Charlotte artists Sy Arden and Laura Rasmussen walk down 36th Street in NoDa with a few, small, wrapped packages in their hands. Arden turns the corner outside of Smelly Cat Coffeehouse and eyes the perfect location for what she has in mind. She takes one of the square objects she's holding that's wrapped in saran wrap (to protect it from the elements) with a handwritten note on it and tucks it into a corner. After snapping a few photos of its location, her "art drop" is done. When someone happens to find the package — in an hour, in a week or in a month, however long it takes — they'll quickly become the owners of the art she's left behind.
This is the idea behind FreeArtQC, a branch of the global Free Art movement. Arden learned about it as a part-time resident of Nashville and became so entranced by the idea, that she is working to make it a part of Charlotte's art community. That is, once people discover it.
The idea is simple. Local artists offer free pieces or prints to whoever might happen across it randomly or find it thanks to scavenger hunt-like clues left on the FreeArtQC Facebook page and Twitter feed. The person who finds it is instructed to take a photo of themselves with the art and post it on the same page. It's an easy and exciting way to get the spotlight on local artists and a fun way for local art collectors or stumblers-upon to appreciate the local art that's made.
Sure, it's fun to take the clues and go hunting for whatever was left behind — if it's still there by the time you get to the location — but it's also interesting for someone who just happens to see something a bit askew and read a note that says, "Congratulations! You've found free art!"
"It brings excitement about your environment that you lose as an adult," Arden says. "If you watch a little kid — everything is something they found. This is a way for adults and grown-ups to be excited about their surroundings."
Arden, who is also a musician, launched FreeArtQC in November of last year, but it's slowly picking up steam as she shares the idea with other local artists, such as Rasmussen. While some artists might scoff at the idea of giving their work away for free, Arden sees it more as a way to showcase local artists and their talent. When people find a cool piece of art, they're talking about it with friends, sharing the story on social media and perhaps looking at the other work artists have created. If they join the FreeArtQC Facebook page, they'll see other art by numerous artists that's been found.
"I think it's about getting people excited about art," Rasmussen says. "That's probably the most important thing — to get them involved. Maybe they own their first piece or add to their collection of 100. Maybe they find it and give it to someone else who might love it. I just want to create interest and help tell the story."
We're not talking about massive canvases or giant works of art, though anything is possible. For the most part, the artists have been leaving behind smaller works — about the size of a CD case. They've left prints or smaller items around the city. Arden hopes participating artists will "drop" works that someone would want to find, not just something they don't want.
"I don't have so much control, but I want it to be things of quality — things you love a little bit," Arden says. "This is not the company Christmas party with a $5 gift exchange. It might be a really cool doodle you did, but maybe you can go get a cheap frame. I would hope that it is something someone would be happy to find. I like the idea that someone is walking their dog or drinking a latte and they see something and pick it up. I want people to be excited they found it, not have it be some toss-away thing. In Nashville, there are jewelry makers that are involved. Some people make little baskets. It can be crafts. It should be something you'd want to find."
For the artists, they might make a new fan or friend, and get a bit of exposure for their work. For the finder, it's a new piece to put in their home or a story to tell friends. Once the idea catches on, there's no doubt people will be paying more attention to their surroundings, wondering if they might happen to find a random work of art.
"Nashville has a free art movement. Atlanta, Miami, London, New York, too. Why not Charlotte?," Arden says. "This can only benefit the community and artists. It's in the infancy stages, still."
For many cities, the idea is tied to "Free Art Friday" — the day most art drops happen for that particular city. At this point, Arden is just hoping to get things started, so drops are happening whenever someone would like.
A South Carolina-based artist, Flavia Lovatelli heard about FreeArtQC and gave two pieces to Rasmussen for her to drop around the city, since she doesn't live here. There are two in the stack Rasmussen holds as the duo walks around NoDa leaving their gifts.
Arden has made art drops at various places in the past few months, often choosing a location that could use more traffic or attention, or places where art lovers might happen to go. One left outside of the McColl Center for Art & Innovation was posted online with the clue, "Went to church and dropped another. Not a place to worship unless you're an art lover."
Not all found art is posted online after its discovery. Rasmussen is still unsure what happened to one of her pieces, but that is part of the fun.
"I'm a little bit crestfallen, but I understand," she says. "My dad isn't computer savvy. Maybe a homeless person found it. It could be anything. It doesn't have to be shared. It's giving a gift to anyone. If someone opened it and looked at it and took it home... as long as it has a good home, that's where it needs to be."
They often wrap their items in saran wrap to help protect against rain and, most importantly, are sure to respect boundaries and space around any business where a piece of art might be left. One piece was left on the sign outside of Aerial CLT as an effort for Arden to bring some attention to Cube Noda.
As for the Facebook and Twitter feeds, Arden is quick to point out it's not about self-promotion. It's about a scavenger hunt. Some Free Art sites have hundreds if not thousands of people participating who are all there to be a part of the movement, not for individual art shows.
As Arden and Rasmussen walk around NoDa on this brisk Monday morning, they keep their eyes open for different places to make another drop. They ask a business about leaving one in their front window. They search for places that aren't hidden where they might never be found, but someplace where an observant person might happen upon it.
"Charlotte requires artists to not only be artists, but to be community organizers," Arden notes. "I would love for it to take off and be a cool way for emerging artists, established artists and the guy who's building ships in a bottle in his basement to share what they're doing and have people get excited about it. Everyone has a great story to tell after it's found."
BE A PART OF FREE ART
Artists: You place your art somewhere in the city with a note letting the finder know they are the recipient of free art. The note should say something to the effect of: Congratulations! You just found free art! Please take a photo and post it to Facebook with the hashtags FAFQC, FreeArtQC, FAQC and tag the artist. Feel free to join the FreeArtQC Facebook page for more art drop notifications. Enjoy your new art! After making the "art drop," the artist takes photos as clues of where the item is located. The photos and any clues are posted on the Free Art QC Facebook page and Twitter (@FreeArtQC) with the same hashtags above. And then? You just wait until someone posts that it was found, or assume that it has made its way into a good home.
Art-seekers: Keep an eye on the Facebook and Twitter feeds for clues to where the latest art drop has happened — or just keep an eye out as you're wandering around town. When you find a piece of "free art" that was left to be discovered, take a photo with it and post it to the Facebook page and Twitter with those same hashtags — FAFQC, FreeArtQC, FAQC — so the artist knows their work was found. Enjoy your free art!