PRESENT ABSENCE

An Inclusive Public Art Proposal

 

The TEAM

Owens Daniels,  Winston-Salem Photographer;  Lead Artist

Tramaine Grey, UNCSA Design and Production Student, Students of Color Co-Chair; Student Coordinator

Karen Salinas, photographer, blogger, community organizer;  Project Coordinator

Betsy Towns, CDI Higher Ed Design Studio Director, Artist; Project Director

Marvette Aldrich, Artist and NC A&T Faculty Member

Kelly Bennett, City of Winston Salem, Public Art Commission Liaison

Cliff Dossell, Director of Exhibitions, SECCA

Fleming El-Amin, Forsyth County Commissioner

Greg Errett, Creative Corridors MLK Project Leader, formerly, City of Winston-Salem

David Finn, Public Art Commission Chair, WFU Professor of Art

Kristen Haaf, Creative Corridors Coalition Chair

Joycelyn Johnson, Former City Council Member, Creative Corridors MLK Leader

Mollye Maxner, UNCSA School of Drama Faculty

Russ Smith, CDI Spatial Justice Studio Director, WSSU Urban Studies

Cynthia Villagomez, Chair, WSSU History and Justice Studies

Mike Wakeford, Interim Executive Director, New Winston Museum, UNCSA Liberal Arts

Tanya Walker, WSSU English Department, CDI HeART Studio Co-Director

Annette Scippio, WS City Council Member

Please join us for coffee, muffins, and image & story sharing as we build the content and design of a major work of public art to hold the memories and imagine the future of life along the MLK corridor of East Winston Salem. 

Planning phase supported by Z Smith Reynolds Inclusive Public Art program.

Making History Visible and Futures Imaginable.

Our intent is to create Public Art that brings vividly to focus the stories of neighborhoods that built the city of Winston-Salem as it is today. Some of our most influential communities disappeared in waves of modernization that began in the 1950s.

Traces remain, still visible to older residents of our city, but not legible or knowable to the majority. Our project brings these stories to the fore, while also enlivening the broader story of historical erasure in the wake of urban renewal. Our vision builds on important community engagement work that members of our team have been part of for ten years—researching the stories of these influential neighborhoods— and newer initiatives—building programs in Public Art and Public History at two Winston-Salem universities. We appreciate the opportunity to share our project concept with you.

THE PROJECT – Present Absence

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, robust African American communities thrived along a central corridor of Winston-Salem and were instrumental in making possible the city we know today. Then in 1958, some of these communities were dispossessed and the homes destroyed to clear the land for the construction of Highway 52, creating divisions that continue to define our city today.

Presently, no permanent public art exists in our city that tells the stories of the predominantly African American families, individuals, and businesses that once richly shaped the landscape. These are stories of Present Absence. Their physical forms no longer exist in much of east Winston-°©Salem along the Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and I-°©52 Corridor.

These are the communities, now gone, whose men and women labored in tobacco factories and textile mills that grew Winston-°©Salem into a thriving city. In Belews Street Neighborhood, for example, gone are the restaurants, barber shops and schools;; gone are roads built so the tobacco and textile workers could walk uptown on a separate corridor from white collar workers who used Main Street;; gone are the porches that, as one county leader recently and laughingly recalled, had given him a place as a boy to peak at the fascinating comings-and-goings at the

liquor house across the way. These are the stories of everyday life of the people who built the city, on sites now inhabited by biotech firms, universities, roads and bike paths. In the communities with whom we are interested in co-°©creating, histories, collective sense of identity, homes, ways of life, and even the soil on which those lives were built disappeared beneath bulldozers, leaving vivid memories. The Winston Salem Journal published former resident Barbara Morris’s visual, visceral story of the one family who refused to move—

“who wouldn’t agree to the government’s demand to clear out. The bulldozers ripped up the ground around the home, and … the home was perched on a tiny island way up in the air, with the ground all around it bulldozed flat, 35 feet below. Of course, the family could not access their home, and finally, it came tumbling down like the rest around it.” This story is recorded in our newspaper’s archive, yet has otherwise gone untold. Like many stories from this area, it appears ready to rise into powerful, sculptural form. This project will resurrect the vibrant and significant stories of these communities and, through the collaborative creation of public art, provide a meaningful and productive space to engage with these histories of community, expressive culture, imagination, and resilience.

The human stories of these communities were relegated to the margins of the histories we tell about our city. Politics, crisis, and power shape the histories we tell. The embedded perspectives, interpretations, and systems of knowledge that marginalized and displaced Africana communities from their land and their homes to build Highway 52 are also the reasons histories have yet to be documented in a substantive way. We are working to shift methods of history in our classrooms and on our campuses, to move the research and telling of stories toward ways that honor the people in them and that indicate desire for equity and justice toward the people and families who in many cases lacked funds, options, or influence to successfully fight and resist dislocation.

A permanent work of art that reveals these histories, that makes these absences visible in the present, has the potential to impact many more people. Experiencing, via public art, the contributions of those who lived in absent or heavily-altered neighborhoods along the MLK Corridor can go far to building understanding that can grow bridges across the divides in our city. Studies have shown that decreased levels of residential and income segregation leads to increases in economic mobility. Building understanding and connections between segregated parts of our city can create opportunities to abate segregation.

Fusing the ideas, talents, and visions of peers from the school of Music, Design and Production, Film, and Dance resulted in the creation of CAPACITY, an insight on climate change, performed in the Center for Design and Innovation CUBE in April, 2018. The students of UNCSA, as well as a guest student from Japan, Sachi Masuda, began discussing the topic of climate change during Intensive Arts, December, 2017. Throughout the span of three days, we not only discussed the issue of climate change, but also how we perceive our surroundings and generate our opinions. We were also given the chance to practice and learn about each other’s art forms, which helped us understand how we each ‘create,’ leading to a better collaborative experience.

A smaller group of the UNCSA students met again during the spring semester. We honed down the ideas that we generated as a group during intensive arts, and composed a more concise message to communicate to the audience and discussed how we wanted to convey this message. Do we want to make the audience feel guilty about the negative impact we have on the climate? Do we want to make them hopeful, motivated, angry? We realized that in order to convey a message that would make a worthwhile impact, we would have to represent each type of person and their relationship with the environment. Someone who takes from the environment, someone who gives to the environment, and someone in between.

Through dance, I was able to represent the neutral persona, which seems to be where most people in the world live right now. I found that having most of the population in this halfway position might be just as harmful. Building a society of people who try their best to recycle, use more environmentally friendly products, and maybe opt to bike instead of drive is wonderful for our climate. However, it is this same group of people who will not execute any of the above lifestyle practices unless it is highly convenient. The problem arises when we convince ourselves that our harmful practices are okay because everyone around us is doing the same thing.

I believe that in the end our project was able to show how hard it is to piece our climate back together if the deterioration is outweighing the improvement. With the perfect music-dance pairing, eye-opening videos of the environment, the mounds of dirt supplied to help the dancers convey the human-environment relationships), and elemental lighting, we presented a powerful message. A message that declares, “yes”, the climate is changing, it is our fault, we have the capability to lessen our impact, so what do we do now? Are you going to leave a gentle handprint on the world, or just a pile of crinkled up soda cans? Megan Castro

Contemporary Dance Student, UNCSA