It was an ordinary day in October when Courtney Kyle had an extraordinary idea for celebrating her 33rd birthday. Kyle had never really been big into celebrating the occasion. Originally from Alabama, when she lived in the US she would donate money or volunteer for the day. But after moving to Sheffield four years ago she wanted to do something a bit different this year. Her idea? To paint 33 canvases and hide them around the city for people to find.

The practice of hiding art in public spaces – often referred to as an “art drop” – has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years. World Art Drop Day is a creative scavenger hunt in the US which invites artists of all persuasions to hide an original work of art, take a photo of it and post it on social media using the hashtag #artdropday. In a similar fashion, rock painting has taken off after originating in the US. In the UK a thriving community of amateur artists who decorate rocks before hiding them in public places exists, with Facebook group Love on the Rocks having amassed nearly 100,000 members since its creation in 2017. Such practices extend beyond art as well. There has been a reported “craze” for hiding children’s books in the UK across the summer, while Emma Watson has taken to placing feminist books on public transport in collaboration with book sharing organisations like Books on the Move and The Book Fairies.

Speaking to Kyle a week after her birthday, she tells me the inspiration for her art drop came from spotting similar “random acts of kindness” around Sheffield. Only a few weeks prior, while on a lunch break walk, she spotted a book sitting on the edge of a flower bed in Devonshire Green with a note saying ‘take me and leave one behind’.

With just under three weeks to prepare, Kyle, who works for a software development company, would spend her weekends and evenings working on the floor in her living room painting the 8×10-inch canvases. Her painting style is distinct: abstract, bright and colourful with fine details added in white or black. She describes art as a lifelong hobby of hers: “When I was really young I started out by tracing everything that I could trying to learn how to draw. I would get tracing paper and pull out encyclopedia pages because it was before the internet.” She got into painting after taking an oils class at university but her abstract style has developed more recently: “In the past few years I’ve thrown away the brushes and let loose a little bit… when I paint I like to use my hands and see where it goes…I love the experience of the paint on my hands, working it around the canvas and creating texture with it – it’s as experiential as it is visual.”

Once the 33 canvases were complete, she sealed them up in plastic bags with her social media details and a note reading ‘Hello, this is for you. You can take this home, give it to someone, or leave it for someone else. Thank you’. With that, the only thing left to do was to hide them around Sheffield.

On Sunday 3rd of November, the night before her birthday, she worked around the city dropping the paintings off in her chosen locations – leaving them on benches, between boulders, besides trees. The hiding places spanned most of the parks, the city centre, even the Buddist Centre in Walkley and all the way out to Ladybower.

“I left the paintings in places that were meaningful or that I had been to often. For instance, Rivelin Valley I live really close to and I go out there all the time, for runs and walks, and it’s just such a beautiful place right on our doorstep.”

The paintings were randomly allocated, but Kyle admits: “When I was putting them out, there was a couple of spots where I hand selected the one I wanted to go there but it was more that I really like this spot so I want whoever finds this to have one my favourite paintings.”

To me the art drop seems like a sort of ‘artistic geocaching’, with Kyle providing a Google Map on her website for anyone wanting to hunt for the canvases – but with the added bonus of being allowed to take the art away with them.

Kyle wanted to do the art drop as a way to give back to the city: “Moving to another country, to another culture is a difficult experience – but for me it’s been incredibly meaningful. It’s changed me; it’s forced me to come out of my shell a bit – to try new things to put myself out there more because, even though I knew people when I moved here, you still have to create your whole world again. And Sheffield has been incredibly receptive to me and good to me in many ways so I wanted to give something back.”

“I’ve never really put my art out there, I’ve had people tell me ‘you should sell it’ and I think one day I probably will but its always been so personal to me but I think it’s really cool to get it out there like this – I’ve done it the right way for me.”

She says people have been incredibly kind about her art drop. Her Instagram post sharing the project has over 100 likes with comments from people telling her they’d found one of the paintings and thanking her for cheering them up on a wet miserable day. However, she admits: “I had this small little fear when I was putting the art out that someone somewhere might get upset and be like ‘there’s this American woman polluting Sheffield by putting these things out covered in plastic.’”

So far eight or nine people have messaged to tell her they’ve found one of her paintings. But given she hid them on the rainiest week in Autumn, Kyle says she wouldn’t be surprised if some of the paintings are still in their spots.

So will she be hiding more art in the future? Kyle hopes to: “The art drop was so much fun to do and I got such a positive response for it that I have to do it again, and I’m already thinking of doing one in January – in the dead of Winter, spreading a few rainbows to cheer people up.”

To see the map of canvas locations visit: https://www.courtneykyle.com/

Image credit: Courtney Kyle

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