Public art comes in all shapes and sizes. In recent years, WNY has been graced with countless murals, many of which are found on some of the area’s beloved historic buildings. Some murals add vibrancy to neighborhoods. Others tell cultural stories.
In Niagara Falls, there is a new, significant public art project that has been installed on 86 windows of the former Jenss Department Store building, located at 1708 Main Street (in the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area). The public art initiative – titled Women of Niagara – consists of a collection of portraits from the 1930s to the 1990s, created by renowned Niagara Falls artist Polly King (1900-1993). The 75 portraits featured on the building are only a small faction of the 450 portraits that King painted during her lifetime. The portraits are considered “an artistic anthropological study of the community of Niagara Falls, during the era in which the artist lived, and painted.”
Dr. Robin King, granddaughter of Polly, said, “These portraits of women in Niagara Falls from the 1940s through the 1970s chronicle a piece of the social history of our city during its days of economic vibrancy. This installation is a great opportunity to take an under-utilized old building and bring it to life with Polly’s portraits of women from the area done when this building was a major destination on Main Street.”
“In creating these timeless portraits of women, Polly gave us an indelible gift that builds an intersection between place and people. Each of the women featured was a part of Niagara Falls and has a story that is embedded in their own talent, dreams and life,” shared Sara Capen, Executive Director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area. “By connecting them to the iconic Jenss building, a place filled with memory and stories, this project breathes life into Main Street and gives us a peek into the past while posing a question about its future. What does a vibrant and revitalized Main Street look like? Imagine the possibilities.”
The Women of Niagara project is considered a creative placemaking and creative placekeeping initiative. The iconic Jenss Department Store building (circa 1916) was chosen for the public art project due to its storied history as an anchor hub for shopping and socializing within the North End commercial district. When Jenss closed in 1995, the rest of Main Street also fell into a state of decline. Now, the building is being brought back to live via the painted memories of the people who once frequented the district.
“Many residents have fond memories of growing up around Main Street, and we hear often of Sunday strolls, delicious local cuisine – notably The Royal Chef which was located next to Jenss for many years, late bar nights, and favorite holiday shopping experiences at Jenss and beyond,” said, Ally Spongr DeGon, Director of Public Art for Niagara Falls National Heritage Area. “Our public art work generates new and creative ways and places to share these stories, while activating spaces to encourage visions for the future of Main Street.”
Congressman Brian Higgins said, “Once again demonstrating the incredible value and work of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, this project highlights the unique history and stories of Niagara Falls to grow understanding and dialogue while also enriching the look and feel of the City for residents and visitors alike.”
Saladin Allah, Director of Community Engagement for the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center added, “We pride ourselves on being at the forefront of a renaissance that is boldly shaping our city’s arts and cultural heritage ecosystem.”
To learn about the ongoing plight of the former Jenss building, click here.
The public art installation is featured on the exterior windows of the building and viewing is accessible from Main Street and Division Avenue. Visitors are encouraged to walk, bike and take in the grandeur and boldness of the artworks in the unique setting of the historic Jenss building. A corresponding exhibit will be opening to the public on Saturday, December 2nd from 2 PM to 5 PM, located at 2351 Whirlpool Avenue.
This project is made possible through funding from the New York State Downtown Revitalization Initiative, and the exhibit is made possible through the support of the Polly King Art Gallery and King family. For more information about this project, as well as other Niagara Falls National Heritage Area initiatives, please visit discoverniagara.org. You can find the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area on Facebook and Instagram at @FindYourNiagara.
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