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Art takes on a new face in downtown Syracuse

Art takes on a new (famous) face in downtown Syracuse

The Syracuse Poster Project celebrates the work of artists while aiming to create connections.

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Theoplis Stewart II
Posters created by local literary and visual artists on display in downtown Syracuse as part of the Syracuse Poster Project.

The Syracuse Poster Project was created in 2001 to bring together artists of all backgrounds to commemorate Central New York. This year, the non-profit organization will be entering its 23rd year anniversary with the theme, “Famous Faces of Syracuse.”

The poster project hosts an annual event in April to showcase local poets and artists’ work to the public. After poets submit their Haiku or short-form poetry, artists receive four options to design a poster around one of the poem themes. The artwork is then displayed in downtown Syracuse in framed panels where they remain for the year.

Every year, out of approximately 35 artists and 80 poets, three are selected for a chance to win $500, $300 or $100.

Co-founder and project coordinator Jim Emmons created this year’s theme to challenge artists’ imaginations. Rather than highlighting the location, the organization decided to focus on the people, or the “famous faces,” of Syracuse.

“We’re hoping that people do feel inspired to write poems about the historical characters,” he said. “We want the resulting posters not to feel like a musty gallery of old-time people. We want the posters to somehow feel modern, even though they are referencing historic characters.”

Although the theme may be operating differently this year, the organization includes some loyal members, contributing year after year. Poet and retired high school English teacher Ellen Agnew, for example, has been working with the poster project since its conception.

“It brings together two different arts, which is an interesting thing to do,” Agnew said. “Oftentimes why I think people are isolated, if you’re a painter or print maker, you’re labeled that and you aren’t brought together with people who are doing another form of art.”

Growing up in New England, Agnew began writing poetry at the age of 10 but has recognized there are few opportunities for poets to showcase their work to the public. She applauds Emmons for his efforts to provide a platform for artists to display their work.

“A lot of the artists you know who have created the artwork have not had an opportunity to exhibit their work,” Agnew said. 

Kathleen O’Dell, who won second place in the 2023 contest, focuses her art around women’s rights and social justice. When she was brainstorming her poster last year, she drew inspiration from her daughter’s field trip to a Haudenosaunee exhibit. The visit inspired her to design a pregnant Haudenosaunee woman, drawing on her personal interests in the suffrage movement and the matrilineal power held by indigenous women.

“I’ve always been interested in Native American Studies,” O’Dell said. “I did this piece based on another Native American woman. I saw the poem and I knew instantly that was the one I wanted to do.”

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Theoplis Stewart II
Passerby observes Kathleen O’Dell’s poster on display for the Syracuse Poster Project on South Salina Street.

O’Dell’s poster featured the following poem written by Fayetteville local Rick Portine: “Haudenosaunee / Long-lasting democracy / Peacemaker guidance.”

According to Emmons, most of the workers at the poster project are volunteers. In the future, he hopes to transition from volunteers to employees who will be paid for their contributions.

The Syracuse Poster Project unites the Central New York visual and literary art community. To O’Dell, seeing the posters around the city is a visual history lesson about the community and the annual themes.

“You might see statues or things around that you just don’t think twice about. It’s a chance to find out more,” O’Dell said. “If somebody saw my poster, it might lead them to inquire about Haudenosaunee, ‘What is this all about?’ It’s a fun thing, it brightens the city.”