Hunter Franks creates ways for people to share introspections, hear other people’s stories, and reimagine social norms. His practice encompasses community-based public art, visual work, writing, and installation. He shares cultural commentary and conducts actions that display that we are all far more similar than we are different. As people begin to contemplate their own role in shaping culture, they begin to reimagine the possibilities present for connection, empathy, love, and joy within their own lives, their neighborhood, and their city.
His projects include a 500 person dinner on a freeway, a storytelling exchange to connect disparate neighborhoods, a swing on a subway, and a year of creative daily lists. His Neighborhood Postcard Project has been carried out in 26 communities around the world from Chennai, India to Santiago, Chile and he is the founder of the League of Creative Interventionists, a nationwide network of community catalysts using art and culture to reimagine their cities.
His work has been carried out in public spaces and venues around the United States including the de Young Museum, Mural Arts Program, Asian Art Museum, 111 Minna Gallery, Akron Art Museum, Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, and Detroit’s Eastern Market. His work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, Fast Company, Curbed, and Univision.
In 2014, Franks was named to GOOD Magazine’s GOOD 100, an annual showcase of individuals at the cutting-edge of creative impact. In 2016, he was chosen to participate in the Studio Residency Program at Root Division, a San Francisco arts non-profit. In 2017, Franks received a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Fellowship to address equity. In 2018, his idea to transform a freeway into a forest won the Knight Cities Challenge, a nationwide call for civic ideas.
Franks is currently an Alumni Studio Artist at Root Division, serves on the Community Advisory Group for the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (de Young museum and Legion of Honor), resides in Northern California, and speaks about his work around the country.
Kacy (K): Hi Hunter, thank you so much for being interviewed by me. Can you tell me a little bit about your practice? What you do, what is your art aim to speak for?
Hunter (H): My practice consists of both visual work and work out in public space. I’m interested in how people share with each other and how we create connections with each other as humans. I create ways for that to happen.
So much of the world right now, for a long time, has been, especially in cities, we are way more lonely than we’ve ever been before, as a country and a society. There’s a lot of value in hearing people’s stories and hearing other people’s stories. And I’ve been able to do that. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by very diverse friends and people around me. I think that a lot of the challenges that we face and a lot of the wounds, wars, and other things that are happening and have happens are a result of not actually seeing each other as human and connecting as humans, but rather seeing the differences. I envision a world where we’re able to see each other as unique stories.
K: What was your background before you switch to art? I remember it was the graphic design? H: I wanted to be a graphic designer when I came out of college and moved here with that intention. I studied studio art with a graphic design emphasis and also communications. For me, it was the easiest way to get my art out into the world. And I was doing t-shirt designs for a while. But nothing that really stuck. When I first moved here, I was working in a hotel as a bellman carrying bags for people and entering a design contest to redesign the sfmta logo.
And from there, I got introduced to the mayor’s office of civic innovation. They were the ones that put the contest on. I learned a lot about all sorts of different issues around cities, thinking about how to create spaces for people, connect neighborhoods and neighbors. I left there with a long-term internship, six months. And then I got set out on my own to do those similar kinds of projects, thinking about neighborhoods, people, and how to create projects that could connect.
For me, it was really after the mayor’s office was when I know what I was going to do. At that point, I know that I’m going to be an artist. And I know that I’m not going to make paintings or sculptures but do it in this way that, you know, some people call it social practice art.
"So much of the world right now, for a long time, has been, especially in cities, we are way more lonely than we’ve ever been before, as a country and a society. There’s a lot of value in hearing people’s stories and hearing other people’s stories."
K: I remember you told me that you don’t just want to make artworks that people put on the wall. You want to touch people’s hearts.
H: I guess in college, I thought a little bit into like Banksy and street artist and that sort of thing. And could see that there was more than just graphic design, which is more about brand design, packaging design, and that sort of thing. But with what I see, I was starting to understand that street art could have more of an impact on someone’s life and persuade them to think about something differently or look at something in the world differently.
It wasn’t just art to go on to the wall in someone’s house. I mean, of course, I would love to have a $20 million painting and galleries. But I’m less interested in that as I am creating something that really moves someone. But I hadn’t really thought about it again until I came here and started to see that there was more opportunity for me here in San Francisco.
K: May I ask why don’t you pursue what you really want to do at beginning but choose graphic design instead? What make up your mind leaving graphic design world?
H: I guess with graphic design, for me, it’s a lot of being in front of the computer, which I don’t love to do. So that’s just like a practical answer as part of it. I still do design, like business cards or logos for the projects. I still on top of graphic design. It’s just like to have a job as a graphic designer is like, a lot of time consistently at the computer. Everything is graphic design. Everything was designed by someone. So that was intriguing to me. But I don’t have the skills to really make anything beyond the stuff I was making for myself. Yeah.
K: How do you see the current capitalist system affect your art? To me, at the beginning, I choose a certain type of job rather than the thing I always dream about because it’s more financially stable and easier for me to get a job I guess. You probably already answered this question here and there. But I just want to ask again.
H: I think that the two are inherently tied together. Because that’s the kind of society we live in. I know people that worked a tech job and then quit and then start doing art, or have someone paying them to art somehow. But at the same time, I think there’s something valuable about trying to give the art value, even if you’re not as concerned about selling it, necessarily. But I think it’s a human thing to want to create stuff that other people see value in. And that is kind of what our market at least is.
But I think how it impacts my art personally, as I sometimes think about how it will be received before making it, and vice versa. So if I make something that I think is really cool and no one likes it, then I might not make it again. But if I make something that I don’t really like that much, but I think it will sell and it sells then I might be making. So it’s all kind of a balance.
Some people go in one direction and become a graphic designer advertising firm, where they get steady paychecks. Some people go the other way and make whatever they want to make for themselves and they try to make it enough money to do it. I don’t think there’s like a right or wrong approach but a spectrum. I think whatever feels good to that person is good.
K: Going back to your practice. I’m very curious, how do you foster your process and create a space or environment for people can connect? What is your approach?
H: I’m still learning practically the best ways to do that. I think for me, it’s a couple of things. One is listening to what people want. I see listening as an act of love. Almost just showing up and not expecting anything from anyone else. Show up to listen to the other person talk. I think there’s always some prejudice or stereotypes that are there. But I believe it’s possible to also just listen to what the other person has to say. Even if you vote for Trump, and I vote for the other person, we can still sit and talk to each other.
In our society, we get so set on. You vote for this person, and you vote for that person. Or you live here and I live there. Whatever it is that we don’t even allow the other person to talk. Sometimes we’re so sure that we know the right answer. So one thing I’ve learned is just to show up and listen. There are so many different techniques when it comes to creating a safe space, depending on the projects, the setting, and the environment. But I think the most important thing is creating something that’s really accessible to people.
I’m interested in figuring out how to create spaces for people to connect in a meaningful way, outside of just showing up in the same space. If you’re all Republicans, Democrats, black people, white people, rich people, poor people, etc, you’re not really having any sort of meaningful interaction with people having different perspectives. Maybe you both like the same sports team, but is that really gonna do anything to connect you? Probably not. I think having more and more realizing and having conversations in a meaningful way is important in that matter. I am still learning how to do that, and this is something I’m thinking more and more about.
And I actually just applied to a job, which I haven’t done in seven years because I’ve been self-employed. It’s called the Director of Inviting Spaces in Tenderloin. And it’s about creating spaces for people to come in and use. I have done a lot of public space work around the country. And I really wanted to be in one place close to where I live, like you’re saying, do it in a continual way over time.
Of course, I can do it on my own also and apply for grants, which is how most of my public space work is funded, or has been in the past. It’s like a constant hustle of doing that. The Tenderloin Community Benefit District got funded by some of the businesses. They put in a certain tax to a fund, and that fund provides money for different sorts of projects to improve the neighborhood. Wednesday is my interview.
Also, I think that part of the challenge is that capitalism doesn’t like the consistency of vulnerability, feelings, or emotion. It’s ok to have a moment of sharing our feelings, doing meditation, or something. But then it’s like get back to work now. I think that capitalism affects that also. If you think about it, could I show up in the same place every week just to create something? Yes. And are you getting paid for it? Probably not. So like, how to create this kind of space, and it’s why I am interested in this job is that it is actually paying someone to do that kind of stuff. K: Good luck with your interview. I know you will get it.
H: Thanks. I’m excited and also nervous about, like, having a full-time job. And what that would mean for being at Root Division working less consistently. But I think it also could be really great having that kind of structure. Right now I don’t have that kind of structure and it’s really unstable. Like if somebody wants something, and then you are working on something.
K: Thanks so much for participating, Hunter!
Website | http://www.hunterfranks.com/
Instagram | @studiohunterfranks
The interview with Hunter is part of an ongoing photo-sculputure project "21 Grams, the Weight of Souls - Grocery Bag". His headshot is converted into a soft sculpture to capture the external and internal struggle of who were battling between having a remunerative career and pursuing their dreams.
21 Grams, the Weight of Souls - Grocery Bag #7 Printable fabric and resin 15'' (H) x 12'' (W) x 8'' (D) 2021