Storytelling By Design

Fifteen years ago, a symposium exploring the interplay of public art, architecture, and history would have drawn interest from many quarters but probably not historic preservation professionals.  What does public art have to do with preservation, some would have asked? Now, however, the question is hardly necessary. Preservationists of many stripes have recognized that valued buildings, no matter how important, have little hope unless someone cares. Meaningful connections to place are cultivated in multiple ways, and those connections lie at the heart the factors that compel preservation. Public art and architecture are powerful vehicles for stimulating intellectual and emotional investments in place – and the varied activities that aim to “preserve.” 

The presenters and audience at the 2018 University of Kentucky Historic Preservation Symposium made these points repeatedly during a lively day of discussions that explored the developing nexus of activity around historically informed art and architecture. Held on Friday, March 30 at the UK Athletic Association Auditorium at W.T. Young Library and at Memorial Hall on the University of Kentucky campus, the symposium attracted more than 50 people, and others viewed it via a Facebook livestream.

Featured speakers included Jerome Meadows, an award-winning artist known for large-scale public art and landscape installations; the three members of the Selvage Collective, a curatorial trio based in Atlanta, Georgia; and Rebecca Bush, the curator of history at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia. A panel discussion on public art projects in Kentucky communities and a keynote address by Alan Ricks, co-founder of MASS Design Group, rounded out the schedule. By the end of the day, all in attendance had learned about pathbreaking projects that have compelled people to grapple with underappreciated histories, to think differently about the past, and to see opportunities for healing and reconciliation. 

Meadows began the symposium with a presentation that surveyed several of his best- known projects and one that is now underway. A native of New York City who now resides Savannah, Georgia, Meadows is acclaimed for thoughtful, deeply moving artwork that interprets African American life and history. The African American Heritage Park in Alexandria, Virginia (1995), one of his earliest efforts, combines a series of sculptural forms and interpretive panels overlooking an African American burial ground.  The African Burying Ground Memorial in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, honors the enslaved men, women, and children who lived and worked in Portsmouth or passed through the town because of the role of its merchants in the international slave trade. In recounting the origins of these designs and the ideas they express, Meadows left the audience awed. The sensitivity of his work, his creative prowess, and the historical information incorporated into each project demonstrate what is possible when difficult subjects are treated respectfully, honestly, and provocatively. 

Meadows is currently developing sculptural forms for a memorial to Ed Johnson, an African American man lynched in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in March 1906. Like hundreds of black men in the Jim Crow South, Johnson found himself wrongly accused of raping a white woman, tried before an all-white jury, and sentenced to death. Then, in ritualized fashion, a mob stormed the local jail and broke Johnson out of his cell. Immediately before his executioners hung him from a bridge across the Tennessee River, Johnson spoke his last words: “God bless you all. I am an innocent man.”  The memorial will create a space for remembrance and contemplation at the south end of the Walnut Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga. To secure the commission, Meadows partnered with a landscape architecture firm to develop the site and ensure a graceful setting for his sculptures.  

The Selvage Collective followed with a tour of the four projects the group has completed to date. Founded by Julia Brock, Teresa Bramlette Reeves, and Kirstie Tepper at Kennesaw State University, the Selvage Collective is committed to revealing and visualizing “alternative narratives and history.” As the group’s mission statement explains, they “work in the borderland of fact, hearsay, and fiction, wherein one finds multiple voices and stories to share.” The Selvage Collective’s first project, Hearsay, was an exhibit displayed at the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University from July 26-October 25, 2014. By displaying a series of solo projects that challenged well-known narratives of southern life, the exhibit offered “alternative points of view to the historical cannon.” Narratology, an installation in the Welch School Galleries at Georgia State University, followed in January-February 2016. In asking how international artists rise to prominence, the installation juxtaposed narratives of individual accomplishment with news about political events, international exhibitions, and curators in order to complicate narratives of individual genius. 

The Selvage Collective’s most recent projects have moved into the digital realm and placed temporary exhibitions in public space. ATLas, part of the ATLmaps website, explores the role of female artists and art administrators in the Atlanta art scene of the 1970s. An interactive map provides access to video interviews, historical information and images, and geospatial data to illuminate the lives and work of ten women. The Mystery of Stark Alley explored physical change and forgetting in the Wildwood neighborhood of Columbus, Georgia. While investigating maps of the area, the group noticed that Stark Alley, one of two alleys original to the neighborhood, disappeared by 1950s. In October 2017, Selvage installed a 70-foot textile representation of the alley border and a small exhibit at the Smith-McCullers House, the childhood residence of famed writer Carson McCullers. In recounting the process employed in developing the installation and exhibit, Brock related the central question that motivated the group’s work: “How can the residual become an engine of meaning?” 

After a short break for lunch, the symposium reconvened for presentations that placed the interplay of art, architecture, and history in a broad perspective and highlighted projects in Kentucky communities. Rebecca Bush traced the development of artists’ involvement in interpreting contested historical subjects and the major trends she sees as shaping the public art-history relationship today. Bush is coeditor of the recent collection of essays Art and Public History: Approaches, Challenges, and Opportunities (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017). Her comments emphasized artists’ role in helping communities approach difficult histories and produce artwork that encourages contemplation, reflection, and tolerance. A panel discussion followed. Sarah Lindgren, public art administrator for Metro Louisville Government, spoke about the Public Arts and Monuments Advisory Committee that Mayor Greg Fischer recently charged with developing principles for evaluating existing art and monuments in response to debates about Confederate memorials. Nathan Zamarron, the Community Arts Director of LexArts, discussed several projects his organization is working on, and Garry Bibbs, an acclaimed artist and an Associate Professor in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Kentucky, spoke about his work and the centrality of storytelling to his creative process. 

For the keynote address, the attendees walked across campus to Memorial Hall to hear Alan Ricks speak about MASS Design, the firm that he and five other students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design founded in 2008. From the beginning, Ricks and his partners envisioned a different kind of architectural practice. In the years since, the group committed itself to “architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.” Ricks’s lecture showcased schools and health care facilities that MASS Design has created in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. The firm’s most recent work includes several memorials. Ricks spoke in depth about a proposed memorial to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide in Kigali, Rwanda, and a planned Holocaust Memorial in London, England. In discussing these projects, Ricks emphasized the difficulty he and his colleagues encountered in developing forms capable of representing horrific events and the importance of memory as a guard against future atrocity. 

By the end of the day, all who attended left with a great deal to consider. Art and history have a long and intricate relationship, but the ways in which artists and architects are now engaging historical subjects marks a turn away from traditional forms of remembrance. The degree to which art and architecture can bring forgotten histories into view and force contemplation is potent testimony to the power of the material world to shape human thought and emotion. Although historians have long favored written narratives, the work of Meadows, the Selvage Collective, and MASS Design suggests important alternatives. The emotional resonance of their work underscores the power of art to convey sentiments that might otherwise remain marginalized or hidden completely.

How, then, is historically informed art and architecture part of preservation? As the Czechoslovakian writer Milan Kundera observed, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Without physical remains, remembrance becomes difficult, prone to loss, amnesia, and varying forms of erasure. Although preservation advocates once saw the care and protection of valued remains as paramount, no longer is that true. Growing attention to historically informed art and architecture demonstrates the importance that advocates and professionals now place on public interest. In making challenging histories visible, artists and architects are pioneering methods for highlighting the relevance of the past and connecting it with contemporary debates. Although the outcomes are always uncertain, the results are consistently impressive. Sustained interest in the past is a wellspring of meaning and a path toward a more just and equitable world. Working toward such goals necessarily involves respectful treatment of valued remains. However interest in the past is fostered, it holds the promise of meaningful dialogue about the roots of our time and the promise of the future. 

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