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Tree to Tango

New York and Two Local Designers Midwife Campaign to Green Up City

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BANNER YEAR: (l-r) Danny Jones, Jessica F. Pegorsch, and E. Rachael Baird of the Urban Forest Project worked with the community to create a public art project that would promote the city's TreeBaltimore effort.

By Molly O'Donnell | Posted 5/7/2008

The Urban Forest Project

through June 28. Visit bmore-urbanforestproject.org for events, maps, and items for sale to benefit TreeBaltimore.

The stretch of Mount Royal Avenue between North Avenue and Dolphin Street is an unusual couple of blocks. The Maryland Institute College of Art's buildings from diverse architectural periods flank the street that curves southeast toward Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, dotted by the occasional well-loved eyesore, such as the Mount Royal Tavern, on the way. As Artscape's main thoroughfare, a few strange public art projects typically line the median. Recently added banners hanging from streetlights are hard to miss, though, even on this colorful avenue. Each banner presents a different design, ranging from the elegantly simplistic, like a leaf in the shape of a question mark, to the explosively typographical, such as a tree made from colorful words of all sizes. Despite such stylistic differences, the recurring theme becomes evident pretty quickly: going green.

With more than 350 banners hung along seven streets and in six city parks since April 11, the Urban Forest Project aims to cover Baltimore with homegrown art so that it's eventually covered with lush greenery. The Urban Forest Project's main objective is to raise awareness of TreeBaltimore, the mayor's initiative to increase the city's tree canopy, by getting the community involved in the banner campaign.

The Urban Forest Project's banners were first hung in New York's Times Square, in the fall of 2006, as the creation of the affable graphic designer Mark Randall. The idea "was sort of a confluence of many factors," Randall, 48, says by phone from his Worldstudio Foundation office in lower Manhattan. "The Times Square Alliance is a client always interested in public-art projects. At the same time, I was thinking of ways that designers and students could show their work and talking to AIGA [American Institute of Graphic Arts] about interesting concepts that were timely and relevant--sustainability was at the top of that list." Randall envisioned the perfect metaphor for sustainability as a tree, which then served as the theme of the banners that hung over New York's congested streets.

Since Urban Forest Project banners were hung in Times Square, cities such as Denver and Portland, Ore., have launched similar initiatives. However, "Baltimore's probably been the most successful so far in terms of getting the community involved and engaged, expanding on the initial idea on a much larger scale," Randall says.

The local community involvement is, in part, the work of the two vibrant women responsible for bringing the initiative here: E. Rachael Baird, 27, and Jessica M. Pegorsch, 28, co-owners of Tilt Studio Inc. Baird and Pegorsch's mutual youthfulness and exuberance seem heightened as they sit in cocktail dresses, at an April 2 TreeBaltimore fundraiser at the American Visionary Art Museum, excitedly anticipating their first project-related event, the launch party. "We found out about [the project] through our designer Danny Jones," Baird says. "His friend had been a part of the Portland version, and he thought it would be great to bring it to Baltimore."

In the original iterations in New York, Denver, and Portland, the project's aim was to exhibit locally made graphic design. After the banners were taken down, tote bags were constructed out of the banners themselves and sold to fund scholarships and mentoring programs.

This design-centric approach didn't sound like a good fit for Baltimore. "In Times Square people aren't interested in a growing a community," Baird says. "It's about contributing to the spectacle and community of artists already in existence. In Baltimore we had an opportunity to involve everyone in shaping the project. So it turned into a citywide community exercise, and we ended up just facilitating what was happening."

"The project as it was originally conceived just wasn't Baltimore enough," Pegorsch adds. "The culture here is such that it needed to be about the community's needs. So we tried to get everyone involved--schools, sponsors, the city, TreeBaltimore, everyone."

Bringing more people, businesses, and organizations into the planning has helped make easier the larger scale Randall is talking about. Partnering with the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, and MICA, Randall says his vision has been reshaped here. Baltimore's Urban Forest Project spans the entire city rather than focusing installations in a single neighborhood. It also operates on a wider range because it is supported by the participation of more than 58 businesses, community associations, and schools, through sponsorships and artistic contributions. While the difference in the number of banners hung isn't that great, the types of contributions are more diverse, with original art by everyone from city schoolchildren to professional graphic designers. Previous participating cities tended to focus more on the design community and not the city and the community at large.

The proceeds of the bags and additional items such as T-shirts and buttons benefit TreeBaltimore, the goal of which is to double the city's current tree coverage. Baird says sponsorship of a fledgling initiative like this one is important, "but awareness of and participation in TreeBaltimore and similar green initiatives in the city is where the real longevity of this project is."

Making Baltimore a greener city appeals to residents, the organizers say, and helped to attract not only sponsors such as Comcast Channel CN8 but also the participating artists. "I contributed a design because I want to use my powers for good, not evil," says 36-year-old artist Mary Leszczynski, a Federal Hill resident, as she sits in her office in Hanover wrapped in a casual yet fashionable dress. Her banner's design uses maps of the city as the foliage encompassing a large, sturdy tree trunk.

"I was drawn to the Urban Forest Project because I wanted to help raise awareness about the important issue of sustainability," she says. "I have a background in biotechnology, and my mother worked for the EPA, so the concept of creating a clean and livable environment is something I see as a must."

In another effort to get area residents energized about the project, Pegorsch began talking to schools about participating in whatever way suited each school--by class, as a schoolwide contest, etc. "I have a background in education and thought it would be good for the project to have student-contributed designs as well," she says. "So we brought in the city schools grades K through 12 to design their own banners."

More than 267 designs were submitted by students alone, and roughly 150 were printed and will hang in parks through June along with the other 200 designs. At the project's end, the students will get their banners back in the form of sustainable book covers, pencil cases, or whatever they need that can be ordered through Tilt Design's suppliers, fulfilling the initiative's philanthropic interest in education. Additional banners from Tilt partner Fastspot's interactive site--where you can use its online tools to design your own banner and submit it--will be displayed alongside the student and artist creations.

In a further effort to draw city attention toward the project, Tilt and its partners are sponsoring events and parties throughout the banner's three-month installation. Live music and outdoor picnics and festivals in Druid Hill, Patterson, Herring Run, Wyman, and Carroll parks, as well as on the Johns Hopkins Homewood and MICA campuses give residents the chance to learn more about the project and become involved. Preordering of the banner bags and merchandise occurs on site as well, giving people who can't take part otherwise the opportunity to contribute and get some cleverly designed, colorful goods in the process.

The involvement of Baltimore businesses and residents expanded the project's mission to be more centered on the environment, education, and design. This inclusive approach is what's made it appealing locally and what will, hopefully, sustain its goals here and in other cities. The project "has wildly exceeded my expectations," Randall says. "The momentum has been sustained to the point where we're in the middle of formalizing a plan for cities interested in starting similar initiatives worldwide. The mainstream media attention for design is unprecedented."

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