Commerce Street is arguably one of Wichita’s most unusual streets – and that’s a good thing by most accounts.
A little cohesion for the Commerce Street Art District also is a good thing, some feel.
That’s why eight new light installations – part streetlight, part sculpture – are being installed this week and will debut at 7 p.m. for Final Friday.
“To kind of unify the street visually was the challenge,” artist Kent Thomas Williams said.
“It’s an interesting-looking street, but it’s kind of eclectic,” he said. “There’s so much going on visually on the street.”
He and fellow artists Eric Schmidt and Stephen Atwood created what they’re calling NeoPrairie installations, which incorporate light as their main design element.
Another challenge on the street, Williams said, is that older urban areas such as this have lots of spaces that have been covered with brick and concrete, “and so there’s very little Mother Nature left.”
The sculptures, which are made of polycarbonate and stainless steel with LED lights, are inspired by the ancient Equisetaceae plant. The idea is that the area once was a prairie, and this is a new kind of prairie.
“Plants are kind of the ultimate light-loving creatures,” Williams said.
“We chose highly reflective materials so the sun itself will engage these sculptural elements by day.”
He said the installations will “establish a repetition and rhythm of light – or with light.”
The installation coincides with the first phase of the city’s upgrades to the district, which is starting with new paving behind the buildings along Commerce.
“Essentially we’re building an alley with parking on it,” said Scott Knebel, the city’s downtown revitalization manager.
The alley will connect Waterman along the east side of the Commerce Street buildings to a parking area under Kellogg. The northern two thirds of it will have parking on one or both sides of the alley.
The city is building a performance area for artistic displays, music or poetry, and it will have some light installations as well.
There also will be some artistic installations with rail that will be removed from some nearby railroad tracks.
The new alley will provide a second entry point to the area that will then allow the city to close Commerce Street completely for repairs in 2022.
The alley will be ready for traffic by late January or sometime in February. New art installations in the area are scheduled to be in place by April 1.
Artist and grant writer Connie Bonfy saw an opportunity when she heard that the city was making improvements to the district.
She said she knew the city’s investment could be used as a match toward a state grant, so she wrote a proposal for the new art installation.
The Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, along with the Wichita Arts Council and the Bonavia Family Trust, contributed to the project.