In the window of The Provender Store stands Casandra Barragan-Melendez’s watercolor painting of the Washington Avenue bridge, its dark steel girders outlined before a light late afternoon sky and river flowing underneath.
It’s a familiar image, seen hundreds if not thousands of times by those who work or visit downtown.
Then you add “Shall We?,” a short poem by Waco poet and community advocate Elizabeth Ligawa, who sees a meaning beyond what the eye captures. She sees history and symbol and the future, a structure that has not only enabled commerce and connection for Waco, but which also was where lynching victims were hung.
“Just because (the bridge) was built for connection doesn’t mean that’s what it was used for,” she said. “We get to choose what we do with it.”
For Barragan-Melendez, a Waco High School senior, what started as a photo of a scenic place shot for an art portfolio took on dimension in chatting with Ligawa.
“I’m just a high school student, so I just saw it as a simple bridge that cars run through,” she said. “I didn’t realize there were other ways to think about a bridge.”
Words plus image sometimes add up to more than the sum of their parts. That evokes one Greek-derived word, synergy, but the combination of word and artworks this month on Austin Avenue is titled by another Greek word, ekphrasis, a literary term used for poems that describe or expand upon a visual work of art.
“Ekphrasis: Art & Words Meet On Main Street,” an exhibit curated by the Central Texas Artist Collective, opens a two-week display beginning Friday, marrying words from writers to images crafted by visual artists. The results can be seen in a dozen Austin Avenue storefronts between Sixth and Ninth Avenues.
Steve and Angie Veracruz, who head the CTAC, organized the Ekphrasis show with CTAC colleague and Waco Poet Society founder Jenuine Poetess, with support from Art Center of Waco, Studio Gallery, Baylor’s Martin Museum of Art, City Center Waco and Creative Waco.
Steve Veracruz said local artists and writers welcomed the idea, many of whom were familiar with online examples of word-image pairings. Assembling “Ekphrasis,” however, proved a juggling act for organizers, trying to match artists and writers, then finding downtown businesses open to participate.
Artists and writers were free to pair up on their own or let Veracruz match them. Visual artists were limited to pieces no larger than three feet by four feet while writers were asked to create no more than 40 lines. In both cases, creators considering topics and imagery were reminded that their works were to go on public display, with exhibition space provided by business owners.
Working within the timeline of a month, project collaborators were free to interact the way that felt best, whether a discussion between the two before work on either side started, or one side finishing her or his work, leaving the other free to interpret it in the mirroring medium.
Surprisingly, exhibit planners ended up with an even balance between wordsmiths and image creators in the show’s 43 participants, with a few submitting both written and visual contributions. “I was just blown away by that,” Veracruz said.
The exhibition starts with an Austin Avenue Art Walk as part of First Friday activities in downtown Waco. The Waco Hippodrome will provide cards for avenue strollers to mark their favorites and note the businesses visited, with awards the next evening given to winners in Best in Show, Most Interesting and Downtown/Waco Spirit.
Saturday’s opening reception will mix art forms as well. Three solo acts and two bands will perform — violinist Saddiq Granger, keyboardist Kristen Breen, bluegrass duo Dogwood Winter, singer-songwriter Katie Stewart and Waco alt-rock band Married With Sea Monsters — with participating writers reading their works between acts. Winners of Friday’s Art Walk polling will be recognized and prizes from downtown businesses raffled.
A storefront art exhibit isn’t new to downtown Waco. Waco artist Flip Kimmel used Austin Avenue shops to tease a Croft Art Gallery exhibit six years ago, putting yellow silhouettes of children in 11 store windows. Area school classes often have papered downtown windows with paintings and posters during holidays or other special times.
City Center Waco executive director Megan Henderson praised the initiative and work of artists and writers in bringing “Ekphrasis” to downtown, noting that downtown serves as “a focal point for culture as well as commerce,” with art an important component of that culture.
Having art downtown that’s separate from its commercial use adds a different spin for downtown visitors, Henderson said.
“We’re looking for social and commercial experiences most of the time when we go downtown,” she said. “An interactive exhibit that enters the space . . . gets people’s attention. What I’m looking forward to, being out on First Friday, is to see the unexpected and that experience of being delighted by something new.”