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Shared vision

Alumna brings tape art to the public through new job

As a studio art minor at Wheaton, Leah Smith ’14 worked in many mediums—pencil, ink, charcoal, paint. But for her first job after graduation, Smith uses just one: tape.

This spring, the Ayer, Mass. native landed a position at Tape Art, a small company based in Providence, R.I. that produces large-scale murals and runs corporate art workshops. The murals, which are drawn on the sides of public buildings and spaces, are created entirely from painter’s tape—usually in blue and sometimes in green.

“This group started doing tape art 25 years ago. It started on campus at Rhode Island School of Design. The murals would show up at night and would be there for one day, and then they would disappear and turn into a new mural the next night,” Smith said.

The Wheaton alumna met Tape Art founder Michael Townsend three years ago and began collaborating with him on other art projects. But Smith, an English major, said she hadn’t really considered pursuing an art career.

“I really like to write, and that seemed to have more job opportunities. As a freshman, I didn’t know how to make art pay, and I knew I needed to eat, so I decided to make that a hobby,” she said. “Then I met the right people and they made me more confident in what I can do and what’s out there in the art field.”

As one of six employees at Tape Art, Smith helps conceptualize and carry out the art murals and also teaches workshops, documents the work and promotes Tape Art using social media and other channels. She’s also learning how to write grants.

“I like that fact that it’s always something new,” Smith said of the job. “When I was at Wheaton, I was involved in a lot of different things, like sports and music and research, and it occupied different parts of my mind and got me to think in different ways. I was afraid that I was going to go to work and be in a place where it was just about one thing. I like the fact that I’m at a small place where I can get my hands into everything.”

(Above: Tape art mural in Hong Kong, 2013)

Smith spent the fall semester of her senior year abroad in Hong Kong. There she met up with Townsend to help with a few Tape Art projects, including teaching art students at a high school and leading a corporate workshop at a General Electric office.

“We get people in the room together and give them a prompt, and the idea is to teach leadership and collaborative drawing. It’s a nice way to make everyone a beginner,” Smith said of the workshops. “Tape is something that no one has experience with, so everyone has to rely on each other to figure it out.”

She also worked on a few murals while in Hong Kong, including a series of cows drawn on a wall outside a former cattle depot, now an artists’ village, measuring 100 feet long and 10 feet tall. Unlike other projects, this mural involved materials other than tape—old newspaper and dry cleaners’ pink slips that she and Townsend found on the street. The mural took about three days to complete and drew considerable interest from the locals.

“Here [in the United States], people will stop and look at a mural, but then they’ll move along. In Hong Kong, people would stop for significant periods of time and get up close to the mural, looking at the craftsmanship of it,” Smith said. “Some people would stop to watch for five, 10 minutes. And taping is not really an interesting thing to see happen. It’s a slow process. You might be making grass for three hours.”

A Tape Art mural begins with the team’s review of the space where they will be drawing—they are either commissioned to do a piece somewhere or they find a space they’d like to draw in and request permission. There are no sketches or concrete plans for a mural; instead, the creators have a short conversation and then get to work.

“Part of the nice thing about tape is you can put it down and then pick it up and move it. It’s very easy to adjust,” Smith said. “Not making a sketch in advance forces people to talk to each other during the making of it.”

The collaborative nature of a Tape Art mural is part of its appeal.

“If I’m working with somebody else on a wall I’ll go to change their thing over here and they can draw on my section, and we’re always constantly moving things around and changing other people’s work,” Smith said. “There’s a sense of creating something together that isn’t just yours or mine. It’s really freeing.”

Despite all the work that goes into them, Tape Art murals don't stay around for long. A piece that takes several weeks to complete might be taken down as soon as 24 hours later.

“It becomes special to the people who were there at that time, a shared experience in the seeing of it made and of it disappearing again. It doesn’t become old,” Smith said. “The idea is that you can transform spaces and show people the different possibilities for spaces without making one possibility the only possibility.”

(Above: Tape art mural at the Worcester Art Museum, 2011)

Tape Art projects, which are always available to the public, offer a “shared memory” for those who see them. They also become a shared experience for those who work on them, which may include volunteers of all ages. And though mural removal might seem like a painful endeavor, for Smith it’s actually one of the best parts of the process. Kids in particular enjoy the destruction phase, which becomes a fun activity resulting in the creation of giant tape balls.

“You gain a sense of ownership by changing a space like we do, but you also understand that it’s not yours, ultimately. We’re not intending to permanently leave our mark there. The sense is that we can come in and inhabit the space for a while and then afterward it’s somebody else’s,” she said.

As for whether her future lies in tape art, Smith said she’s open to many possibilities.

“I enjoy creative problem solving, and I think tape art speaks to that because you wind up in different spaces and you have to figure out ways to engage with the spaces. You can’t just draw on 8-by-11 white paper all the time,” she said. “It’s special problem solving in a way that really excites me.”

Photos courtesy of Tape Art and Leah Smith