalt just south of Lake Street.
What others view as merely the drab back walls of commercial buildings, Stelzer sees as a blank canvas bursting with the potential to add color and celebrate creativity through visual arts.
That’s why Stelzer is leading an effort to transform the alley, along with the sides of a few neighboring buildings, into a public art mural project that organizers are calling the Eau Claire Color Block. The project is a colorful, two-dimensional extension of the popular Sculpture Tour Eau Claire that has brought dozens of new outdoor sculptures to the streets of downtown Eau Claire for the past nine years.
“The whole goal is to bring more free public art to town,” said Stelzer, president of Sculpture Tour’s board of directors. “I think it’s going to become a destination.”
Plans call for the project to be centered around the back sides of the buildings on the 600 block of South Barstow Street and Graham Avenue between Lake and Seaver streets.
A few surrounding building owners also have expressed interest in having visible sides of their structures being part of the Color Block, prompting Stelzer to remark, “It’s expanding already before it’s even begun. We’re excited about it.”
The alley project also has the potential to spark a welcome U-turn for the south side of downtown, which has attracted little attention in recent years as the other end of the Barstow Street business district has flourished.
“It will bring something beautiful to this otherwise overlooked part of town,” said Kelsey Wenberg, a Sculpture Tour board member who has agreed to chair the Color Block project.
Wenberg sees the alley project as a geographical extension of the downtown renaissance Eau Claire has experienced over the past decade.
Julie Pangallo, Sculpture Tour’s executive director, agreed, saying, “I think it’s a great way to take an area that’s rather blighted and turn it into something that’s pleasant to be around.”
The muraled alley concept is growing across the country as more communities try to promote public art. An alley of murals debuted just last month in La Crosse.
The first such project Stelzer saw was in Rapid City, S.D., which launched an Art Alley in 2005 that Visit Rapid City now promotes as “a living tribute to freedom of expression.”
Wenberg said murals are increasingly popular attractions in many communities and noted that she recently traveled to New York and searched online for the best spots to take selfies in the city. Murals were the backdrop for several of the locations.
Similarly, existing stand-alone murals in downtown Eau Claire already attract many selfies and social media posts, so a concentrated area of ever-changing murals should generate even more attention, she said.
“I see this as being a really cool spot to hang out,” Wenberg said of the proposed Color Block. “It’s free marketing for Eau Claire. People will see those images on social media and say, ‘That looks like fun. Maybe we should go to Eau Claire and check it out.’ “
Eau Claire economic development manager Aaron White said the concept definitely has potential to become a new downtown attraction.
“Those types of venues or spaces really provide something unique to a community and can draw more people to the local arts scene,” said White, also executive director of Downtown Eau Claire Inc.
Organizers hope to put out a call for artists this month and are optimistic they will get a strong response from local, regional and possibly even national artists.
“Our goal is to paint in June, over like a two-week period,” Stelzer said.
He paints a picture of the dedicated wall space being divided into about 50 murals — each roughly 6 by 8 feet — that would remain on display for a year. New artists would be selected annually by a panel of judges, based on the quality of drafts submitted by artists and how well the proposals fit into published themes created each year.
“It would be like Chalkfest but with the art on display for a year,” Stelzer said, referring to the annual event in which artists make colorful chalk drawings on paved walkways at UW-Eau Claire.
Murals on a couple of neighboring buildings could be permanent.
With the proposed art alley being privately held by surrounding property owners, no permits or encroachments are required, although city officials encouraged Sculpture Tour to seek written agreements with affected owners, said Pat Ivory, senior planner.
“We have seen what’s being proposed, and we are very supportive of it,” Ivory said.
Organizers plan to seek sponsors for the Color Block, with a quarter of the $400 sponsorships earmarked for stipends for artists; a quarter for paint, supplies and maintenance; and the rest used as a fundraiser to support Sculpture Tour.
“I think it’s a great new way for Sculpture Tour to promote more public art and also to create another revenue source to support Sculpture Tour,” Pangallo said.
Not only would the alley project offer a new opportunity for exposure for local artists, but it would provide a fresh boost to Eau Claire’s creative economy that has generated significant positive attention for the community in recent years, Pangallo said.
“Public art does so much for a community,” she said, rattling off benefits that include creating community pride, boosting tourism, fostering creativity, promoting free expression and even helping businesses recruit new employees by improving the area’s quality of life.
Not to be overlooked, Pangallo added, is that public art is accessible regardless of socioeconomic status.
“It’s free family fun,” she said.
And in the case of the Color Block, it represents an opportunity for residents and visitors to see a whole new side of downtown.