The Big Zipper
In Meadville, Pennsylvania, known as the birthplace of the zipper, artists, community activists, and a local nonprofit spearheaded a community-led art installation and pop-up galleries in vacant retail spaces. The inspiration for the project? The zipper. Now a taken-for-granted clothing feature, the zipper holds special significance in Meadville.
Over the course of the summer of 2015, the Meadville Neighborhood Center and Steve Prince, artist in residence at Allegheny College, initiated the summer-long collaborative art project. Mr. Prince cut zipper pieces – that is, the individual prongs of a zipper – out of wood and distributed them to community members at 25 wood carving workshops. The project team held the workshops outside large retail stores, senior living facilities, the college, and elsewhere in Meadville. Community members used tools to carve one-of-a-kind designs into the wooden pieces. The individual pieces were then combined to create one large zipper.
The wood carving workshops were about more than creating art for art’s sake; they provided a space for healing and discussion. Neighbors reflected on the days when the zipper factory, and other industry, were in full operation and the main streets of Meadville were lively and vibrant. The zipper pieces they carved together, however, represented the strength of the community that still remains. “The factory may be gone but what is still here is the people and the community,” Steve Prince reflected.
As the project’s culminating event, Mr. Prince, the Meadville Neighborhood Center, and volunteers held a public celebration in the city’s commercial district. All of the individual wooden zipper pieces were combined into a single piece of artwork: The Big Zipper, symbolizing how people come together to form a community. The Big Zipper was coated in ink and then an industrial steamroller drove over it, imprinting the design on a canvas and creating a permanent art piece.
The Big Zipper was used to inspire new investment in vacant spaces throughout the city. Nonprofit leaders secured temporary use of a storefront that had been vacant for more than a decade to create a temporary pop-up art gallery space. Taking place over a weekend, the pop-up gallery displayed the Big Zipper canvas alongside art youth residents created. Community members were eager to come see the final product of their combined creativity and to connect with each other about the experience.
By convening people in formerly vacant spaces, the project leaders were determined to attract fresh energy to the downtown’s small-scale commercial district. They invited staff from the redevelopment authority to the pop-up event to share business development resources with first-time business owners, in the hopes of inspiring entrepreneurs to reactivate the. The partnership paid off. The site of the pop-up gallery is now home to a fine arts gallery and shop. Three additional pop-up galleries followed the first, each leading to reactivation of vacant storefronts.
Property Type: Commercial Structure
Project Type/ New Use: Art – Small Scale (e.g. painting; performance; visual)
Project Purpose: Community engagement; Decrease commercial vacancy
Duration: Once / Single Day
Initial Cost: Under $10,000
Funding Source: Individual contributions; Philanthropic; In kind services
Organization Type: Artist(s)
Implementation Partners: Academia
Community Type: Rural