For years, Elena Kalman and Susan Hoffman Fishman did what artists tend to do, create art.

Painters both, they expressed themselves through pigment and canvas. About 10 years ago, these longtime friends noticed their conversations were revolving around purpose and potential. Were they making art that mattered? Were they addressing issues that concerned them, and by extension, their communities? Were they connecting with the public in deep and meaningful ways? They had come to the proverbial quandary: What were they doing with their lives, and were they using their talents in a meaningful way?

“We started asking ourselves what are we passionate about and what issues are really important to us,” says Kalman, an architect who has lived in Stamford for more than 25 years. “We wanted a meaningful connection with the public and to create art that was attached to subjects that were important to people. We wanted to make something that was really useful, and brought about a more serious conversation about art and the human condition. That is how our collaboration in public art started.”

Public art defines itself by its very name — art intended for public consumption in a public place. It is often free, easily accessible and at times, inspired by the community or place in which it is to be exhibited. It can delve into socially conscious or historically relevant issues. All those elements were appealing to Kalman and Hoffman Fishman, who lives in West Hartford, but they wanted the public to be more than observers or consumers. The public are creators, which is why they call their projects interactive public arts projects.

Social engagement is a public art trend that has increasingly grown over the past several decades. Art and artists are seen as catalysts for prompting social action, coming up with solutions and bringing communities together. Visual art, storytelling, poetry, song, theater and other artistic disciplines are seen as having the power to transform perceptions and attitudes within a community, particularly if that community feels engaged in the process.

Kalman and Hoffman Fishman know they are not the first, but they say they saw a need to do these kind of projects in their communities. In 2011, they began this quest by looking at broader issues of human survival and the need for ecological stewardship. They were inspired by the tsunami that devastated Japan and affected shores more than 3,000 miles away. “Water connects us all,” Hoffman Fishman says. The project that ensued is about water’s ecological importance and our shared responsibility in protecting it.

At sites across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, participants have cut wave-like shapes from recyclable, polycarbonate film that are then connected to create dynamic forms of vibrant colors in site-specific installations. It has swept over 22 sites so far, and the artists are looking for more spaces to stretch out what has become thousands of panels of “waves.”

Their latest work concentrates on another basic human need — shelter. “HOME” is an installation about the universal meaning of home. Partners included New Neighborhoods Inc., a Stamford nonprofit that develops low- to moderate-income housing across Fairfield County, and Pacific House, a Stamford organization that works to prevent and end homelessness in the greater Stamford area.

Since 2014, the artists have visited several locations in the Stamford area, including the Martin Luther King Jr. apartments, the Ferguson Library, JCC Stamford and Pacific House, where they asked participants to create “boards” to serve as the building materials. These 6-inch-by-24-inch sheets of ¼-inch thick corrugated cardboard become the repository for thoughts on what home meant to them, what a home must have and their feelings on homelessness.

“People focused on what home meant, rather than physical objects,” Hoffman Fishman says.

“And family,” Kalman says.

“And feeling wanted and needed,” Hoffman Fishman says.

“And fresh cookies,” Kalman adds, causing both to chuckle.

What the artists discovered was the concept of home could be both an ephemeral concept and an actual construction. It was a dream, as well as a need. It could be a feeling or a place. Those boards became the siding for a one-room wood-frame structure installed in the lobby of the Stamford Government Center in November. The boards were then removed and attached to an intricate web of strings at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford for a display this year. They are looking for additional places for display and plan on having a show at the Silliman College Gallery at Yale University in September.

Beyond the visual storytelling, Kalman sees creativity as a way of making people feel less self-conscious and more open to sharing their ideas with one another. As they begin to feel the pride of being part of something bigger than themselves, she hopes it prompts confidence that society can change or problems can be solved.

The two are constantly thinking up new ideas and collaborations, but for the moment are concentrating on “Wave” and “HOME.” To make their ideas a reality, they need funding, and are often searching for grants. For “HOME,” they were supported by their “HOME” partners and the city of Stamford.

“Art has the power to impact people in areas and on topics where facts and figures and graphs just don’t do,” Hoffman Fishman says.

chennessy@hearstmedia.com;

Twitter: @xtinahennessy