Project Art Connects Past, Future Along Bradenton Riverwalk

The balmy breeze that blows in from the Manatee River and onto Bradenton's Riverwalk provides a breath of fresh air for skateboarders who sweat out summer afternoons at the skate park. It rustles the nets at the sandy riverside beach volleyball courts and cools off the kids who monkey around on the Riverwalk playground and splash in the water park fountains.

Hardly more than a century prior, the same breeze carried steamboats and barges full of goods and passengers through the small settlements of Manatee and "Bradentown'' that hugged the river, the main vein of transport between Tampa and south Florida during the 19th century. For centuries preceding that, the breeze guided the currents that carried canoes of the Tocobaga Native American tribesmen who fished the river's bountiful waters.

Project Art Connects, a three-year program instituted in 2011 by Realize Bradenton to create a historically relevant "art walk'' along the Riverwalk, wraps up this summer as its final batch of teenage artists research local history so that they may drive the conversation about Bradenton’s past, present and future through their art.

"Our goal is to teach these students to combine research and writing skills with their art so that they can shape the conversation about Bradenton's history and help the community connect the past with the future plans for this city,'' says Realize Bradenton Director Johnette Isham.

Inspired By History

High school and college art students participating in Project Art Connects work with educators and local historians over the course of two weeks during the summer to familiarize themselves with Bradenton's history by visiting museum exhibitions, conducting critical research on historical documents, investigating historic landmarks and conducting oral interviews with lifelong Manatee County residents.

Braden River High School Art Teacher Bill Ferrell supervises the students' research and informs them on details of the artistic process throughout the course of the program, which concludes in the third week with a presentation of a unique piece of artwork by each student that is inspired by and illustrative of the area’s history.

"This project has changed how I look at Bradenton. I've been to these places before, but never really had an emotional connection with any of them. After doing all this research and hearing the stories of people whose families have lived here for generations, I feel like I can finally connect,'' says Kaia Gilbertson, a Braden River High School junior who plans to pursue an education in animation.

The result of the students' efforts is reflected in a series of "Postcards from the Friendly City'' displayed along the Riverwalk. Nine Postcards are large art panels created by public artists Don Brandes and Jean Blackburn, who were selected by Realize Bradenton to narrate the area's past through historically accurate illustrations inspired and informed by Project Art Connects students' research and designs. 

"I think these days, most people don't want to watch long documentaries unless they're a historian or really interested in a particular subject,'' says Gilbertson, "but I think at Riverwalk, people will see a piece of art and think, 'Oh that's really cool. I want to learn more about it.' ''

"The students sparked the ideas for our work with their individual projects. Their research really helped us get an overview of the overarching topic of what we'd be covering, and when we went in and reviewed what they were looking at and working on, they played a huge role in inspiring our work on the project,'' Brandes says.

Brandes, who also works as a faculty member in the Illustration department at Ringling College of Art + Design in Sarasota, sees Project Art Connects as a valuable learning experience for incoming college art students.

"A lot of high schools give art students free range to paint whatever they want, but I think Project Art Connects drives home the idea that making art isn't always just about painting pretty pictures. In this case, it's like they have an art director, so to speak, to answer to as they expose the story of Bradenton. These students are entering college with a definite advantage after having worked on this project,'' Brandes says.

Postcards From "The Friendly City''

Brandes and Blackburn each completed four Postcards for the Riverwalk that illustrate Manatee County's history. The postcards visually reflect life along the river, including wildlife going back millions of years, the Tocobaga who called the area home prior to the Spaniards' arrival in the 1500s, the 19th century pioneers and homesteaders who built settlements that would eventually become the city of Bradenton, and the tourism industry sparked by the 1920s Florida land boom, which resulted in Bradenton's nickname, "The Friendly City.'' The artists also collaborated on a ninth and final postcard, a map of the Manatee River that highlights the river as a main artery of transportation through Florida prior to the automobile and interstate highway system.

The "Postcards from the Friendly City'' art panels include QR codes linking to the Realize Bradenton website, where visitors can find historical information about the topic or theme of the accompanying artwork. Down to the patterning on the Tocobaga ceramic pottery in one art panel titled "One Million Sunsets Ago,'' the students and artists paid painstaking attention to historical accuracy by researching artifacts at the South Florida Museum and conducting on-site investigations at historical landmarks like the Manatee Village Historical Park and Braden Castle.

"Digging up the history was fun. I knew it was important, but the real question was how to make it believable and specific to the Bradenton riverfront,'' Brandes says. "I wanted to make sure that no one looked at my paintings and said, 'Oh, that bird doesn't live here,' or 'Oh, that plant doesn't grow by the seawater,' or 'That's a ceremonial urn, not a water jug.' ''

The Postcards were inspired by the artwork of students who participated in the first two years of the project in 2011 and 2012.

"We're trying to personalize it more this year. In previous years, this project was more of an exploration of what the city was. This year, we’re encouraging the students to continute representing that past while seeking more empathy through their artwork,'' says Ferrell.

Finding The Place To Call Home

Kelsey Lutzi, a Florida native soon entering her senior year at Braden River High School and a participant in Project Art Connects for her second consecutive year, says she was particularly inspired this year by the personal anecdotes that a sixth-generation Manatee County resident shared during an oral history interview.

"I find it really beautiful and inspiring that someone could find a place they can call home that still brings them so much joy after living there for so many years,'' Lutzi says.

"This project has made me appreciate the area a lot more. Before, I felt very restricted here and I wanted to get away, but now I think I may actually stay local. I still want to go places and travel, but this project made me sit down and think about what I have invested here. You don't realize how many peoples lives you affect while you're here. I realized this is a place I actually want to come home to. Being able to come home is so important. It's where you can always find the people and things you love.''

This year's students will also produce artwork that will be compiled into a book with postcard-sized pull-out cards. The books are to be displayed in an art show at the South Florida Museum that celebrates the work of Project Art Connects students.

Project Art Connects and the accompanying "Postcards from the Friendly City'' project is funded by a three-year (2011-2013) $150,000 grant from the Knight Fund of the Manatee Community Foundation, donations from the Stranahan Foundation and Manatee Education Foundation, and sponsorship from the Manatee County Cattlemen's Association, Tropicana Manufacturing Company, the Mosaic Company Foundation and the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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