Making (Art) Mobile

#MakersMobile repurposes shipping containers as traveling art spaces


ehind any successful organization is a leader with a vision. Jonathan Sears, executive director of Professional Artistic Research Projects (parProjects), is in his fourth year of steering the Northside-based arts organization with a mission of financial and environmental sustainability. And parProjects’ traveling exhibition inside a repurposed shipping container, #MakersMobile, is the first physical building block in bringing Sears’ vision to the public.

The Virginia Beach, Va., native has a background in fine arts and digital media, and attended and taught at the University of Maryland before moving to Cincinnati. Sears and his friend from grad school, Chris Hoeting, founded parProjects after their plan for a more traditional gallery — the Northside House — fell through. Disagreements with their third partner (who happened to be the building’s owner) got them evicted from the newly renovated house just days before their first exhibition was to open, forcing Hoeting and Sears to find temporary accommodations for more than $50,000 worth of artwork with no notice.  

Forced to put their loaned artwork into U-Hauls, Sears says the idea of a mobile gallery housed in a shipping container seemed like the next step up. Since then, Sears (and Hoeting, up until June 2012 when he left parProjects to work for the Emery Theatre’s A Requiem Project) has been working toward building a permanent gallery/education center made from recycled shipping containers.    

The whole building will consist primarily of repurposed building materials once the proper funding is secured, but #MakersMobile is the first building block for the future home of the organization. And Sears has been bringing this mobile shipping container gallery into the community since this past fall, showcasing the work of local and national artists.

Each exhibition is curated by Sears and organized with help from his team of volunteers, whom he jokingly refers to as his “self-proclaimed minions.” Sears also relies on his board — made up of a fine artist, computer technician, accountant and an environmental scientist, among others — to help him stay on top of his duties. But otherwise, it is just Sears plugging away on his own time.

Part of Sears’ vision is to reach people who live in “art deserts” that might not otherwise get the chance to see art in their neighborhoods. 

“It allows us to bring the art to people versus making people come to the art,” he says. “If you land the art gallery on their front door, then they, out of curiosity, start a conversation.”  

With that aim in mind, Sears has curated two exhibitions of works appropriate to his mission and the diminutive scale of a 20-foot, steel shipping container. For #MakersMobile’s first exhibition this past fall, Sears focused on printed materials. Titled simply The Prints, it featured limited edition 2-D works by Cincinnati-based printmakers such as Matt Crave, Brian Stuparyk and a collaboration between Clay Street Press’ Mark Patsfall and Dale Jackson of Visionaries + Voices.  

For #MakersMobile’s second exhibition, Small Things, Sears’ only stipulation was for the artists to keep the work smaller than 12-by-12-by-6 inches. As part of Small Things’ traveling tour #MakersMobile has visited Kennedy Heights Art Center and MainStrasse Village and returns back to Northside this week, ferrying parProjects’ mission of showing art in non-traditional spaces.

Everyone is the audience to Sears. And even when parProjects finally gets a permanent home, the plan is for the building structure to retain a mobile component, embodying a visible and functional reminder of their community outreach.

Repurposing shipping containers hasn’t been a simple task, though, and Sears works closely with vendors who assist in the particulars of purchasing and reusing shipping containers. Sears works with local companies Sawyer Towing (to secure a flat-bed roll-back tow truck) and Doran Transfer & Rigging — partners required for the tricky and precise movements of such a container. Sears also hired Higher Level Art, a local company that specializes in murals, signs and exclusive custom projects to design and paint the outside of the container.

A company in Chicago that specializes in modifying the oversized metal containers (usually for construction companies) helped Sears identify a barely used, single-trip container and helped make it functional for the organization’s exhibition purposes. They’ve already helped Sears find and purchase another container of the same quality, and Sears hopes that by spring of this coming year, parProjects’ plans for the “permanent” facility will be realized. “We’re in the ground process by now, so we hope to have everything figured out by winter and break ground in the spring,” he says.

None of these processes are simple, but it allows parProjects to get art to the people and also host demonstrations to engage people in their local communities. For #MakersMobile’s first stop during The Prints, the opening of the exhibition coordinated with MainStrasse’s Magic of Art Festival by Children, Inc., a Kentucky-based nonprofit childcare provider.

The young age of the audience challenged Sears to come up with a program that would appeal to 4- to 7-year-olds — something he’d had little experience with. So he researched and spoke with friends who suggested printing with found objects to demonstrate printmaking on a level that made sense to their target audience. 

Kids found leaves and other readily-accessible objects, painted them on one side and pressed the image onto paper as a take-away — a small but tangible reminder of how art can come from the most unexpected of places.

Sears has already begun curating the next #MakersMobile exhibition, and it is designed to promote dialogue around issues of race and culture. Provoking Conversation will feature Dan Moore’s illustrations related to his graphic novel about the 2001 race riots in Cincinnati, Mark Twain Was Right; an installation by Minnesota-based graphic designer/illustrator Adam White; and metal/wood sculptural work by Shane Gilmore of Somerset, Ky.  

If past events are anything to go on, #MakersMobile will bring art to the public, but it remains the public’s responsibility to prioritize these forms of expression.

#MAKERSMOBILE’s closing reception for Small Things takes place 4-7 p.m. Thursday at 1521 Blue Rock St., Northside. More info:

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