An image here, an object there. Photographs, murals, whimsical pieces and nods to Hagerstown’s history.
They are in Hagerstown City Park, scattered downtown along the Hagerstown Culture Trail and other locations.
This is Hagerstown’s growing collection of public art, with 19 items in total.
Public art in Hagerstown dates back decades, but there has been renewed interest with the development of the Culture Trail, which opened in 2017.
When city officials presented plans for the trail at public meetings, residents suggested there be public art along the route to give it character, according to City Engineer Rodney Tissue.
To date, about $250,000 has been invested in public art, he said.
And more is planned.
Public art is designed to achieve different purposes, but one of the main ones is to make people think.
Maybe even wiggle them around a bit.
No problem there.
One of the most obvious public art forms in the city is Building Blocks, which was painted on a towering commercial building along West Baltimore Street. It was initially called the Unusual Size Mural, but the artist preferred the title Building Blocks.
It is an abstract creation, with vibrant colors creating different angles, circles and shapes.
Seth and Meagan Wigfield, who live nearby on Howard Street, were walking along the path one afternoon when Seth unloaded.
“I think it’s hideous,” he said.
“Pod,” a granite sculpture in Hagerstown City Park meant to look like large tree seeds on the ground, was also not a popular subject with the couple.
Meagan remembers her reaction when she first saw him.
“What is this? What is this?” she says.
Peter Arizmendi, who helps run the downtown Fresh Academicz dance school, was under a whole different influence that day as he walked along the trail with a friend.
Arizmendi said he had “good energy” walking the trail and marveled at the features that make the town unique, including that the design of Hagerstown’s town park was done by the same person who helped design some of New York’s Central Park scenery. .
“It’s joyful to look at that building over there,” Arizmendi said, nodding at Building Blocks.
Public art in Hagerstown over the years has been the result of private and public investment. Among the earliest examples is the Hagerstown Post Office at 44 W. Franklin St.
Customers entering the lobby walk under three large art panels created by Frank Long in 1938. The artwork, titled “Transportation of the Mail,” features colorful renditions of postal workers going about their daily business.
Tissue, who called the art “fantastic,” said the mural was meant to lift the spirits of townspeople struggling with the Great Depression.
“In a nutshell, that’s why public art is there,” Tissue said.
Other public art previously created in the city includes “Roses for the Wild Mary”, a mural under a CSX railroad viaduct on Burhans Boulevard that shows a Western Maryland steam engine rolling over the tracks . It was created in the 1990s by Henri Verdel.
Inside the entrance doors of the Elizabeth Hager Center on North Potomac Street, a mural shows the early life in Hagerstown. Horses weave their way through the dirt streets in the image, titled ‘Elizabeth-Towne Public Square’. It was created by Bettina Messersmith and others in 1996. Elizabethtowne was the town’s first name.
Messersmith also painted a mural entitled “View to Wesel” on a building at 45 W. Franklin St., in 1993.
Other public art unrelated to the Hagerstown Culture Trail include a sculpture at the Washington County Free Library created by local artist Toby Mendez, works associated with the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, and a mural painted last year by artists and others on the West Memorial Boulevard Railroad Underpass.
Tissue said ongoing redevelopment efforts downtown appear to be focused on education and the arts, and he thinks public art plays an important role.
“I feel like it’s encouraged,” said Tissue, who added that he was looking for any type of grant he could find to fund it.
Done right, public art can help spur economic development, Tissue said. Tissu said that when people talk about what makes a community unique, they’re not talking about a mall or a factory.
It’s something unique that sticks in the memory, he says.
Tissue’s comment came as the city buzzed with economic development, including a multimillion-dollar expansion of the Maryland Theater, a new section being built on the Schmankerl Stube restaurant on South Potomac Street and the renovation of a building on West Antietam Street which will serve as the alternate residence unit for students at the University of Maryland at Hagerstown.
Hagerstown Councilwoman Emily Keller acknowledged some of the public art controversy, including “Pod”.
The sculpture once stood in a park in Chevy Chase, Maryland, but had to be moved as the area was being redeveloped. It was donated to the city. It cost $14,000 to transport it here, although there were many cash and in-kind donations to help pay for the move.
Feelings about the sculpture were mixed, including previous comments from councilor Kristin Aleshire, who feared the average person would think it looked like “discarded bits of concrete from a building project”.
“I think the art is always controversial. But at least they’re talking about it. I think that’s what’s important,” Keller said.
Aaron Peteranecz was one of a group of people appointed to a committee responsible for selecting artists for the first round of artwork on the Culture Trail.
Peteranecz said the size of the committee has fluctuated depending on the types of art projects being pursued.
“I think it’s a hugely cost-effective way to improve the town centre,” said Peteranecz, who developed Mulberry Lofts, a commercial building, on North Mulberry Street with his father.
Peteranecz said Tissue is able to recite all sorts of evidence that shows how communities are getting value for money when investing in public art. When there is investment in public art, it inspires others to follow, he said.
Peteranecz has commissioned an artist to create a drawing in the Mulberry Lofts that will illustrate the different historical “layers” of the building. Among its uses over the years was a shoe factory.
“I’m looking forward to doing more on the private side. It just takes downtown to a different level,” Peteranecz said.
Public art fabrics that are in the planning stages or about to be unveiled include:
• a work that will be located behind the Maryland Theater once the cultural trail is extended to Washington Street. The trail is expected to be extended to Washington Street by next year.
• David Gibney of Smithsburg will develop an artwork that will use the authentic Moller Organ Co., organ pipes and bricks from the old factory on North Prospect Street. “Moller’s Sacred Wind” will be interactive as people can press a button to generate sound from the pipes. Tissue said a grant was applied for to create the piece, which will likely be built in the fall near Building Blocks.
• Students from 10 public schools across the county will create murals under a railroad overpass on Franklin Street. Tissue said he hopes the artwork will be installed by mid-June.
• Monarch butterfly sculptures will be installed in Kiwanis Park near Eastern Boulevard this month.
• A statue of former Washington County legislator Thomas Kennedy, who worked in the 1800s to pass a bill allowing Jews to hold public office. The statue is secret and awaits unveiling in the new Thomas Kennedy Park across from Congregation B’nai Abraham along East Baltimore Street. The statue was also created by Mendez.