‘Designist’ discussed art’s role in transforming urban, rural sites

Frances Whitehead, a self-described “designist,” talked about how she combines art and design to help transform distressed urban and rural sites at a Nov. 6 public lecture.

Her appearance was sponsored by the Institute for Applied Creativity and the Center for Housing and Urban Development.

A professor of sculpture and architecture at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Whitehead hybridizes art, design, science and civic engagement to benefit the public by working with engineers, scientists, landscape architects, urban designers and city officials on reclamation projects.

She began her civic involvement in 2000 when she worked with a hydrologist to design a system to remedy water pollution at an Ohio mine.

The experience was a transformative one.

“It was a very, very complex project,” she said, adding that it was the first time she had engaged the complexity of the world instead of depicting it in her art.

“I’ve never wanted to go back ever since,” she said.

In another project, she helped create a master plan for a trail and greenway at a blighted, abandoned industrial site in Cleveland.

Nothing could be done, said many experts, about an enormous pile of stony waste at the site. Whitehead, however, discovered that the pile could be converted into cement and sold locally.

She founded the Embedded Artist Project, a partnership between her school and the city of Chicago, which places practicing artists in city governments to bring a creative perspective to planning projects.

“Maybe I am just becoming a designer,” she said. “I don’t know, but … I believe that even when I do design, or landscape, or sustainability, or city planning, I do it differently than the people who were trained to do that, because I have a different knowledge.” 

posted October 29, 2013