ST. JOSEPH — A work of public art can spread its influence far beyond its own shadow, panelists at the Krasl Art Center said Tuesday.

The “I Am the Greatest” figures of Muhammad Ali around the Twin Cities have become a role model for young people taking part in a companion after-school arts program, noted Anna Russo Sieber, the owner of ARS Gallery, who launched the effort 10 years ago with artist and educator John Sauve, a panelist along with renowned sculptor Richard Hunt.

“It showed them you could get through adversity and tough times,” Russo-Sieber said during the discussion held as part of the Krasl’s annual meeting and the dedication of a work by Sauve installed at the Upton Arboretum. “Muhammad Ali worked through really tough times, and he came out of it even stronger.”

Sauve, based in Detroit, created the Ali figures that are placed at several locations throughout Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. The orange figures are pierced with arrows, echoing a famous magazine photograph of Ali that in turn called up a painting of the martyr St. Sebastian.

Hunt, a Chicago native with a studio in Benton Harbor, is known locally for his large metal sculptures, such as “And You, Seas,” near the South Pier, and “Rising Crossing Tides,” a gateway piece recently installed at the Krasl as part of its exterior renovations. These are among the 130 public art pieces commissioned by Hunt over his career.

Sauve called Hunt an inspiration and a mentor, and an artist of “passion and kindness.”

The panel discussion, on the impact of public art on Southwest Michigan, was moderated by Tami Miller, Krasl’s deputy director and curator, who has been with the institution for 11 years.

Sauve said he has seen the impact that the “I Am the Greatest” project has had on one young man, the youngest of 10 children from a family in which no one had attended college.

Along with tours and art lessons, Russo-Sieber provided the youth with private lessons and secured a spot at a summer art camp in Saugatuck. He has earned college credits and intends to further his education.

“Public art is responsible for that,” Sauve said.

Each student creates their own small Ali sculpture, which gives them a voice, Russo-Sieber said. “They can say through art things they would never be able to say with words.”

The Twin Cities have become known as “the best little sculpture community in the U.S.,” Russo-Sieber said.

Public art – seen outside of a gallery or museum – can show up in many settings, from hospitals to corporate buildings to gardens, Hunt said. In the case of the Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, they can create a performance space, he added. His Krasl work is the entrance to a public gathering space.

These works drive cultural tourism and boost civic pride, said Miller, using as an example “Cloud Gate” – commonly called “the Bean” – in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

“When you enter a town with public art, you know the community cares,” Miller said.

Sauve’s work, “Vergangenheitsbewaitigung,” is the newest piece in St. Joseph. The German word means a willingness to grapple with the past, Miller explained at the dedication.

“It gives a sense of confidence and optimism that we are willing to grapple with our past,” Miller said.

Sauve said the main pillar is an I-beam from the Ford Auditorium in Detroit, that was torn down in 2011. Wrapped around it is a ribbon of metal with cutouts of a figure reminiscent of his “Man in the City” figures that dotted the Motor City.

The artist said he likes it when his pieces spark dialogue. For one man, there was something about the I-beam that “scared him, that spoke to him,” and they talked about it for two hours.

“It was the best conversation I’ve ever had,” Sauve said after the dedication.

Listening is important, especially with young people, the artist said during the panel discussion. “When you’re listening to them, you’re telling them that they’re important.”

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak