Tempe’s Sound Canopy; A Respite for Residents and Performers

This story is supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Knowledge Building grant supporting a partnership between Springboard for the Arts and the International Downtown Association. See more stories from the partnership here.

“Anything you do with placemaking, you want it to create a sense of an emotional connection,” Julie Kent says. Kent, Director of Placemaking at Downtown Tempe Authority, recently led the Arizona city’s efforts in a placemaking project that saw a team of artists transform a disused roll-off dumpster into a mobile patio. The goal for Kent and the Downtown Tempe Authority, “a dedicated team of dreamers and doers, buzz builders and business boomers and overall urban advocates,” was to create an unusual space that would invite people to hangout and connect with other people they wouldn’t normally connect to.

“Doing that around art, it kinda breaks all barriers,” Kent states.

Located in the Phoenix metropolitan area, Tempe is a vibrant, youthful city and home to the nation’s largest public university, Arizona State University (ASU). According to Kent, “it’s a very sought after place to live in, being next to freeways and the University. We have a lake and a lot of historic neighborhoods in downtown.” This combination of features attracts a lot of young people, families and students to the area, making it prime ground for testing out different ideas on what makes a city thrive.

Tempe Rolloff. Photo courtesy of Downtown Tempe.

The idea to recycle the roll-off dumpster came out of the close relationship between the City’s Public Works Department and Downtown Tempe Authority. With leaders at both agencies interested in the pop-up patio trend gaining popularity, the Public Works Department agreed to help transform an old roll-off giving Downtown Tempe an affordable means to explore the idea. Their ‘blank canvas’ would be a repainted dumpster with a railing installed around it and the City’s permission to use public parking spaces within downtown for the mobile patio once the project was completed.

This, would be the easy part for Kent who led the project; getting the City’s departments behind it. The hard part would be transforming the roll-off dumpster into the kind of space that created an emotional connection for visitors and residents to downtown. To do this, Downtown Tempe would need artists who could not only visualize their goal, but also had the technical skills to pull off the project. The non-profit, placed an artist call, inviting individuals and teams of artists to apply. They received 10 applications before narrowing it down to three of the best concepts. The three finalists were each given a stipend to develop a more detailed concept and 3-D models of their proposals. Two of the three finalists, would be from the same Architectural Sculpture class at ASU.

At the urging of their professor, students in the Architectural Sculpture class had drawn names out of hats to form randomly assigned teams of two that would submit proposals for Downtown Tempe’s artist call. Caralie Cedarleaf, an undergraduate student in the Sculpture program wound up drawing Roy Wasson Valle’s name, a graduate student in the same program. As it would turn out, both Cedarleaf and Roy’s initial sketches for transforming the roll-off were very much in line, though Cedarleaf’s ideas proved stronger. Her sketches, which were an ode to her upbringing with two musicians as parents, envisioned the mobile patio as a hangout space, but more prominently as a public arts stage.

Tempe Sound Canopy Process. Photo courtesy of Downtown Tempe.

“We thought it was a great metaphorical but also literal platform for street musicians to have something sanctioned by the City that is meant to be for performance,” Wasson Valle said.

When much to their surprise, they, along with two of their other classmates, were selected as finalists for the project, the duo split the task of refining their proposal based on their skills. Roy, a Meritona-based artist with previous experience working on large scale installations, worked on developing the 3D model, while Cedarleaf fine tuned their proposal.

“We were able to support each other on the things we were good at and what we weren’t good at,” Cedarleaf states.

Their project, The Sound Canopy, would turn out to be the winning proposal.

“One of the reasons Caralie’s project was chosen is because all of us connected with the story behind her design. She came from a family of musicians that constantly performed,” Kent notes. Featuring both a performance stage and seating, the Canopy would be dual purpose space for use in the cooler Tempe months.

But before the team could begin construction, the project needed approval from a structural engineer. Minor adjustments were made, like bringing the height down so the patio could indeed be mobile, before receiving the green light. The duo chose to use a light weight material, coroplast for the roof of the Canopy, and recycled decking material for the benches which they felt fit well with the recycled nature of the roll-off itself.

Tempe Sound Canopy Poster.

For Cedarleaf, for whom this would be her first public arts project, working with Wasson Valle lessened the learning curve, while still giving her plenty of space to grow her skills. “Getting to work with someone who has done a public art project of this scale essentially, I learned a lot from him and the process,” she says. As it would turn out, Wasson Valle and his wife, also an artist, had received another commission to work on a large scale installation due around the same time as Downtown Tempe’s project. This meant that Cedarleaf would have to take the lead on The Sound Canopy, with Wasson Valle working as a supporting artist; providing advice and technical support while she executed the actual creation of the Canopy.

There were challenges but there was also immense support for Cedarleaf as the lead artist. Kent, had the duo check in with her weekly for the duration of the project, monitoring timelines and progress. As a class, students volunteered their expertise and skills to the project and also used class time to help construct pieces of the Canopy. Cedarleaf assembled a core team that would see the project through; there was Austin Shepard, a talented metal worker who was hired to do all of the welding; Yousef Alroumi, a Master of Architecture student who “showed up everyday and helped Caralie,” according to Wasson Valle; Nate Clark, a graduate student in Sculpture who loaned his expertise; Ed Wong, a volunteer from the Tempe Center for the Arts who gave much of his time; and even Cedarleaf’s husband and parents who loaned their hands to the project.

“It’s impossible to get anything done by yourself on such a large scale,” notes Wasson Valle. “It takes a village type of mentality to get it done, which is why we’re working on a plaque that we can put up on the roll-off to include all the people that did assist. In the art world, a lot of the credit just goes to the main artist, I think it’s important to include all of the people that helped you to get it done.”

Tempe Sound Canopy. Photo courtesy of Jesus Gutierrez.

In early May, the project was nearing completion and Kent began to gear up for the launch. Downtown Tempe’s initial plan had been to place the patio outside of a popular bar and restaurant with lots of foot traffic, but unforeseen utility work meant that they had to move both it and the launch to a quieter location. For the launch, Cedarleaf, had planned musical performances with her parents under the Canopy. However, a few days before the big reveal, Cedarleaf’s mother unexpectedly passed away, dealing a major blow to her family. The community that had built around the project gathered around her, pushing the launch out till she could be in attendance.

On June 1st, about 20 people gathered at The Sound Canopy on Mill Avenue for what should have been a brief 15 minute launch with remarks from Kent and short performances. The event, would end up taking over an hour as Cedarleaf and her father, aunt and uncle took to the stage in an emotionally uplifting tribute to her mother and a celebration of Cedarleaf and Wasson Valle’s work. “My mum always had this goal of having a stage like this in the backyard,” Cedarleaf says, holding back tears.

“My dad played the first song, it was a song they wrote and sang together. It was really special that he could still perform and my whole family could be there.”

Wasson Valle adds, “The outpouring of love and support was really beautiful. We were there, I was there with my family. It was a really beautiful thing to be included in.”

Tempe Sound Canopy. Photo courtesy of Jesus Gutierrez.

As the dry Arizona heat takes over for the summer, The Sound Canopy is taking a break. But Kent hopes to have more scheduled performances under it once temperatures cool. For Cedarleaf, her long term goal for the project was to, “elevate busking and have a space where new and veteran performers can put on a show just because they want to.” The Canopy has also found a new home as a result of the launch; a business owner who saw the value of the mobile patio and expressed interest in having it moved to his business. This, was always the vision for Downtown Tempe, a patio that moved around downtown, attracting new interest to different areas and businesses.

“We were hoping that the businesses like it and then other businesses want it, that was one of our measurement tools.” Kent states.

When asked about whether she would work on another public arts project, Cedarleaf is enthusiastic. “I definitely would do another one! I’m really looking forward to using this momentum and starting to do more projects like this.”