What’s the Public to do when the Square is frozen over? Winter and its inhospitable weather present an interesting challenge for the public spaces that planners, artists and developers may have put much thought into making inviting. This winter was enough to prove that the words “outdoor” and “enjoyment” do not always fall in the same sentence, or in the same season. But here in Evanston, Ill., we discovered with the right kind of organizing and orientation, we could use placemaking as a guard against the weather’s doldrums.

Knitting around tree in winter

Knitsplosion's corner piece at Church and Orrington invites you to the now colorful block.

Jason Brown

Over the past few months, Evanston’s Public Art Committee initiated a series of temporary art installations called Evanston’s Winter HeARTh. Our goal was to get community members out and about, making art and forming a protest of colorful play against nature’s brown and gray canvas. Furthermore, we wanted to experiment with crowd-sourced, everyday materials, so as to lower the barrier of participation, and leave the success of the events in residents’ hands.

We started with something familiar, trendy even: a yarnbombing. We dubbed the event “Knitsplosion” and used cast-off, reject projects provided by a local knitting club as well as some new pieces to bundle up the trees in front of Evanston’s main Public Library. Contrary to surreptitious guerrilla art installations seen elsewhere, we opted to open up the yarnbombing to the public; in addition to the recycled reject projects, residents of all ages created small knitted pieces and yards of cord to embellish the walkway along Orrington Avenue in downtown Evanston.

Our second event took place on Lee Street Beach near the southeast corner of the city, where participants were invited to make an “IceScape”. Equipped with food coloring, frozen colorful water balloons, and a good dose of creativity, nearly 200 residents came together and brought vibrancy to the ice formations on Lake Michigan’s frozen shore.

Colorful painting on ice

At IceScape, one participant took some extra time to make it look like spring had sprung right out of the snow.

Jason Brown

While it was a gamble against the weather, I believe we gained it back two-fold. Not only were these events low-cost, low-barrier and quickly planned, they were also well attended, accepted and acclaimed, and left the public wanting more—in just the right way. Off-season activity can be the best ways to grab attention—you won’t have much competition, and people are looking, waiting for something active to do. Once you have that attention, it’s the simplest gestures that can make the biggest difference. We wanted Evanston to know that the Public Art Committee is there for their enjoyment as much as we are here for art advocacy.

Project for Public Spaces calls this “starting with the petunias.” I say, if it’s too cold for petunias, invite the public to plant their own ideas. The community-crafted Knitsplosion was so popular that it is still up by public request, while the doodling and muraling on the ice vanished in a day of rising temperatures. Yet, both events have left their mark. So when you don’t have the time, space, funds or weather for large-scale projects, start with what you do have. Create intimate happenings where the public can be immediately reminded of the rich creativity and potential found right here, in the people and places of their community.

Jason Brown volunteers as co-chair, alongside David Geary, on the City of Evanston's Public Art Committee, which works to further embellish Evanston's flourishing arts scene with public installations and community art projects. As chairs, Jason and David hope to push the City to experiment with more participatory pieces and practices, as well as engage populations not yet present in the arts community. Jason is also a past MPC Research Assistant.