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This riverfront project is for the birds — but only after 3,000 pounds of seed become art

Jessica Witte will launch a seed-art project, similar to this August 2015 one in Belleville, along the St. Louis riverfront June 3-5.
Jessica Witte
Jessica Witte will launch a seed-art project, similar to this August 2015 one in Belleville, along the St. Louis riverfront June 3-5.

St. Louisans will get to participate in a massive art project on the riverfront this summer, thanks to a new public art grant.

The local Critical Mass for the Arts announced the winner of its first-ever public works endeavor today. The group awarded multimedia artist Jessica Witte $10,000 for her “Seed the Change” idea.

The massive undertaking on the sidewalk along Lenore K. Sullivan Boulevard involves 3,000 pounds of sunflower seeds and millet -- and the help of as many people who want to participate.

In the shadow of the Arch, adults and children are invited to scoop seed from barrels and use their hands, rakes and other implements to create designs. Witte is planning a flower theme, but out-of-the-box thinkers won’t be stifled.

A child enjoys Jessica Witte's seed-art project in Belleville in August 2015.
Jon Slavkin

“If a kid wants to draw an awesome Spiderman, it isn’t a problem,” Witte said.

The June 3-5 collaboration — involving hundreds of feet of sidewalk canvas — is a celebration of the Arch grounds re-design. It’s also a nod to groups. such as Great Rivers Greenway, overseer of the riverfront improvements and host of the weekend art event.

“This is creating a visual metaphor for people coming together and making something beautiful happen, while at the same time calling attention to organizations that are doing it already,” Witte said.

Wind, rain and leftover seed

A participant helps with Jessica Witte's August 2015 project on the Schmidt Art Center patio in Belleville.
Jessica Mannisi

Witte has headed up similar endeavors three times. Of those, a Belleville project last August was the only other outdoor one. She said it drew plenty of participants, including enthusiastic local art students.

“The students were like, ‘This makes me so happy,’” Witte said.

Witte thought she’d never be able to afford another such ambitious endeavor. Then she heard about the new Critical Mass grant and applied for a much larger project than the Belleville one. When she was chosen from among three finalists, she was elated.

Jessica Witte in a former studio.
Wade Duerkes

“I couldn’t believe I would have this nice budget to do something so dramatic and on such a big scale,” Witte said.

Witte is planning for a festival-like atmosphere with booths and food trucks. But what about the possibility of rain or high winds? If it sprinkles, the effects of the weather will just become part of the project, she said. But if it storms?

“We have a late June rain date,” Witte said. “That’s the chance you take with an outdoor project.”

And what happens to all that birdseed when the work finished? It won’t go to waste.

“We’re donating it the Wild Bird Sanctuary,” Witte explained.

‘See this thing, right now’

The public works award is supported by a grant from the William E. Weiss Foundation. It was always meant to fund works that last only a short time, according to project manager Meredith McKinley.

“The nice thing about temporary projects is that they create some interesting buzz around them, like, ‘You must see this thing, right now,’” McKinley said.

Still, something permanent will remain. The project includes a time-lapse video of how the work unfolded, to be posted on the Critical Mass website.

The organization hopes to make this a recurring award.

“Our goal is to do this every year,” McKinley said.

Here's a time-lapse video of Witte's 2015 Belleville project at the Schmidt Art Center.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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