Amy Orr is a graffiti artist, but her medium is not the typical spray paint on urban walls, but various “street finds”—keys, small toys, cut up credit cards and beads—bound to traffic poles by metal wire to create what she calls “surprise poles.”
“My background is in textiles … and I kind of work on this the same way I would work on a quilt,” Orr said. “I’m taking pieces of accumulations that people have and trying to configure them into a new life. These ordinary street signs are then transformed into little public quilts, made of the essence of the city itself.”
Orr is drawn to the idea of displaying her work on the streets, where most of her materials are collected.
“I’ve got jars and jars of street finds,” she said.
Her work ranges from themed poles—one covered in buttons in the “Fabric District” on Fourth Street between South and Christian streets, another located outside the zoo decorated with plastic animals and a third dressed in plastic eyes outside of her eye doctor’s office—to pieces simply celebrating items found in the street.
Orr’s work on Main Campus focuses on things left behind. Her four “surprises poles” are located outside the Tyler School of Art, by the Bell Tower and at Broad and Diamond streets.
“I want to engage people and make them think, because it’s often about repurposing these little remnants that everybody has, and to think a little bit about art, and how we can reuse and how things can be remade into something that gives it a second life, which art often does,” Orr said.
“This is kind of like the anti-craft,” she added. “I try not to make any rules.”
This spontaneous nature is not the only central aesthetic principle of her project—growth is also an important component.
Orr’s first decorated pole is a street sign outside her home and studio in West Philadelphia, decorated from top to bottom with wire, toys, strings, beads and other trinkets. From there, she began decorating poles in places relevant to her life and childhood growing up in Philadelphia, like her regular trolley stops to her old elementary school.
Now, the locations are less personal, but engage more actively with the community.
“I try to put them in a location and then also somehow relate them to the people who might be nearby, who might enjoy them,” Orr said. “The places are all related to me as much as they are to every Philadelphian.”
Orr hopes to expand her project more than ever with the help of four Tyler interns. She plans to put up multiple surprise poles in locations including Fourth Street, South Street, Old City and the University of Pennsylvania’s campus.
“I think it brings attention to the small details,” said intern and senior fibers major Anna Harland. “Instead of being focused on our phones or distracted by a test or something, I’ve noticed people who walk by and they’ll stop and turn around and take time to just get lost in [Orr’s] piece.”
Orr has an ever-growing following of graffiti artists on her Instagram account and with the expansion of her project, more and more people are engaging with her art in public spaces.
While the placement of her artwork may be technically illegal, no one has ever bothered Orr while displaying it—not even police officers.
“I really like the posts that say ‘no stopping here,’” she said. “Because you just have to stop.”
Lindsay Hargrave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.