A few weeks ago, as I reluctantly trudged my way to the office after an unduly aggravating morning commute, I noticed a brilliant splash of color whiz by me. I spun around, but without my usual dose of caffeine and in the midst of a groggy pre-work daze, I wasn’t quite fast enough to identify the perpetrator.
It was still summer, although the tail end, so I put it down to one of those meticulously dressed New Yorkers who pay homage to all the seasons by color coding their wardrobes to complement the weather outside.
A couple of minutes later, there it was again – an incongruously multi-colored shape. This time it slowed down enough to honk loudly as I tried to shrug my bag back onto my shoulder and avoid spilling my coffee, all in one ineffectively swift movement.
A regular, yellow New York cab. Regular except for the enormous flowers painted on its hood… What on earth was going on?
A few hours later my not so latent curiosity got the better of me. I finally put aside my work and Googled “New York cab painted flowers.” Here’s what I got:
Garden in Transit may be the most ambitious community collaboration and public art project in New York City history.
As part of this groundbreaking motivational art, education, and creative therapy project, thousands of kids in schools, hospitals, and community institutions are painting vibrant flowers — symbolizing joy, life, beauty, and inspiration — on adhesive weatherproof panels that will be applied to the hoods, trunks and/or roofs of thousands of New York City taxis. Beginning in September 2007 and until year’s end, New York City will be visually transformed, as the ubiquitous yellow icon becomes a mobile artistic canvas or — “Garden in Transit.”
A project of Portraits of Hope — a 12 year old non-profit program that was initially started to benefit seriously ill and physically disabled children, and later expanded to include a much wider array of both children and adults — Garden in Transit is part of a series of projects that transform public landscapes and allow youngsters to showcase their work on a city- wide scale.
Beyond this, children who participate in Garden in Transit also participate in educational sessions in which they learn, and develop a dialogue, about important current affairs, community issues, the power of teamwork, individual and social responsibilities, and goals and achievements.
The project aims to be as inclusive as possible, providing telescope paint brushes for those with IVs or in wheelchairs, shoe brushes for children with injured upper limbs or hands, and flavored mouth brushes for those who can paint with their mouths. The main point of the project is to allow children who are facing challenges to leave behind a legacy by participating in a once in a lifetime historical happening (Ed Massey, Portraits of Hope co-founder, petitioned the city for 7 years before Bloomberg came on board and gave them the green light.) So far about 750,000 square feet of floral panels have been painted for the taxis.
Apart from the obvious benefits such a program provides to the children who participate in and learn from it, as well as the aesthetic benefits it offers a city that often doesn’t have the time to stop and appreciate the finer points of life, what strikes me about Garden in Transit is the simple brilliance of its medium.
I have a mild fascination with the concept of using public transport as advertising tool or using the public transport system as a marketing research database. In this case, I think most would agree that utilizing one of the city’s most omnipresent icons – the yellow cab — as a mobile artistic canvas is an objectively brilliant move, providing the campaign with reach and visibility that would be hard to achieve using any other medium.
When quizzed about the motivation behind using the taxis, Kyla Fullenwider, one of the project’s directors, explained that the organization’s rationale was to create a medium that would be completely egalitarian in terms of access: “The taxi fleet goes all the way around the city- East, West, uptown, downtown.” While raising awareness for a cause or institution is by no means the main focus of this project, using the yellow cab as a medium will inevitably raise awareness to levels that using a less mobile, less ubiquitous canvas could not achieve.
“This is our highest profile event. If you come to New York city, you are going to see this project. It’s not like going to the MOMA or to an exhibition somewhere. The medium of taxi is so great because it comes to you – you don’t have to go to it… It makes art accessible to everyone…” stated Fullenwider.
One of the project’s biggest challenges is enlisting the support of taxi cab drivers, since the panels are installed with the voluntary participation of fleet owners and cab drivers. The project has so far covered about 40% of the city’s existing fleet, and is aiming to get the entire taxi industry on board.