If you don't know Janet Soesbe by name, you most likely know her by the impact she's made on Urbana's parks, programs, and arts initiatives as Community Program Manager for the Urbana Park District. She is the godmother of Urbana public art, working with Urbana's Arts & Culture Matrix Team, to find resources to bring art to places where everyone can access it freely and, especially in COVID times, safely. She is also an avid art fan and supporter, whose long friendship with 40 North's Kelly White has continually fueled her passion for local art. Public art provided much needed opportunities for local artists and local art fans during the COVID shutdown. Here in C-U, it has reminded us of its important mission and considerable value. Bridging the Art Divide, located in Crystal Lake Park, is Soesbe's latest initiative, one made possible by an Urbana Arts and Culture Program grant. Our recent interview takes you inside the process of bringing a public art initiative to life.


Smile Politely: What was the original inspiration for Bridging the Art Divide? 

Janet Soesbe: Over the last year, there have been major park improvements and rehabilitation to the lake edge. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing more and more people visiting the park and we wanted to add some beautiful visual art to enhance the rehabilitation work.

SP: How did the idea grow/evolve into its current form?

Soesbe: We’ve done Peace Posts and community art projects like the MLK mural with Lisa Kesler and the URBANA letters at Prairie Park that kids painted at our Play Days in the Park. What we *really* wanted to do is a mural, but that’s not practical at this moment. So we thought about what structures we have and a staffer thought of the bridge. We wanted it to be an open call to artists, rather than us do the work. We wanted to present opportunities for artists to get their work seen on a scale they may not get in other venues.

SP: Public art seeks to bring art to those communities that may not otherwise have easy access to it. But this project seems especially inspired by this mission, in its name, form, and location. What do you most hope Bridging the Art Divide will bring to Urbana?

Soesbe: Because of the giant park rehabilitation program, views to the bridge have improved drastically. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are visiting the park for walking and we felt an outdoor art gallery would greatly enhance their visit. The bridge is close to the road, so even those not up to walking can enjoy the view. You can view the art anytime between sunrise and sunset at your convenience, for free. Come as you are, so no social pressure, which is perfect for these times.

Photo of Bridging the Art Divide at Crystal Lake. Photo courtesy of the Urbana Park District.
Photo courtesy of the Urbana Park District. 

SP: Did the call for submissions align particular themes with the project?

Soesbe: The call started with 15 certain themes or categories, but some of them got zero submissions so we ended up jurying all entries into one general category. We did have entry categories that aligned with our current strategic plan, e.g. “The Elements and Climate” and “Urbana/You Belong Here."

SP: How many works are included?

Soesbe: We had 53 total submissions and we chose 12 works to be printed on 4ft by 4ft panels. We got two collages of work from Urbana High School students that we liked very much, but wouldn’t translate on the scale necessary to be viewed from far away. So we created an “Honorable Mention” prize for the students. Their work is listed on the website, just like the 12 winners.  

SP: How were they chosen?

Soesbe: Our Arts & Culture Matrix Team of seven staffers were joined by members of the Urbana Park District Advisory Committee as the jury. We selected our final twelve and then worked as a team to choose the layout.

SP: Who are some of the artists represented? Are they new to the scene? 

Soesbe: I’ve known some of the artists for years, and some are people whose work is new to me. See the website to learn more about the artists and their work.

SP: What were some of the challenges putting this all together?

Soesbe: It’s always a challenge to make sure that anyone making art knows about the opportunity—and that any medium is applicable. There are artists who apply for every open call out there and some who have never applied for anything. I tried very hard to get the word out in all of our regular channels and then some! We wanted to make sure every artist of any ability knew this was made for them. No fee to enter, no limits on whether the work was new or old, etc. Probably the only challenge at all was that we wanted the images to be square. We thought, “so many artists have Instagram accounts, they’re used to that proportion”… not necessarily the case.

SP: Were there any happy accidents or interesting surprises?

Soesbe: An interesting surprise for me was the piece by Judie Spencer. I’m used to seeing her gorgeously intricate beaded jewelry and she did this funky paper collage that was created specifically for this project and this park. It really spoke to the jury.

SP: What are you most excited for people to know about the work?

Soesbe: I’m most excited for people to happen upon it in the park. It’s my favorite park in the district and I’m so thrilled with all of the improvements. This has been a great project and I’m hoping we can secure funding to make it a regular feature.

Map of Bridging the Art Divide's location. Photo courtesy of the Urbana Park District.
Image courtesy of the Urbana Park District.

SP: How long will the work be up for?

Soesbe: We plan on keeping the panels up through Thanksgiving – they will be seen by thousands and thousands of people between now and the Turkey Trot on November 25th. After the project is finished, the artists can keep their panels that our dedicated Operations crew installed. I wasn’t there when they attached them to the bridge, but I bet it wasn’t easy!

SP: Any plans to continue the project in the future?

Soesbe: Again, only if I can get some money for it. If we didn’t get this grant, we wouldn’t be able to have the display. If anyone out there wants to sponsor a second annual exhibit, I’d love to hear from them. 

SP: What are some of your favorite local arts events that you've been involved with and why?

Soesbe: I’ve been on the Boneyard Committee ever since it began and I just love that it’s open for anyone who makes art of any kind. There is no limit to what you want to put out there—an artist and a venue can put on any kind of show, sale, or performance and we invite the community to come through. We’ve gone from 20 or 30 events only in Champaign in the beginning to 100+ venues in multiple towns throughout the county. The 2022 Boneyard Arts Festival will be our 20th Annual event

My other favorite art event is our Meadowbrook Park Jazz Walk, mostly because it’s my brainchild. When you begin working for a park district, you are often continuing programming that’s already existed for a while. It’s so exciting and fulfilling to develop an idea, have a boss tell you to go for it, and then voilà: an amazing, immersive experience of music in nature that you enjoy with 2,000 of your closest friends. This year, we’ll have the 17th Annual Jazz Walk on September 10th.

SP: Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

Soesbe: Please come out to Crystal Lake Park. If you haven’t been there in a year or more, you will be astounded at the changes. The artwork is on the bridge near the stone steps. If you’re a townie or a true-blue Crystal Lake person, you know exactly where I’m talking about! We are open for boating Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 7 p.m., at the Lake House in Crystal Lake Park and I think taking a kayak or paddle boat under the bridge to get a close-up look at the artwork would make a great outing.

Top photo, cropped, courtesy of the Urbana Park District.