City of Syracuse and University Collaborate Through Poster Project Including Art, Poetry

The Syracuse Poster Project illustrates the city in a vibrant way that contrasts the gloomy reputation that encompasses it.

"Sulfur scent, dragons linger, glow like jellyfish, spit smoke, float; fireworks." 


This is the haiku on which illustration senior Lindsey Leigh chose to center her contribution to the Syracuse Poster Project.

 The Poster Project’s premise is simple: community members write haikus, which are illustrated by SU students. The best 16 each year are printed and installed in downtown kiosks.

Photo: Courtesy of Jim Emmons and the Syracuse Poster Project

The Project, a nonprofit civic arts initiative founded in 2001 by Jim Emmons, was created to address the problem of empty kiosks downtown. The kiosks, which were intended to showcase advertisements from local businesses, had limited success, as merchants weren’t using them.

This prompted Emmons to get in touch with (now recently retired) SU professor Roger DeMuth to propose a collaboration with SU that would bring the community together in a creative way. Emmons “piggy-backed” on the idea of The Syracuse New Times’ “SyraHaikus” poetry contest: people writing short poems about Syracuse.

The Syracuse Poster Project invites anyone in the city and surrounding areas to write and submit haikus about “the city, the neighboring countryside or downtown” each summer. Poets are allowed to submit up to three poems each, and they are screened by board members of the project to select what they consider to be the best ones, which end up getting passed on to student artists at SU. Of these, students grab a handful of poems at random and choose which one they want to illustrate.

New features of the project include a blog that runs themed haikus which correspond to different times of the year, as well as a “Haiku of the Day” which gets posted on the organization’s Facebook and Twitter. Emmons says the project is trying to develop more of an ongoing sharing of haikus so that it’s not just a “once a year thing” with the release of the posters.

Emmons says the project strives to make downtown “look vibrant, creative and entrepreneurial” and that he hopes people take away an impression of Syracuse as “an alive, creative city.”

“I think it’s a way for people to think about their community and to express their experience,” Emmons said. “If you feel strongly about your community, what is your opportunity to express that normally? Maybe you join the Chamber of Commerce, or tell all your friends how much you enjoy or appreciate the community, but there aren’t so many ways of actually having people think about that and having them voice it in a creative way that gets out to the public. So it’s that opportunity to think about the community, express yourself about the community, and then know that your expression gets shared.”

However, the project routinely faces the challenge of raising enough money to print and promote the posters. Since the Poster Project is a nonprofit organization, Emmons says there is no reliable, recurring source of independent funding each year. The organization relies mainly on charitable grants and donations, the seeking of corporate sponsorships and the selling of poster prints online to sustain itself.

On The Poster Project’s website, visitors can purchase prints of older series’ posters, either individually or in sampler packages. The prints come with information about the poet and the artists to try to “give customers a sense of who these people are,” Emmons said. The organization also sells related products, including greeting cards, postcards and booklets of poems from the archives that have yet to be illustrated.

“All of the money we make from selling products goes back into the cost of producing the poster series,” Emmons said, reporting that sales accounted for about one-third of the organization’s revenues.

Emmons reflected on the moments when everyone’s hard work paid off, and the project was really able to go the extra mile. A few summers ago, he said that the Poster Project received a grant to reach out to the South Side of Syracuse. They took posters that had been retired from past series and which were relevant to the South Salina St. neighborhood and offered them to public venues such as libraries, barber shops and community centers for permanent installation.

Another collaboration the organization worked on involved the commissioning of a commemorative design for Onondaga Community College’s 50th anniversary. The Poster Project commissioned an artist from the campus to create a landscape painting of OCC’s campus, which was then publicized with a call for people to complement it with a poem. It became one of the poster series’ regular posters and was used on the campus as a design for keepsake gift items such as notecards and book covers.

Joe Murphy, a board member of The Poster Project and former SU illustration student, reflected on his experience on both ends of the project. He serves as a liaison between Emmons and the illustration professors who teach the senior students, Marty Blake and John Thompson.

“It was a lot of fun because it was the first project that I made that I had a lot of pride in, because it actually got published, and it was shown throughout the city of Syracuse,” Murphy said. The poem he chose to illustrate when he was a senior in 2007 was about Tipperary Hill, a historic section of Syracuse known for its rich Irish heritage and its unique traffic light, which features the green light at the top instead of the bottom.

“I just felt really happy to illustrate something about the old Irish neighborhoods in Syracuse, because I’m Irish, and I’m from Syracuse. Just seeing those posters hung throughout the city made me feel really good,” Murphy said. 

When asked what he sees as the most meaningful impact the Poster Project has on his students, Thompson said, “The students get to see their work in print. This is their first real job that’s going to get printed, so they have to understand who they’re speaking to, and that it’s going to be in a kiosk where people are walking by and that they’re going to see their work. So they put their best into it.”

“As far as the community, I think it beautifies the downtown,” Thompson said. “You see that it’s all about Syracuse, and it’s combining art and poetry together to put whatever they’re talking about in its best light. So basically, they’re seeing this poster about themselves because they are Syracuse.”

Describing why she chose the haiku she did, Leigh, who is one of Thompson’s students, said, “For my project, it was about a local fireworks show. I was really inspired to do a whimsical piece with dragons and some really fantastical colors.”

Leigh said that the poems her peers chose to illustrate ranged in topic from such landmarks as The Saltine Warrior to the Carrier Dome. “It really brought together the community with the illustration students here,” she said.

The senior illustration student also noted that it was important to recognize a divide that sometimes is present between SU students and the surrounding Syracuse community: “I think there is kind of a tendency for students to just stay on campus and not really go out and experience the community,” she said.

As for what students can take away from being part of the community in general, Murphy suggests attending arts events in the city. He noted CNY Arts as a potential resource that lists arts organizations in Syracuse and their events.

Murphy also stated that The Poster Project is seeking more volunteers this year. Those interested can volunteer in any capacity they are willing to, from running the project’s tables at arts and crafts fairs to requesting to sit in on monthly board meetings, which usually take place the first Wednesday of every month at the Nancy Cantor Warehouse.

He also noted that the project currently has a few interns who help with the business side of the project. “They’re working on a project that is intensely local. So for those people who work with us, they are understanding a little bit about how the city works,” Emmons said.

Said Leigh: “We are part of the community as a school – we may think we’re kind of separate, but we’re all a part of the same Syracuse community, so it’s important to keep that in mind.”

The unveiling event of the new poster series for the 2016 year is scheduled to be held downtown at The Atrium at 6 pm on Thursday, April 14.

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