Artist on a roll
by Gabrielle Maxey
By day Elizabeth Alley is a bespectacled, soft-spoken director of public art for the UrbanArt Commission. But she also has been known to display a, well, wilder side.
The UrbanArt Commission, created in 1997, facilitates art projects in public buildings and spaces. This can be anything from large-scale projects like the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library or the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, to schools, parks, police precincts and trolley stops.
Alley served as interim director until the appointment of John Weeden, who began his job in May. She helps select art and serves as a liaison between artists and clients throughout the process, from the application through installation. “I’m good at working with artists because I’m one of them. I like managing projects,” Alley says.
The commission usually works on permanent public art, like the Cooper Young trestle project that was dedicated in 2000. Artist Jill Turman designed 12 steel structures based on houses and buildings in the area that cover the century-old train trestle at the Midtown neighborhood’s entrance.
The job isn’t without the occasional controversy, though. A temporary exhibit marking UrbanArt’s 10th anniversary raised some eyebrows. In “Blue Parkways,” artist Tad
Lauritzen Wright wrapped blue vinyl bands around trees in the medians on North, East and South Parkways to symbolize the city’s connection to the Mississippi River. On the ribbons were line drawings of connected houses and people holding hands in the spirit of community. Some residents assumed the ribbons marked the trees to be bulldozed or viewed them as an unwelcome intrusion on the landscape.
“I think the project caused this reaction because people didn’t know what it was,” Alley says. UrbanArt usually seeks input from residents in the community for public arts projects, but that wasn’t done with “Blue Parkways” because the project was temporary. “Temporary projects were new to the UrbanArt Commission,” she says. “We were aware of the importance of involving the community. This was just a new type of project for us.”
Other anniversary projects included a map of sounds gathered in and along the Mississippi River, postcard paintings at the Center City Commission, and sandwich board paintings.
An accomplished painter, Alley developed her signature style of oil on canvas while a student at the University of Memphis, where she earned a BFA cum laude in 1998. Often she chops up photos of people and rearranges elements of streetscapes. “I always work from photos,” she says. “Then I crop them to make them more interesting.” Alley rarely uses color in photos. “I like to make it more saturated or paler,” she explains.
Her skills earned her the coveted assignment of designing the 2007 Memphis in May poster honoring Spain, which followed her six-panel “cropping” technique. The result looks like six pictures that have been cut out from the photo, allowing the viewer to draw his own impression of the subject.
When she’s not painting, Alley has been know to display a darker side. She spent a season freewheeling on the flat track as a blocker and pivot for the Legion of Zoom, one of Memphis’ four Roller Derby teams. The league holds bouts on Saturdays at the Fairgrounds’ Youth Building. “It started as an excuse to learn to roller skate better,” Alley explains. It led to her alter ego, Moxie Dynamite, a character that blends both artist and skater.
Before being cleared to scrimmage in Roller Derby, competitors must demonstrate that they can skate with speed, stop, fall and jump safely. With that done, they learn the proper way to hit other skaters. “It’s totally real. People are getting knocked over. I never imagined myself doing that,” says Alley. “Some of the girls do it as a way to take out their aggression. I had to invent aggression. That’s a weird thing to have to get used to.”
Early on in her Derby career, Alley broke her arm. “But that was because I couldn’t skate very well,” she explains. The only other injuries she sustained were some minor bruises.
Alley eventually gave up Derby competition to devote more time to her own art. “I need to paint more,” she explains. “I really only have time on weekends.” But, she adds, “I’m still the Legion of Zoom’s biggest fan.”
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