Words on the Street

With PSA, Shannon Levin and Marina Peng elevate and amplify St. Louis artists with unexpected and accessible art installations around town.

Culture

Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By Mabel Suen, Michael Thomas

Shannon Levin and Marina Peng understand that the very nature of public art makes it difficult to gauge how it resonates with the people viewing it. Yet if they ever doubt that their public art project, PSA, strikes a chord with St. Louis audiences, they can recall a recent story about what happened when two passers-by encountered one of their installations. 

“Recently, at the marquee at MaTovu, there was a question written by our contributor Molly Pearson that asked, ‘Look Back. How, And With Whom, Will You Do The Future Today?’” Levin says. “We heard from a friend of a friend that someone we didn’t know was walking in the neighborhood with their partner. They happened upon the installation and didn’t know why it was there, but it prompted one of them to propose to the other because the question felt so relevant. The nature of public art is that we don’t always have a direct feedback loop, so this was really validating.”

Levin and Peng have been having that impact, even if they don’t always know it, through PSA, a public art project they founded in 2019 to give a platform to underrepresented creatives in the St. Louis community. They believe that while the local art scene is inclusive, it should always strive toward reflecting everyone in the city at large, which is central to PSA’s mission. Using the idea of a public service announcement as inspiration, the project invites contributors to create large-scale, text-based public art installations loosely based around the prompt “How can we challenge the notion of public good, and what does the public need to know?”

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Shannon Levin (pictured left) and Marina Peng install “Regarding Redemption” by artist Kentaro Kumanomido outside of MaTovu in Botanical Heights. Photos by Michael Thomas.

Over the past five years, Levin and Peng, through PSA, have facilitated 18 installations, featuring everyone from visual artists and poets to community organizers — anyone for whom language is a part of their practice and who has a meaningful connection to St. Louis. For Levin and Peng, the purpose of PSA is to give contributors a platform and the community an accessible and arresting way to experience their work. 

“What we love about public art is that it’s more accessible, and there is no barrier to entry,” Peng says. “You don’t have to know where to go; it is just present. This project is mostly for the people who live in the neighborhoods and passers-by where the installations are located. The radius then expands from there. It is important for us to put art in places that are unexpected and in a way that people who are not in the arts community can witness the work just going about their daily lives.”

After meeting as art students at Washington University in St. Louis (Levin is from New Jersey; Peng grew up in west St. Louis County), the pair became close friends and always talked about one day working on a project together. However, their mediums were quite different — Levin focuses on graphic design and illustration, while Peng works with sculpture and fiber — and it wasn’t until after graduation that they finally collaborated. 

Artist Kentaro Kumanomido poses in front of his work, “Regarding Redemption,” installed at MaTovu in partnership with PSA. Photo by Michael Thomas.

Their inspiration came in the form of grant funding from the Futures Fund, facilitated by the St. Louis gallery and arts organization The Luminary on Cherokee Street, where they first launched PSA. The project was originally intended to be a series of six installations, but it was so well-received that Levin and Peng felt they had to keep it going. 

Both Levin and Peng understand how powerful language can be, which is why they made it the foundation of PSA. They believe the project represents not only a way for people to engage with art in a different format, but to engage with language in a way that is often foreign to our typical daily experience of it. 

“We love the capacity of language as public art to be very accessible to the wider public,” Levin says. “That was really important for us when devising PSA. These messages are a way to connect with people that can be very interpretative depending on how contributors approach the assignment. It’s rare, when you are just going about your daily life, to come across a message that is not just trying to sell you something or give you directions.”

Kentaro Kumanomido, whose PSA-facilitated installation is currently on display in Botanical Heights at the inclusive Jewish neighborhood center and community space MaTovu, was drawn to the project because of its focus on language and accessibility.

“Regarding Redemption” by artist Kentaro Kumanomido on view outside of MaTovu in Botanical Heights. Photo by Michael Thomas.

“Most of what we see publicly, in terms of visual information, is commercial,” Kumanomido says. “Thinking about where you see something other than that, it’s usually in an art museum or gallery, which are not always the most accessible or inviting spaces to the public. To have public art in general is really powerful, and to have language-based public art is also very unique, powerful, and surprising.” 

Like all of the installations at MaTovu so far, Kumanomido’s work is offered in the form of a question. His piece, titled “What If My Mistakes Meant More Than Mourning?”, is a question he’s been asking himself for the past few years — and one that he felt compelled to bring to life.

“When (Levin and Peng) approached me, they framed the project by asking what questions I had been really sitting with recently,” Kumanomido says. “The first thing that came to mind was really about reconciling with the experiences of the last couple of years — projects that started out hopeful and really went astray. How do we cope with these experiences that sort of feel like we have crashed and burned, or things that feel like losses because they didn’t turn out like we thought they (would)? Rather than sweeping them under the rug and wanting to forget about them, I wanted to ask myself what I learned and how I can use what I learned in some kind of constructive manner. How can I build upon this experience and not say I wasted time and energy, rather than trying to move on too quickly?”

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Shannon Levin (pictured left) and Marina Peng install “Your Refuge” by artist Saj Issa on the exterior of The Luminary on Cherokee Street. Photos by Mabel Suen.

A few people who’ve seen Kumanomido’s piece have reached out to let him know how much it has resonated with them and how it’s helped them open up about vulnerabilities in their own lives. Kumanomido says he’s honored that his work has touched people in positive ways. He believes this speaks to the power of the text-based nature of the installation and the larger mission of PSA.

“The way we typically encounter language is either as a practical, communications-style purpose or in literature,” Kumanomido says. “The most abstract and artistic we get to (experience it) is poetry, but beyond that, having language be a public art means there is a suggestion or anticipation that the viewer will sit with it like they may a painting. It’s a different set of parameters for how the viewer experiences language, so I think it encourages the viewer to really sink in and go inside themselves to contemplate their own inner landscape and set of meanings around it.” 

Saj Issa, who is currently exhibiting with PSA at its space on the side of The Luminary’s building, also hopes that those who see her work will ask questions, not because they seek out the work to prompt them, but because they feel something stir within them after viewing it.

Artist Saj Issa poses next to her work, “Your Refuge,” on the exterior of The Luminary on Cherokee Street. Photo by Mabel Suen.

“I think that the person who I want to reach is the everyday, average person,” Issa says. “I want to engage people, to force people to engage with art rather than going to a place they feel is not accessible for them. For the average person, most art institutions can feel intimidating, so the more public art that is put out there, the more that we can make people feel interested in art.”

Issa’s installation, six banners that ask the question, “What Garden Will You Assemble When The Walls Are Torn Down?” is complementary to her recent visual work centered around the war in Gaza. When the conflict began, Issa, who is Palestinian-American, painted one poppy flower a day to represent the Palestinian lives lost and handed her work out to people at protests around the city. In early March 2024, she gave out every painting she’d made as a poignant symbol that coincided with the seasonal poppy bloom in Palestine — one that juxtaposed new life springing up out of tragedy and destruction. With her PSA piece, which also incorporates poppies around the text, Issa wants those who see it to reckon with this moment in history.

“I created this as a question to prompt viewers to consider what community they will create when the empires fall,” Issa says. “Throughout the past several years, we’ve been living through a world of mass protest centered around abuses of power, and we are in need of some solidarity from one another as we all continue to educate ourselves on the way that liberation is a collective action and to reflect on the allyships we will build. I wanted people to see a statement in addition to the poppy flowers because it gives context.”

“Your Refuge” by artist Saj Issa on view on the exterior of The Luminary on Cherokee Street. Photo by Mabel Suen.

While Levin and Peng only intended for PSA to be a limited project, additional funding from the National Academy of Design’s Abbey Mural Prize has allowed them to expand their work in an ongoing capacity and continue to offer a platform to even more St. Louis artists. The pair are always in conversation about what the project will look like going forward, and continually strive for ways to amplify the voices of artists. Beyond The Luminary and MaTovu, PSA installations have been exhibited on the outside of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as part of its 2021 Stories of Resistance program. 

“I don’t think we could have done PSA anywhere else but in St. Louis,” Levin says. “We were able to get this grant money that is available to local artists. The art community is so robust and tight-knit, so we were able to have the resources we needed to do it. But also, the project gained so much momentum, love, and support from the art community and beyond. We’ve had so many people here express their support and appreciation for these periodic messages. It’s very affirming.”

Pictured from left to right: Marina Peng, Kentaro Kumanomido, and Shannon Levin pose together at MaTovu. (Photo by Michael Thomas.) Peng, Saj Issa, and Levin pose together at The Luminary. (Photo by Mabel Suen.)

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