News Column

Airport river, boardwalk mural put El Paso artist on public art map

June 8, 2014

By Vic Kolenc, El Paso Times, Texas

June 08--Mitsu Overstreet never expected to go from painting graffiti and murals on El Paso streets for fun to getting paid to turn public spaces into works of art.

Overstreet, 42, is a graphic designer, illustrator, and muralist beginning to make a name for himself as a public artist.

Last year, he created a stylized, blue river design now flowing on the floor of the baggage-claim area at the El Paso International Airport with people's comments about what they like about El Paso on medallions sprinkled throughout the design.

In April, his largest public art design was unveiled in Atlantic City, N.J.: An impressive, 700-foot mural, made of 27 huge, vinyl and aluminum panels containing Overstreet's computer-generated sketches of beach and water scenes. It's wrapped around a mammoth, warehouse-like building along the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk. It's part of an Atlantic City beautification and Boardwalk improvement program.

Overstreet said he's still learning the craft and business of public art. That craft, he said, is figuring out "who's your audience," and then creating art to make a place, or space people will remember.

"The Eiffel Tower (in Paris) was a public art installation that was supposed to be temporary for the (1889) world's fair. But it ended up staying and now it defines that city," Overstreet said.

"You have to think of public art in that way; what would define this area. That's how I chose the river" for the airport floor, he said. "Some people say the border defines the area. But the river (Rio Grande) is actually the thing that probably brought people to this area," and it's a positive attribute, he said.

Monica LombraÑa, director of aviation at the airport, said all the feedback about Overstreet's floor design has been positive.

"Not only do people like the new flooring from an aesthetics point of view; it makes the area brighter and the artwork is beautiful," LombraÑa said in an email. "But people really like the medallions with quotes from individuals who submitted their favorite memory or thing abut El Paso or the area," which makes the design a true "community work of art," she said.

Overstreet said he got the idea to include El Pasoans' quotes, solicited online, in his river design while interviewing people at the airport about what kind of artwork they'd like to see there.

"People (waiting for airplane passengers) would start talking about their life in El Paso," Overstreet said. "And it turned into stories about what they loved about El Paso."

He decided including quotes from people would create an emotional connection for travelers to understand the city, he said.

Overstreet has the distinction of having the first project commissioned for the city's eight-year-old Public Art Program. That project, completed in 2008, is a mural of abstract depictions of native, medicinal plants painted on cinder block walls. The mural hides an industrial yard and is the centerpiece of a tiny, park-like lot along Alberta street between the Texas Tech medical school and University Medical Center.

"I didn't know people got paid for this (public art)," Overstreet said. The Alberta Street mural "made me see public art is an occupation for me. I think my calling is public art" with an environmental twist, he said.

Overstreet does much of his art designs on sketchbooks and on a computer inside a garage converted to a work studio at his Northeast El Paso home.

Jeff Howell, who helps manage contracts in the city Public Art Program, said Overstreet is becoming more known in public art circles.

"He's a good example of how an artist can go from regular artwork to doing public artwork," Howell said.

Overstreet is one of 150 artists from El Paso and other parts of the country on the city Public Art Program's list of pre-qualified artists. Those are artists interested in public art projects. But only a handful of artists get commissioned each year to do public art projects here. An artist is usually selected through a competitive process, and ultimately selected by the program's Public Art Committee, Howell said.

Since the El Paso Public Art Program began in 2006, 33 works of art have been completed, not including several recently completed projects at the new Downtown baseball stadium, Howell reported.

This year's Public Art Plan has 29 proposed art projects, including several installations tied to street construction, and baseball stadium artworks, at a cost of more than $4 million, according to data submitted to City Council in January. The projects are to be completed over the next two years. Not all the money goes to the artists. Money also is used to install projects, which often is not done by the artist.

Most of the money to fund public art projects comes from 2 percent allocations from the budget of big city construction projects, where public artwork is installed. In the case of Overstreet's airport project, the money came from airport revenues.

Overstreet was paid $45,000 for his airport project, but installation of the artwork cost $357,000, and was handled by a company specialized in doing terrazzo floors.

Overstreet said he's a part-time public artist for now. His full-time job is art director for Academic Technologies at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he manages student designers.

"I'd like to eventually make a living being a public artist" full time, he said. "I have talked to public artists who told me you have to think five, 10 years ahead" for getting projects. "I am just learning the business aspects of art. I've thought about getting a business degree" to help with that process, he said.

Overstreet said he's an "Army brat" born in Okinawa, Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father. His father retired from the Army in El Paso, and that's how Overstreet ended up graduating from Parkland High School, where he took art classes that nurtured his love of art. He received an associate degree in graphic design from El Paso Community College, and a degree in illustration from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

The airport project opened the door for him to compete for the Atlantic City project, which in turn is opening other doors in the public art world, he said.

He'll do a similar version of his river design inside a rental car facility just getting under construction at the El Paso airport. He has proposals out for public art projects in Baltimore and San Francisco, he said.

"It (Atlantic City project) is opening doors. I just need to understand how to keep them opening and go through those doors," he said.

More information: mitsuoverstreet.com

Vic Kolenc may be reached at 915-546-6421.

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(c)2014 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

Visit the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) at www.elpasotimes.com

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Source: El Paso Times (TX)


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