Q+A with city and development creative strategist Erika Roberts

Photo via Morgan Smith from Creative Moon Productions

Profile: Erika Roberts is a poet who wears many hats within the community — from serving as the City of Chattanooga’s creative strategist + the development project Westside Evolves’ creative strategist, to a Fall 2021 Community Creatives Fellow with the Chattanooga Design Studio.

What is your name, job (or jobs), and 3-5 things you think that people should know about you?

My name is Erika Roberts. All the jobs? Creative strategist for the city for 2020, creative strategist for Glass House Collective, creative strategist under the Westside Evolves project, which was with a company out of Washington, EJP. And now, a fellow at the Chattanooga Design Studio. The only 1 that’s kind of slacked off is probably the city part, but I still am available to do that — I did that for all of 2020.

  1. I’m left handed.
  2. I’m a grandmother.
  3. I love documentaries.
  4. I’m obsessed with matcha.

How long have you lived in Chattanooga, and why have you stayed?

I’ve been here all my life, I was born and raised here. I stayed because I had kids and, you know, life or whatever. But they’re grown now, and I think the reason I stayed now is because there’s so much more work that I can do as a creative. And so a lot of those doors have been open and I feel like there’s still some unfinished business to do in that way.

How would you define the word creative strategist?

Yeah. So it’s a trendy word, such a buzzword. There’s some different things that it can mean based on what the community is, so if you’re in Silicon Valley, with all the tech nodes, I think a creative strategist would be someone that can be creatively sound with technology. In this realm that I’m working in, with the community and other artists, a creative strategist comes out in the form of being able to synthesize ideas that have the possibility of being creative — maybe someone can’t think through it, and sparking that idea. I do believe that we all are creatives, it’s a difference between us choosing what clothes to wear in the daytime. But I think there’s a certain niche that happens with the creatives and their expression. And so that strategy, it almost sounds like an oxymoron in a weird way, because creatives aren’t usually that strategic. But this is talking about where you’re placing the creativity in a project or in a community — how are you using it?

Can you tell us a bit more about the Westside Evolves Project that you’ve been working on?

The Westside Evolves Project is a reimagining or re-envisioning of College Hill Courts for a new take on that area. So that stewardship is Chattanooga Design Studio and Chattanooga Housing. That encompasses the entire Westside district, specifically College Hill, and some of the Gateway Towers and Dogwood Manor up on the hill there. My role in it was creative strategists over the art and doing some of the engagement with the community. When you go into a community, and you want to know what they want, you need to have someone that can ask them, you know, those questions. I was tasked with being a part of the engagement team, but also working on an artistic legacy piece that would kind of accommodate the entire past, present, and history of that community as it begins to change, because when that happens — when a community begins to go through that change — the first thing that usually goes is the name, and then history kind of slides away. We wanted to preserve it, so it was part of my job — how do you preserve that? And we chose to use art to do that. 

Under EJP I created an artistic team and called them the Imagination Team. It was a couple of artists, Andrew Travis, Ben Banks, April Corbett, Charlie Newton all of these amazing artists on their own, but coming together to help create artistic, lasting print of the community. So we did oral histories and sent out booklets to find out what the community wanted, and then the Imagination Team used some of their input for the art. That information data was crunched by EJP, the Smith Gee architecture firm from Nashville, and they gave it back as a report on what the possibilities are for that community, based on what the community said they want. That was just a process, there’s still a whole lot more that has to happen after that, and there’s not a whole phase for that. But my portion had most to do with the art and engaging, and not many orgs work that way. The Chattanooga Design Studio, when they put up a request for proposals, they required that the urban design teams have creatives on board from day 1. That’s different than how some people do, they usually wait till the last minute, and are like, “Oh, I think we need an artist, but it’s like, the 11th hour.” I think it’s important to understand the reasons why we should work that way, and it has to do with the intentionality that artists work with. I’ve not met one artist that wasn’t intentional by nature in their art. And so you add them to the mix, and have this intentionality baked into the process all the way through. There’s a sense of thoughtfulness as it comes out. I think that’s an advantage in this particular scenario, because we’re going to use art to show connection between the community and what they were saying. So I kind of left it in a statement of “the community is talking and the art is listening.” 

A poem Roberts wrote while working on the Westside Evolves project about a tree named “Grace” | Photo by Imagination Team member Ben Banks

As an artist yourself, why do you think that it’s important to bring art into neighborhood redevelopment projects such as the one happening at Westside?

I think a lot of artists don’t realize how important their language is, especially in urban design and community work. I don’t know that they realize what impact an art piece can have in a community, from putting something on a road that people are driving too fast on — putting out a painting, or a mural — that slows down traffic, to putting a mural on the back of a school that has people and pictures from the community. I’m a poet, so what is my role? I realized that my role had a lot to do with being able to say things in a poetic way that maybe wouldn’t normally have been said, but it also gives power to that community as well.

You were recently named a Fall 2021 Community Creatives Fellow (congrats!). What does this mean for you personally + work-wise? What will you be doing as a Fellow?

First off, it keeps me working, you know, that’s the super obvious part. But in a deeper sense, it allows me to be able to do what I was already doing, continuing it in a more permanent way, even though it’s a fellowship. I get to plan a little bit more — I will still be engaging with the Westside community but will also be engaging with Patten Towers on the Patten Porch Project. 1 of the jobs and 1 of the projects under this fellowship is working with the UTK students as they reimagine the James A. Henry building. The James A. Henry building is historic; Henry was a principal at Howard, 1 of the first. There are 2 structures named after him — James Henry YMCA and the James A. Henry school. We’re finding a way to save that school building, but also make it purposeful and able to use it. We talked to them about the community, giving them some background information so that they have an informed way of reimagining this building. I will be working with them a couple of times in the next couple of months as they’re doing their pitches and their sketches. It’s nothing that’s set in stone, but it’s a great opportunity to see the possibilities. It’s been really fun to be able to engage in that way. And then any other projects that come up with the Chattanooga Design Studio, I will be working as an engaging artist on that.

You’ve been working on + are in the midst of several projects. What’s your favorite project that you’re currently working on, and why? 

My favorite project is probably the Westside, because I’m a resident, so I see it in 2 ways. I see it as helping get information to my community, but also being able to see how the art affects the community, how they’re responding to it. It’s been a lot of fun and honestly, hard at times, because whenever you’re talking about changing a community, you’re gonna have those really hard and brave conversations that have to happen. And so those are hard, but it’s been 1 of the more rewarding projects because I’ve gotten to really create, see the process, and now see the product, all in 1. Sometimes I’m only like, in part of the process or in bits and pieces, but this part I get to see all of it all the way through. 

What are some upcoming local projects that you’re excited about?

So with Glass House Collective, we have a series called Lunch at Love, and there’s a love-seating area gathering space on Crutchfield in East Chatt. In September, there’ll be a live performance every Friday, it’s like a lunch hour vibe. It’s from 11-2 but from 12-1 or 1:30 you’ll see a live performance. So it’ll be a musician, a live painting, some poetry. I’m looking forward to that, because before I started doing the strategy work, I was doing shows at the Palace Theatre for 3 years straight, and of course, the Palace closed. So I didn’t get to do as many shows as I wanted to do, mainly because there wasn’t a space to do some of that stuff, so it’s been fun as we get back into programming, shows, or events. And at Glass House, we also get to gear up for one of my favorite events, Glass Street Live. I look forward to those things, those are some of my favorites. But at the same time, the work that I get to do comes with a different reward with each 1 of them.

What do you think is special about Chattanooga’s art scene? 

That it’s so diverse. And their ability to gravitate toward collaboration. Some communities have all these independent artists and nobody wants to work with anyone, and they just don’t want to be bothered. But here, there’s a spirit of true collaboration that I think is amazing. So every time I see someone working together I’m like, “that’s really fire.” It’s amazing.

We’ve gotta know your opinion — what do you think are the top 3 art museums, projects, murals, or locations surrounding any type of art that Chattanoogans should know about?

  • The top mural is probably the one that Alecia and Briah did on the Kinley —  2 women killing it. And what I love is the fact that they’re so different. They’re such different artists, Alicia’s all Polka dots, blues, and Briah’s got this splashy, marbled kind of vibe, and they fit so perfectly on that wall. 
  • I am a fan of the hibiscus latte that’s at Sleepyhead — it’s seasonal, so it’s probably not even there anymore, but that’s been 1 of my favorite moments, grabbing that latte and strolling.
  • I am a huge fan of the vibe at Proof Incubator with Chef Kenyatta … and fried peanut noodles. It is like art in a bowl. It’s beautiful. I mean, it’s so pretty, you almost don’t want to eat it, but when you take that first bite, you’re like, “Oh, I’m gonna devour this.” 
  • And then like a hidden gem, I mean, Barking Legs Theatre is where I kind of got my feet wet, so to speak, on the stage there with Marcus Ellsworth. But recently I’ve kind of fallen in love with The Woodshop over in St. Elmo. They’re always having some really, really dope shows and vibes there. I had a show there a couple of months ago and then I got to perform there a couple weeks ago, and it’s just really such a dope spot. I think those are some hidden gems, so I encourage people to take a look at their website.

What else do you want Chattanoogans to hear from you?

I really want to take the opportunity to tell other artists not to fret, that if during COVID or the shutdown, if they have not been able to create like they were before, to not be discouraged, to still push and stay showing up as your authentic self. Giving themselves mercy and grace for that, I think, is important.

And then to anyone who is a parent, who has little ones, pay attention to what art they’re drawn to, and feed it. I was fed that meal as a kid. My mom was a writer, so she was constantly giving me books to read and poetry to read. And she fed it, and it’s a part of who I am now. I think that’s 1 of our jobs as parents, being able to see the potential in our kids and being able to nurture that in a way that doesn’t make them feel like we’re making you do this — we know that you love to cook, so we bought you your own pan set, or we know that you love to draw, so there’s your easel. You raise up another whole group of creatives. I think with schools and so many uniforms and things like that, creativity sometimes gets sucked out. I think parents can really be a huge huge help in that way.