Hunter Franks leads simple steps of creativity to inspire big change in Akron

This story was originally published on Knight Blog here.

Artist Hunter Franks uses people as his medium to break down barriers and make neighborhoods more neighborly.

It’s simple, really. He invites people to come together – most recently in Akron, Ohio – and they create public, amateur art for the neighborhood to take part in and enjoy.

Franks has taken his participatory art on a national tour and is concluding his three-week visit to Akron in August. Knight Foundation gave Franks more than $55,000 to add to the tour four Knight cities: Akron, Detroit, Philadelphia and Macon, Ga. Detroit, which he is scheduled to visit next month, is the final city on the Knight tour.

His work has included neighborhood love notes on post cards sent to random mailing addresses, a collection of love stories from passersby to show the similarities of human experience and even inspirational sidewalk chalk and duct tape art.

“We won’t change the face of Akron forever,” Franks said.  The chalk will get washed away by the rain and the duct tape will have to be removed, “but these simple steps will lead to bigger things.”

Before he concludes his visit to the Rubber City, Franks plans to name a leader to an Akron chapter of his League of Creative Interventionists to continue the work. The league is open to anyone who has a creative spirit and a love for their town.  The work promotes both the arts and engaged communities, two of Knight’s focus areas.

“This civic engagement muscle develops and it’s a gateway to get people to interact,” said Josh McManus, Knight Foundation’s Akron program director.

Each month, the league chapters use one theme as an inspiration for local events. July was Love. August is Health.
At the first meeting of the Akron League in early August, 20 people showed up at the Akron Art Museum. They had very little idea of what to expect.

They came from different backgrounds: carpenter, graphic artist, chef, student, teacher, photographer and metalworker. But they all had creative spirits and open minds.

For student Andy Hillier, 18, of the Ellet neighborhood of Akron, it was a great excuse to meet some new people and make some more public art. Not one to sit still at home, Hillier has already helped paint some of the murals in Akron and in his spare time designs album covers for local musicians.

Diane Sperko of Kent was “was intrigued by the idea of meeting people I don’t know.”

“Akron needs this kind of thing,” said Roza Maille of Akron, who works at the museum and has researched participatory art.

After a few fun exercises to get the creative juices flowing at that first meeting, Franks led the would-be artists to the sidewalk in front of the art museum. Their marching orders: “There’s no plan for what will happen in the next 45 minutes. Just make some cool things happen.”

With a nearby outdoor concert as the backdrop, the new league split up into small teams.

One group created a “cave of wonders” with yarn, duct tape and sidewalk chalk against the front wall of the museum. Another group returned to their youth with a hopscotch course drawn on the sidewalk.

A humorous message scrawled on the sidewalk near a crack in the concrete said, “Say no to crack.” Another sidewalk message encouraged people to stop and text someone why they are thankful, using the hashtag #CREATEAKRON.

A few curious high school boys stopped by and accepted an invitation to join in making some sidewalk chalk art. Some younger boys with their mother paused to hopscotch and made some art of their own on the sidewalk.

“People want to do this kind of stuff,” said Franks. “Sometimes they need a reason.”

Check out Hunter Franks in a TEDx Talk about the SF Postcard Project, the beginnings of the Neighborhood Postcard Project:

Most of the participants learned about the meeting through a Facebook invitation. For more details on the Akron chapter, reach out through the league’s website or the Facebook page.

Susan Ruiz Patton is a freelancer writer based in Northeast Ohio.

Related story: Breaking down barriers in Akron through shared experiences.