Posts tagged ‘public art’

From Planning to Doing: The Art of Black Dissent

Time for catch-up!

Back in January I blogged about my excitement for my upcoming museum program The Art of Black Dissent. At that point I was in the planning stages. Well this spring after careful study of historical contexts, objects, artists, contemporary issues, and engagement techniques we launched our project. From April to May, my collaborator Gabriella Svenningsen and I held a public event and several sessions for classes at Yale University Art Gallery.  Our pop-up exhibition/dialogue program centered on protest visual culture of the African-American liberation struggle gained strong support. Participants who ranged from museum visitors and staff, high school students, undergraduates, K-12 teachers, and college professors responded well. As we expected, people  were eager to discuss this timely topic in relation to our nation’s challenging contemporary moment. On our project blog we share more information about the initiative and ongoing plans to bring the pop-up to local area public schools and libraries. 20160429_173738

The Art of Black Dissent welds together various elements of my scholarly background and personal ethos as it involves social justice, studies of race and racialized visual culture and social practice art, collaboration, critical pedagogy, engaged citizenship, and community engagement. It’s energizing to develop an idea into work that creates spaces for dialogue about contemporary pressing social issues. I envision coordinating more projects like The Art of Black Dissent as I shape my career of publicly-centered work in the arts.



August 14, 2016 at 8:36 pm Leave a comment

Learning through Participation

Ribbons of Remembrance at Clayton Jackson McGhie vigil, June 2013, Duluth, Minnesota

Ribbons of Remembrance at the Clayton Jackson McGhie vigil, June 15, 2013, Duluth, Minnesota (Attendees tied ribbons to this fence adjacent to the graves of the three men lynched in 1920)

In my research I’m blending approaches from the fields of memorial culture* and public art* for a holistic perspective as I study how people commemorate lynching violence in the U.S. To uncover social significance I attend memorial events and interview artists and various community members. My direct involvement with these contemporary practices encourages me to also ponder the role of the scholar in the production of culture. When I meet with folks, I realize that my presence and interest in their work may influence their understanding of the memorial process. Because I’m focusing on the social, I also need to indicate my degree of participation and people’s reactions to my actions in a thoughtful manner.
A few weeks ago I presented a paper* at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Annual Remembrance event in Duluth, Minnesota. Members of the board asked me to address how the memorial operates as a sacred space.  This event was my first talk at a memorial site and I was honored to participate in the ceremony.   Although I’ve presented my research at several venues, this occasion posed its own challenges. I couldn’t rely on the visual comparison method via PowerPoint that academic art historians often employ. I was outside in the memorial space. So my experience discussing objects for museum visitors proved helpful in this circumstance.  I focused on the history of the lynching, the community’s present activities, and the physical space of the memorial. The studies of cultural geographer Kenneth Foote* and cultural theorist Marita Sturken” helped me to highlight how the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial functions as hallowed ground.
For the sake of time, I didn’t delve into current discussions in memorial studies centered on “victim memorials” or the ambiguities associated with the concept of community. (I will wrestle with those complex issues at a later time.) I aimed to provide a balanced, contextualized assessment. Also, I spoke with reporters about how the Duluth memorial differs from other commemorative practices.  While my participation did identify the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial as noteworthy, I tried not to steer any of the committee members’ decisions about the memorial. Afterwards, several residents thanked me for providing this overview and specific attention to the spatial aspects of Duluth’s memorial.
The process of evolving into a scholar entails identifying one’s allegiances, values, and mindset. Through my interdisciplinary orientation, I’ve realized that I’m not interested in traditional notions of the scholar as someone who tells individuals and communities how they should memorialize persons or events. Instead, I understand my position as providing historical context, demonstrating similarities and differences between memorials, sparking discussions, facilitating the memorial-making processes by helping communities discover related projects, and learning from the actions of communities and my participation in commemorations. For me, research is about collaboration.

*PDF copy of my address “The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial as Hallowed Ground” – Autry-CJMM as Hallowed Ground-remembrance event 6-14-2013
I would like to thank the following organizations for supporting my recent research trip to Duluth, Minnesota: The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Board and the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware.

A Few Key References
Memorial Studies– Savage, Young, and Winter encourage scholars to consider social issues

  • Kurt Savage, “History, Memory, and Monuments: An Overview of the Scholarly Literature on Commemoration,
  • James Edward Young, “America’s Holocaust: Memory and the Politics of Identity,” in The Americanization of the Holocaust, edited by H. Flanzbaum, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University, 1999.
  • Jay M. Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the 20th Century, New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2006.

*Public Art

  • Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000.
  • Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2013.
  • Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002.
  • Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2004.

*Cultural Geography and Collective Memory

  • Kenneth Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2003, 7-33.
  • Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2007, 200.

July 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

Strategies for Remembering Trauma

Trees at City Hall, Los Angeles. Photo by author, March 2013.

Trees at City Hall, Los Angeles. Photo by author, March 2013.

When I was in Los Angeles a few of weeks ago, I explored Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching Walking Tour from his Erased Lynching series, 2002-2011. While journeying on this path through the El Pueblo and Civic Center areas with a print-out of the tour instructions, I was often struck by the lack of physical markers on the landscape.  This brutal yet significant history involves multiple bodies. But the tour sites mask those bodies.

This experience made me return to my ruminations on how people memorialize trauma. Art about devastating historical events and other violent ordeals engages difficult issues of representation. How does one express the effects of suffering on the body? Is figurative art too literal? Is it too revealing? Does depicting a person’s body in pain remove her/his subjectivity? Is abstraction a more responsible choice? Or is abstraction insensitive? Does it use form to mask human feelings? What is the most appropriate way to represent trauma experienced by individuals versus groups? Is absence a more ethical strategy when dealing with violence involving spectacle and fetishization? What are the sociopolitical repercussions of these choices?
These are difficult questions to confront. Artists make personal choices here that sometimes become more complex when working for commissions. When the work is for outdoor public art, the stakes are even higher because the decision-making process involves more voices and a greater number of people will interact with the work.

This conundrum is central to the memorials of lynching violence that I study. For example, in Duluth, Minnesota, artists Carla Stetson and Anthony Peyton Porter, and memorial board members of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial opted to include naturalistic figurative reliefs that restore the victims’ bodies to an intact state. Sculptor Carla Stetson even elevated the social status of each man by dressing the figures in middle-class attire instead of clothing resembling those of itinerant laborers. In contrast, in Waco, which is located in Central Texas, an area with an extremely high number of lynchings, residents have had trouble building consensus about commemorating this aspect of their history. While they haven’t established any outdoor artworks or markers to memorialize the lynchings, they did produce three resolution statements. Community members presented two of these at outdoor public gatherings.

The lack of physical forms commemorating lynching violence in the U.S. contrasts greatly with how we memorialize the Holocaust in our built environments. Artists memorializing the Holocaust sometimes employ abstraction as Joel Shapiro did in his Loss and Regeneration, 1993, Washington, D.C. However, many employ figurative art that depicts effects of pain on the body like Nathan Rapoport’s 1964 Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs in downtown Philadelphia or Elbert Weinberg’s Holocaust Memorial, 1979 in Wilmington, Delaware. While these works highlight anguish, the figures aren’t personalized. Instead of depicting particular individuals, these memorials present anonymous, stylized stand-ins to represent an ethnic group.

Detail of Memorial to the Genocide in the Ukraine, Los Angeles. Photo by author, March 2013.

Detail of Memorial to the Genocide in the Ukraine, Los Angeles.
Photo by author, March 2013.

After I finished the Lynching Walking Tour, I walked into a park off N. Grand Avenue in the Civic Center area. I happened upon a memorial to genocide in the Ukraine (see photo at right). The artist and the committee obviously felt that stylized figurative art that features the body in a diminished condition was the most powerful way to communicate their message. Again, we have types instead of individuals. As I was looking at this structure, I felt that it was somewhat ironic to come across this memorial to violence that occurred in Europe after witnessing the lack of material commemorative signs to the violence that occurred on the streets of Los Angeles.

April 15, 2013 at 6:08 pm 3 comments

Summer of Memory: Memorial News

The summer is always a good time to explore public art.  With Memorial Day around the corner, it’s important to highlight some of the recent news about memorials.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Site, Washington D.C. at the Tidal Basin. Photo by author.

The Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC is scheduled to open August 28th.
To attend the opening ceremonies, tickets are needed. To obtain tickets, there’s a lottery system open through May 31st on the memorial website. (Click on “Week of Dedication” on the left for event and ticket information.) For detailed information about the memorial, see:

Other memorial news:
NYC Tries Luring Tourists with 9/11 Rebirth Story,
9/11 Museum Changes Course to Incorporate Bin Laden’s Death,
Berlin’s Baffling New Seesaw of a Monument to German Unification,
In North, Civil War Sites, Events Long “Forgotton,”
Facing Five Years in Jail, the Artist Who Fried Eggs and Hot Dogs on the Flame of WWII Monument,

Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. Photo by author.

This summer I’ll blog about my adventures to various memorial sites in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston. Stay tuned for updates.

May 24, 2011 at 9:22 pm Leave a comment

5 Things I Want to See & Do in 2011

Philadelphia mural

Image by FlickrDelusions via Flickr

Here’s a short list of things I want to see and do in 2011.  I can definitely do some of these activities. However, others require luck or longstanding collective action.

Experience Papergirl in Philly
What is Papergirl? Artists donate two-dimensional works to an arts collective.  People from the group prepare the works for delivery, hop on their bikes, and throw the rolled up art to random people on the street.  In 2005 Aisha Ronniger started this public art program in Berlin as a response to laws against street art.  Since then the project has expanded worldwide.
I haven’t heard of Papergirl in Philadelphia.  But I’d love to see or help the project happen in this area.
If you haven’t heard of this initiative, then you should check out: and

Go Sightseeing on the Mural Arts Tours
Shame on me! I’ve lived in the Philadelphia area for a few years and I still haven’t gone on one of these tours.
Philadelphia has loads of great public art.  While I’ve studied various sculptures in the city, I haven’t really focused on the numerous painted walls.  To get a comprehensive perspective, I’d like to go on the tours that highlight murals in Center City, North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, and West Philadelphia.  When the weather warms up, I’m there.
For information, see The Mural Art Program.

Witness Yarn Bombing
What a great way to domesticate the urban environment!  Renegade knitters and crocheters dress public spaces in colorful, soft, and removable art.  They install their work on structures such as signposts, traffic barricades, parking meters, bike racks, and even trees.  Although I first learned of this street art form a few years ago, I haven’t encountered any.   I know it sometimes happens in Philadelphia.  However, I haven’t seen it during my visits to the city.  So, this year I’m hoping for yarn storms.

I’ve collected a few videos about yarn based graffiti on Vodpod.  Here’s one that’s particularly fun.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Visit Our Tallest Lady-The Statue of Liberty (officially named Statue of Liberty Liberty Enlightening the World)
Again shame on me, I’ve never visited Liberty Island to see this American icon.  Although I’ve spent a lot of time on the east coast, I’ve only seen this 151′ tall copper lady from a distance.  After Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi completed the sculpture in 1884, it wasn’t very popular.  Today, the opposite is true.  Touring the Statue of Liberty National Monument requires reservations and the ability to contend with large crowds.  Nevertheless, I don’t really have a good excuse for missing this cultural treasure.  While I’m there, I could include a jaunt over to Ellis Island, another historic site that I’ve never visited. Shhh!

Attend the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial Commemorative Events
Awhile ago I visited Duluth, Minnesota to see the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial which commemorates the lives of three African-American men killed by lynch mob in 1920.  I photographed the site and interviewed some of the memorial board members.  However, I didn’t talk with people not involved with the memorial production.  Also, I didn’t attend the annual commemorative program held in mid-June.
Since the dedication in 2003, organizers have held a yearly program to discuss the meaning of the memorial and the community’s need for social justice.
Because my graduate research focuses on lynching landscapes, attending these ceremonies is very important.
To learn about the 2010 events, visit

This list highlights just a few of the art and history related sites and programs that I’d like to experience this year. What about you? Are there any public art works or museums that you want to see?

January 9, 2011 at 11:37 pm 2 comments

‘Tis the Season for Memories

This season is a great time to relax and remember the past year.  Here are a couple of wonderful books on memorials to enjoy as you sip your favorite wintertime beverage.

National World War II Memorial. Photo by author.

Monument Wars: Washington D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, by Kirk Savage, published 2009.  In this book Savage, an art historian at University of Pittsburgh, provides a comprehensive history of D.C.’s monuments from the district’s founding to today.  While demonstrating the changing character of the landscape, Savage goes beyond the Mall as he discusses memorials that haven’t received much press, such as the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism located north of the Capitol building.  Also he questions the need for monuments and the idea of collective memory.

This book is well respected by scholars of American art.  Savage won the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum’s 2010 Charles C. Eldredge award for Monument Wars.  Earlier this month Savage gave a lecture about D.C. memorials. You can watch the video at  The Smithsonian American Art Museum‘s press release about the event offers some background information on Savage,

Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism. Photo by author.

Erika Doss’ Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, published 2010 also deals with collective memory.  As the title implies, Doss, an art historian at University of Notre Dame, is interested in what she perceives to be an “obsession with issues of memory and history and an urgent desire to express and claim those issues in visibly public contexts.”  Her scope is extensive.  In addition to discussing familiar war memorials and the D.C. landscape, Doss includes monuments in various parts of the U.S.  The diverse subjects include victim monuments such as the Salem Village Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial and the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial that honors the three African-American men lynched by a mob in 1920 in Duluth, Minnesota.  Doss holds  the book together by grouping the memorials in terms of emotional content under chapter headings- Grief, Fear, Gratitude, Shame, and Anger.  This far-reaching book will keep you engrossed.

December 20, 2010 at 8:10 am Leave a comment

Ghosts, Dragons & Spiders in Public Sculpture

Things that frighten us often involve memory and cultural context.
In the spirit of the season, here are three public sculptures that have the potential to shock, scare, and even make us smile.

Ghost Structure, Robert Venturi, Venturi & Rauch, 1976, Franklin Court, Philadelphia. Photo by author.

Philadelphia’s Phantom Place: Architect Robert Venturi ‘s 54’ tall steel sculpture, Ghost Structure in Franklin Court memorializes Benjamin Franklin’s home which was demolished in the 19th century.  Little is known about the appearance of the original exterior. In preparation for the bicentennial celebrations Robert Venturi of Venturi & Rauch was hired to design the monument.  In 1976 Venturi met the challenge by making  an outline of a house with the painted white steel beams.  The resulting form represents both presence and absence.  The haunting, empty feeling is heightened by inscriptions on the stone floor.  Visually this postmodern memorial contrasts with the historic red brick buildings in the area. However, Ghost Structure is a welcome surprise and apt materialization of what is lost, yet remembered.

Scary Parking in Philadelphia?:  Philadelphia is notorious for parking trouble.  So it seems appropriate that since April 2009 four bronze dragons have presided over a parking lot in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

Dragons Guarding Arch Street Parking Lot, Ward Eliker, 2009, Philadelphia. Photo by author.

When I photographed these lanky, green hybrid monsters a woman asked if I was an art student.  She went on to say that a person would have to be an art student to like these dragons. For her the dragons were too hideous to admire.

Dragon on Arch Street, Ward Eliker, Philadelphia. Photo by author.

Although many people may also find these dragons frightening,  sculptor Ward Eliker had happier ideas in mind when he designed the work.  Eliker was inspired by Chinese folklore.  Similar to the dragons that grace the Chinatown Friendship Gate just a couple of blocks away at 10th and Arch Street, these creatures are symbols of fortune and prosperity. While in European folklore dragons are usually terrifying beasts that breathe fire, in Chinese culture dragons protect areas from fire.

To see behind the scenes images of the production process, check out Eliker’s webpage:

Giant Spider in DC: Many people fear spiders.  However, others find them intriguing. Louise Bourgeois’ monumental bronze spiders elicit this volatile mixture of emotions.  Last year Bourgeois’ spider and other works were exhibited at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Unlike Bourgeois’ frightening environments featured inside the museum, the outdoor installation of this giant arachnid generated many smiles.  After recovering from surprise, visitors playfully engaged with the work.

Louise Bourgeois' Spider at the Hirshhorn, DC, 2009. Photo by author.

For an in-depth study of the psychological dimensions of Bourgeois’ work, see Louise Bourgeois. Maman: For the Outside In by scholar Trisha McCrae. McCrae argues that Bourgeois’ work showcases how our fears are exaggerated.


Franklin Court Renovation Plan Needs Reworking, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 23, 2010

There Be Dragons: Behind the Scenes at the Creation of Chinatown’s Newest Piece of Public Art – Philadelphia Weekly

Chinatown to Get Bronze Dragons- WHYY News and Information

October 31, 2010 at 3:34 am Leave a comment

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