Aside from the baking hot temperatures and the smell of barbeque wafting around what seemed like every corner, I didn’t feel like I was deep in the heart of Texas during my Austin stay. The city felt beautifully out of place compared with all of my preconceived notions of “Texas-ness”. In exploring a few parts of the city on foot, the vibrant and plentiful public art reinforced the “Keep Austin Weird” vibe that I fell for within an hour of first arriving.
Right across the street from my motel on South Congress Avenue was the “I love you so much” mural on the wall of Jo’s Coffee (a place I would later laze away a few hours with a book). The simple mural by Amy Cook was a scrawled love letter to her partner Liz (the owner of Jo’s Coffee). Simple and profound, I felt the love directed to me each time I walked past.
A little further up the funky South Congress Ave, there is a lovely mural on the side of the building housing South Congress Books. It even features the famous Congress Avenue Bridge bats swooping into a dream-like sequence.
Speaking of those bats, there’s a sculpture just a block south of the bridge that pays homage to the migrating bats who emerge from under the bridge each evening. Walking past Dale Whistler’s “Night Wings” reminded me I had plans that night (along with, as it turned out, many hundreds of others) to watch the bats take flight.
Maybe the most famous of Austin’s murals is located about a five minute walk west of South Congress on First Street. “Greetings from Austin” by Rory Skagen and Todd Sanders is a recreation of an iconic Austin postcard on the side of the Roadhouse Relics building.
On the downtown (north) side of the Colorado River there was a generous helping of public art as well. With a nod to Austin being the self-professed live music capital of the world (by my estimation, they’d be in a close race with Nashville) there are two painted guitars on display along North Congress – “Vibrancy” by Craig Hein and “Sixth String” by Randy Rudman
Not too far away was “Angelina Eberly” by Pat Oliphant. This piece is an homage to Eberly who fired a cannon in the middle of the night to wake her fellow Austinites, alerting them to a theft of archive materials. This started the Archive War in 1842 and is credited with helping to preserve Austin’s role as the capitol of Texas by thwarting Sam Houston’s goal of moving treasured archival materials to Houston.
A number of sidewalks in the downtown were enlivened by art near intersections. On the left, this colourful mosaic snaked along Brazos Street near W. 2nd Street and was a nice compliment to the modern JW Marriott hotel next door. On the right is “Urban Canyon” by Sun McColgin that pays tribute to the role of the nearby Colorado River in the history of Austin. Many of the designs are reflections on wildlife in and around the river.
Another piece of public art reflecting the story of the Colorado River is “High Water Mark” by Deborah Merksy. The metal shapes in the fence are meant to evoke and tell the story of rushing water and serious floods of Austin. The photographs along this wall are of scenes from this very place from the early to mid 1900s.
And no exploration of public art in Austin would be complete without a visit to the sculpture of Willie Nelson by Clete Shields. This sculpture is near the home of Austin City Limits and it’s a recent addition to Austin, being unveiled on April 20th (4/20) 2012 at just after 4:20pm. Although Austin officials insist that was a coincidence, Willie performed a new song that day “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” The veins of counterculture run deep here.
My kind of city.