PART III: Chasing the human moment in Madison’s street art

A Place For All People A Place For All People mural by artist Sharon Kilfoy at the Wil-Mar Center in Jenifer Street. | Elizabeth Lang | MAD STREET ART |

Street art speaks to people. It’s a character in a city. It livens up a public space or provokes discussions because of its innate subversive nature of dissent. In Madison street art is only merely rising. It’s a movement making its way to the city’s walls through aesthetically pleasing pieces with no political content, but with very social causes behind it. Because of that this is MAD STREET ART: a four-part story explaining how Madison’s street art responds to its politics.

 Here is the story of Madison’s street art. Part III of IV.

Madison’s tender and “cute” street art is a result of the city controlling what goes up on walls, but at the same time chases a moment of human interaction between the people who observe it in public spaces. That human instant happens when the spray paint makes its way to a wall from a can to become a large-scale art piece the people can observe and think about while looking at it.

The pursuit of that human moment is the main goal for James Gubbins, a Chicago street artist turned into businessman based in Madison. Through his work with the creation of his street art shop Momentum Art Tech as well as the Momentum Urban Arts Festival, Madison’s first street art festival, he seeks to depict the basic human emotions through street art and graffiti.

“Now we’re losing human interaction. If you put art on a street, you’re going to have to be on the street because at some point you’re going to see it,” Gubbins said. “That moment, right there, is what I’m chasing because you have to go see it. You have to make a plan or you have to talk to someone you don’t normally want to talk to.”

James Gubbins
James Gubbins created the Momentum Urban Arts Festival, Madison’s first street art festival. | Elizabeth Lang | MAD STREET ART |

That moment is what made him open his store at Cottage Grove Road in Monona Drive two years ago. He was seeking to create a community that is barely rising in Madison. That moment set him on chasing the ephemeral spray paint effect that an aerosol can produces on a wall.

He set out into speaking with business owners to get their permissions for street and graffiti artists to paint their walls defying the forbidden art of Madison. Gubbins set out into chasing the moment by providing artists a space to carry out legal graffiti and street art.

One of the graffiti murals in front of the Momentum Art Tech street art shop. | Elizabeth Lang |

“We want people to know that this is an industry and a culture. We want to see that, not everywhere, but we want it somewhere. That’s what we’re leading the way on, hopefully,” Gubbins said.

Leading the way onto building a movement to liven up the streets of the city led him to create this year Madison’s first street art festival called the Momentum Urban Arts Festival, which gathered about 90 artists from around the country to paint walls on the fourth weekend of August.

The festival was created to inspire a generation of artists.

“I just want to inspire a generation of artists. This is all I can sell as far as in a human way. Not in money. I’m selling just being human and that’s creating,” Gubbins said.

And selling just being human is part of the moment he is seeking through the walls of the city. That moment is also present in Sharon Kilfoy’s murals done through community art projects that address disparity and inequality.

Kilfoy founded the Dane Arts Mural Arts (DAMA) program five years ago along with Mark Freire, who previously worked for the Wisconsin Arts Board. She created the program with the purpose of helping neighborhoods with at-risk populations.

“I think it’s a much more political thing to do to give a kid a paintbrush and some hope rather than letting it kick a spray can and paint,” Kilfoy said.

Kilfoy has been a muralist for more than 20 years and is a woman driven to create community art projects with at-risk youth living in realities where they lack opportunities. She no longer works with DAMA, but continues her community art projects with the Williamson Street Art Center, which she also founded.

Sharon Kilfoy
Artist and muralist Sharon Kilfoy sees community art projects as tools to empower at-risk youth. | Elizabeth Lang | MAD STREET ART |

She is the mother of murals in the city, which is what Karin Wolf, Madison’s Arts Program Administrator in the city’s Planning Community and Economic Development department, calls her.

“Sharon Kilfoy kind of started all of this. She started DAMA. She’s the mother of murals in the city. She’s a master in getting permission,” Wolf said. “She knows who to go to and how to do it. She knows the property owners.”

The mother of murals only wants to make a difference in communities through these very social projects.

“What I’m doing is really trying to make a difference for communities and in particular for youth in those communities so that they have something that they can look at,” Kilfoy said.

“That they can say: My neighborhood is of value. My neighborhood matters enough. We’re important to be able to have some art. This is art that I helped to create and I’m going to bring my kids to see it,” Kilfoy said.

Kilfoy mural
One of Sharon Kilfoy’s murals in Williamson Street on the back wall of the neighborhood’s Social Justice Center. | Elizabeth Lang | MAD STREET ART |

For Kilfoy that translates into the human moment that addresses social ills.

“I think that obviously what I’m trying to address are the social ills of disparity and the lack of equal opportunity for all kids, neighborhoods, and communities,” Kilfoy said. “And the possibility of art to really serve as a catalyst for change that can really lead to healing.”

Equity Sticker
A sticker on a post on State Street speaking about equity. | Elizabeth Lang | MAD STREET ART |

And that healing is what Kilfoy needs to see a city government that listens more to its creative people to provide solutions for Madison.

“They should listen more to creative people. They should be seeking it a lot more advice than they are from creative people and young people,” Kilfoy said.

“I think they know that they’re trying to address ills that they’re not equipped to be able to solve, but they are afraid,” Kilfoy said. “They’re afraid that the job that they’ve taken on is too immense. I think that they’re afraid of losing their own income and their own power.”

The income and power of the city that controls the forbidden street art trying a little tenderness by chasing the human moment is the result of two Madisons.

If you want to meet the two unequal Madisons in MAD STREET ART read Part IV of IV.