Nearly six years ago, Joey Robert Parks came up with an idea: What if he paired writers and photographers to make an exhibit about Phoenix? Not just the major landmarks, but the inner city, the nooks and crannies, the regular buildings and side streets and open lots.
“I had the idea for a while, but I wasn’t doing anything with it,” Parks recalls. A professional ghost writer by trade, Parks had no extra funding for the project and he knew only a handful of potential collaborators. “But I think fear was the biggest reason.”
In November of 2009, a gifted pianist named Charles Wells died unexpectedly. Faced with mortality and the loss of a close friend, Parks decided to take action.
“I thought, ‘Why wait?’” remembers Parks. “I found one person, a web designer friend. And he said, ‘I love it. Let me design a website.’”
Since then, the exhibit "26 Blocks" has become a massive collaboration of 26 writers and 26 photographers, plus a bevy of sculptors and illustrators. The original idea was to randomly assign one writer and one photographer to a given city block. Together, the two artists would explore that block and describe its significance through words and image. Most of the writers and photographers are well established in Phoenix and have a significant following, people like Phoenix Magazine editor Ashlea Deahl, investigative reporter Malia Politzer, and 25-year photographer Scott Baxter, among others. The original exhibit toured around the city, but in January the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel offered to host "26 Blocks" until 2018. The project has attracted a range of sponsors, from Changing Hands Bookstore to Joyride Taco House.
On Thursday, September 17, Parks will lead a panel discussion about "26 Blocks" at the Renaissance. Organized by Arizona State University’s College of Arts and Letters series, the panel will discuss the exhibit’s concept, its impact on the community, and how it will expand in the future. Parks will converse about the project with poet Sally Ball, fine art photographer Scott Baxter, and fashion photographers John Beckett and Ellen Barnes.
Parks also hopes to discuss the exhibit’s flaws, such as the limited ethnic diversity of its contributors. Park did not intend to have a mostly-white pool of writers and photographers, but he plans to draw a more diverse pool of creative professionals in the future.
Cynics often imply that Phoenix has no distinct history or culture, and this sentiment irks Parks, who grew up in Phoenix and hopes that 26 Blocks will help locals and visitors appreciate the city’s richness and complexity.
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“Technically, Phoenix is 100 years old,” concedes Parks. “And really it’s only 50 years old, as an active, growing city. There is history here, but where are you looking? You have to dig. Sometimes you just have to talk to people who have lived here.”
In a way, the panel will help introduce the next stage of "26 Blocks": Parks plans to take the same concept to Detroit, a city he refers to as “the poster child of the recession.” Like Phoenix, Detroit is a sprawling, automotive city that many people write off. If all goes well, the series will expand exponentially. Within the next five years, Parks envisions hosting localized exhibits in up to 26 different cities – simultaneously. As an aspiring social entrepreneur, Parks’ goal is to turn the exhibit into a full-time job.
“Once you get sponsorship behind it, it’s very realistic,” says Parks. “It should keep me busy. I want to be doing 26 Blocks for the rest of my life.”
“26 Blocks Art Project and Its Meaning” takes place September 17 at the Renaissance Downtown Phoenix Hotel. 6:30 p.m. Admission is free. See more at the ASU event page.