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Can You Find Art? Can DIY Attitudes Shape Cities?

All around the Great Lakes, in rustbelt cities like our own, young DIY artists are moving in and taking over. Concern about the environment, a desire to have a decent life on a modest income, the drive to be part of a positive movement (that is not based on money or status, but rather on ingenuity and vision) and a respect for things the previous generation cast aside or thought of as “uncool”, seem to be common characteristics amongst this population of hopeful visionaries. Many of them have chosen to move into impoverished neighborhoods, rebuild homes, reclaim blighted plots of land and start businesses. Meanwhile, whether by nature or design, they have introduced and nourished their own brand of independent art.

Some may refer to this group as hipsters, but I argue that hipsters are unlikely to spend too much time or energy doing anything but comparing tattoos and their collections of “underground” cassette tapes. Rather than simply being too-cool consumers, the generation of artists we’re speaking of are having a positive impact in places like Detroit, Cleveland and here, in Buffalo. Some of them may not even label themselves as artists, but you’d be hard pressed to see the results of their vision and passion without fighting the desire to apply the term “art” or “artist” in some way.

One of Buffalo’s most influential examples of this new breed is Chris Fritton, whose vision for an event that would bring together printmakers and bookmakers has brought us the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair. Fritton’s indy art event has grown rapidly in just five years, making the annual fair a standing-room-only success with the work of over 100 vendors and artists on display.

His goal of bringing together this large group of people with a shared interest in a dying art has brought Buffalonians a unique and approachable annual art gathering in the cold and frosty month of March, but it also functions as the impetus for a variety of other collaborative efforts.

Today Fritton works as the printshop manager at the Western New York Book Arts Center, where he maintains and operates the presses. After receiving his degree in English and Philosophy, he left Buffalo to pursue his Masters at the University of Maine. But like many others, he returned to Western New York, where he has seen a community of like-minded individuals grow and thrive.

“I recently watched a video from Palladium Boots about Detroit. The guy who runs Slows BBQ (Phil Cooley) is asked why he stayed in Detroit. I liked his answer. He said, ‘”If I move to New York, I have no say in that city, and that’s not a ship I can steer. If I’m here and I give a damn, I can actually make a difference.’ That’s how I feel.”

And steering it, Fritton is. In addition to his successful book fair, his most recent project, I Hid Art, is an exciting concept with the potential to ‘get big’–fast. “People like myself–indy artists–are going to have a hard time selling our art for money in a place like Buffalo, a place where there really isn’t much of an upper middle class–the type of people who would typically buy our work. So I began to think of an alternative economy, where people would pay for art in another way, in this case, with their effort.”

I Hid Art is based on the idea of people finding art that others have hidden. Are you an artist who wishes to have their art found? Wrap it up, hide it, take a photo and post it to the I Hid Art website. Once the image and its clue are approved, the post goes live. If you wish to be a finder rather than a “hider” of art, consulting the website and following the clues may result in just that. Finders claim the hidden art in a similar way, posting an image of the piece on Fritton’s site.

The idea took off quickly. This writer found out about it after–in a single day–a dozen or so people shared the site with me on Facebook. Since its launch in early September, I Hid Art has listed a variety of found and hidden items, many of them are here in Buffalo, but there are others to be found in cities elsewhere, too–like Rochester and Toronto. Fritton hopes that the site will grow, and has already made room for other DIY artists to upload their “hides” from cities as far away as Seoul.

Fritton first had the idea for this project when he was a student at UB, and he and his friends would hide things in the library, providing only a scrap of paper noting the call number of the shelf as a clue. Over the years he often tried to develop a way to bring the concept to life, but the technology just wasn’t there. Thanks to tumblr, an increasingly popular user-friendly website tool, he can. tumblr offers users the option to post images, just as any blog would, but the crucial element for Fritton’s I Hid Art is tumblr’s capacity to accept images from readers, allowing people to hide and post art themselves–and also to claim it.

A recent transaction is shown below.

Submission (9/13/2010, 6:55 p.m.)

tumblr_l8pjniFNXc1qdbhffo1_500.jpg“Kleinhans reflecting pool. Buffalo, NY.  See those little boxes in the concrete wall?  Get on the little ledge, pick the right one, and you’ll be rewarded with a little canvas apron containing one-of-a-kind work from 14 different people.”

Found (9/14/2010, 3:16 p.m.)

tumblr_l8r21xpcet1qdbhffo1_500.jpg“kleinhan’s, two trips, one night, no bombs, biological agents or predators”

As a person who has visited and admired Kleinhans countless times, this particular entry intrigued me. During our interview, I mentioned it to Fritton, and told him how the image prompted me to realize I had never really thought of Kleinhans’ row of niches as perfect little hiding spaces.

“That’s part of what it’s about. When you are looking for a place to hide something, you look at something differently. Same as when you are looking to find something, you’re going to explore the nooks and crannies. In addition to exploring the idea of an alternative form of economy, [I Hid Art] also makes you look at your surroundings differently.”

And perhaps that’s part of the key to this community of indy artists, a commonality amongst any and all artists, really. Their ability to see opportunity where others see nothing, to find beauty in what many would deem unattractive, to see possibility in areas and communities others have all but abandoned. But rather than simply paint, they are opening galleries, and rather than simply sculpt, they are building public art, and rather than wondering why the world isn’t buying their work, they create alternative economies, where art offers something that cannot be bought.

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