For Charlie Brouwer, a ladder isn't a mere stepping stool for one person—it's a leg up for an entire community.
Over the next month, in a partnership with Glass House Collective and Public Art Chattanooga, the Virginia-based artist will be creating a massive art installation in East Chattanooga composed entirely of ladders borrowed from the neighborhood.
Taking a cue from its name, Rise Up Chattanooga, the project will literally rise up from the vacant lot beside Glass House Collective's Glass Street headquarters and, in so doing, use a simple metaphor to facilitate the beginnings of real and practical change in one of the more depressed parts of the Scenic City.
"What we're trying to do is call attention," Brouwer said. "This is one of the places in Chattanooga that needs the most help. It's not the only one, but it's one of them. We're asking this community to buy into the idea that it's possible for this community to transform itself."
With clothesline and a handful of ladders
It all started in Holland, Mich., in 2002. Brouwer, who won the Public Art Chattanooga grant for the project last fall, has a rich and varied art background during which his current job as a full-time artist grew out of a career as an educator.
Ladders had always been a consistent presence in his personal work, and while visiting his hometown in 2002, he began to wonder how public art could be refocused, how it could hinge more on community engagement.
The communal act of borrowing a ladder from and sharing a ladder with a neighbor seemed a natural extension of that idea.
Brouwer pitched the plan to a local arts center and obtained a state grant for a temporary indoor installation. This first construction project was pieced together with clothesline rope and layers of ladders that disappeared into one another.
It helped develop the structural blueprints, but it also demonstrated how the project could reveal truths about the character of the community: The list of those who had donated ladders was a mix of Dutch names representing the longtime inhabitants of the town and Spanish names representing the cultural and ethnic changes, thanks to agricultural and industrial jobs.
Through the subsequent iterations of the unique sculptures, the approach has evolved. Gone is the clothesline rope. Brouwer now orders thousands of 2- to 3-feet long zip ties that are weighted to bear loads of 250 pounds.
He will typically draw out a simple sketch, though each sculpture is individual to its own building blocks and community. The list acknowledging those who contribute now includes not only residents, but schools, businesses, churches and other organizations.
Brouwer has installed the Rise Up sculptures at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, N.C., Freedom Park in Atlanta, and outside a cathedral in Grand Rapids, Mich., as part of the ArtPrize competition, as well as other museums, arts centers and outdoor locations.
Rise Up Chattanooga will mark his ninth such piece.
"It's grown and developed each time and been shaped both in the way I'm engaged in the community and the way that its built and the way all the strategic parts of it come together and are adjusted to the situation," Brouwer said. "As an artist, you're trained that your jobs to work with materials and make something—you're a painter and you work with canvas. I was never a community organizer."
He explained that the partnership with Glass House Collective has been fruitful in the resource it has provided in the exploratory task of gathering ladders and generating interest in the project.
Teal Thibaud of Glass House Collective related a story about the two of them going into places she had never gone and would not have gone alone to illicit help. For Brouwer, however, to not seek out those residences or businesses would have been tantamount to admitting that the job was impossible—an option that was quite simply not an option.
For the artist, the projects, for which he retired from teaching in 2008, hit a much more personal note, one that gets to the roots of his connection to his country.
Disillusioned with politics for several decades, Brouwer came close to taking on the life of an expatriate before the 2008 election. The shift he felt with President Barack Obama and an appreciation after this most recent election became his own ladders toward the belief in democracy and America's continued expression of that ideal.
"I saw the possibility of our country being a different kind of place, and I started to believe this was a worthwhile thing to do,” he said. “I continue doing it because I still believe that."
Moving Glass Street forward
Brouwer, working closely with Thibaud and her colleagues, has been collecting ladders in East Chattanooga since Feb. 9 and will continue to accept and seek out donations until Feb. 22 from 1 to 7 p.m.
The sculpture itself will begin to rise up in the grassy lot at 2523 Glass St. this Friday, Feb. 16. Brouwer will work daily between 1 and 7 p.m.
The timetable is often much quicker than what the artist's audience might expect. Brouwer said that he purposefully slows his pace to allow the process to become as much a part of the artwork as the finished sculpture.
Because the blueprints are never exactly the same from installation to installation, he can accommodate the design to the available supplies, and he is very tenacious about how he acquires the borrowed objects.
There’s only one rule: Anything can be a ladder, a bucket, a stepstool—whatever allows a person to reach an object farther away than arm's length—toy fire truck ladders or even an adult-sized ladder. Brouwer is dedicated to the mission of involving anyone and everyone.
“We want the whole greater Chattanooga area to be involved—whoever believes this place deserves and needs help,” Thibaud said. “There's no geographical [limitation].”
The partners are also thinking about illuminating the sculpture with floodlights to both provide a 24-7 viewing experience and start the process of lighting East Chattanooga better for aesthetic and safety purposes.
Rise Up Chattanooga will be unveiled in Glass House Collective's Better Block Event on Saturday, Feb. 23. The sculpture will remain intact until March 25, when Brouwer will dismantle the installation and return each and every ladder.
“We hope that we end up with people believing in a community and then they come together and decide what they can do to improve that community," he said. "I believe that the value isn't different from building a sculpture that will be there on permanent display. I think the value is contained in that thing itself."