Now more than ever, Station North is in a state of transformation. The neighborhood has seen a boom in gallery spaces, street art, and studios since it was appointed the Arts and Entertainment district by the state in 2002, particularly in the past few years. While more white artists and students (myself included) become increasingly present in the neighborhood, the rest of the (predominantly black) community finds itself in a state of confusion, where the definition of “community” is less and less clear. To address these issues, MICA’s MFA Curatorial Practice Class of 2015 has put together an exhibition, called "Locally Sourced," of local artists that highlights community engagement and visibility.
Looking through the front window from outside the MICA studio building—recently dubbed the Fred Lazarus IV Center—I see Paula Whaley’s black dolls, installed to resemble the storefront display of her studio on Charles Street. Whaley, the youngest sister of author James Baldwin, has a background in fashion that comes through in her gorgeous figures, made from clay and embellished with paper and fabric clothing and hair. The setup is inviting and shrinelike, complete with candles, flowers, chairs, a rug, and wall sculptures. In August, Whaley led two doll-making workshops in conjunction with “Locally Sourced,” which are documented in a slideshow along with materials used by the participants. She also holds workshops with both young and old community members independently from the exhibition, and exhibits local artists’ work in her storefront window along with her own.
Inside, the hand of the community members in making the artwork is most apparent in Jason Holyman’s rearrangeable sculpture, titled ‘27 Portraits in Passing that Form a Magic Cube.’ The piece is accompanied by the artists’ sketches and diagrams, along with the journals given to community members to use to record their movements throughout Station North. From these journals, Holyman created maps which he printed on 27 cubes, each corresponding to the each participant’s pattern. The audience is invited to touch and interact with the cubes, which I find scattered across the space. The Collective dance company will interact with the ‘27 Portraits’ as part of an original dance performance with two-piece multi-instrumental duo The Water during the AKIMBO dance festival on Sept. 13 from 1-3 p.m. So the community is both a defining factor in the sculpture’s conception as well as its perpetually transforming presentation. Holyman also included an organic-looking relief sculpture of his own walking routes, called 'Change In Place.'
Inside a small dark room at the back of the gallery is a sound/video/photo installation called ‘Out of the Blocks: Station North’ by WYPR and MICA faculty member Aaron Henkin and hip-hop producer Wendel Patrick, who have collaborated on community-based multimedia projects prior to “Locally Sourced.” On one wall, photographs of community members and the “Locally Sourced” artists circulate as video on the adjacent wall shows them in action—in their studios, in their shops, in their homes, in bars, on the streets. Recorded interviews conducted by Henkin synthesize with music produced by Patrick. The whole installation repeats after about 40 minutes. It’s a multisensory and multi-angled series of snapshots into the lives of community members, not distinguishing the lives of the artists from the lives of their neighbors.
Not long after I plop myself down on one of the benches, a photo of the artists sitting together appears in the slide projection. Five second later, Henkin and Patrick themselves walk into the box. After recovering from the meta-ness of the moment, I introduce myself, and we exchange a few words about the piece. For a couple minutes, we watch and listen together. It was only too appropriate to experience the work with the artists directly, rather than experiencing it as an isolated product of distant, abstract figures. Obviously, their physical presence reinforced this notion, but their visible hand in the work also emphasized the power of the artist-community exchange.
Beyond the box, a mural called ‘The Tipping Point’ by street artist Nether rises above the mezzanine to the ceiling so it can be viewed on either the first floor or the basement level. The image, painted boldly but simply, depicts a large portrait of an African-American Station North resident. Behind him are old rowhouses and the familiar storefront of Pearson’s Florist. The real Pearson’s shop is located just a block from the studio building and has existed for over three decades, long before MICA spread to North Avenue. Above the portrait and rising to the first floor are tops of skyscrapers and two large ring-clad hands holding a white bird floating in the sky, and the words “HERE TODAY . . . GONE TOMORROW.” Partially obscuring the mural is a white banner held like a scroll by large, cutout hands. Drawn on the banner like architectural blueprints are the newer buildings and institutions on Greenmount, Calvert, Oliver, and North Avenue—including the studio center—with the words “HERE TODAY . . . HERE TO STAY.”
Uncertainty plays a large role here. In his artist statement, Nether writes, “With this piece I tried to express two thoughts that have been on the minds of older neighborhood residents: First, development in Station North has been beneficial, resulting in a drop in crime, and economic growth for some businesses. Second, with higher rent prices there is a worry that development will go too far and inadvertently dissolve the neighborhood’s historically black identity.”
The banner’s obfuscation of the mural seems to represent this second concern, while the ironic location of the piece in the MICA studio center embraces the optimism of the first thought. Though not the most visually interesting part of the show (that award could go to either Whaley or Holyman), Nether’s work is easily the most thought-provoking, as it reveals the complexity of the most prevalent issue facing the neighborhood.
In effect and in presentation, the “Locally Sourced” is as much about the curators’ engagement with the community as the artists’. Covering an entire wall is an interactive display in which the audience is invited to write about their personal connection to Station North by selecting and filling out a card with one of six prompts (“My favorite place to meet my friends is . . .,” “I remember when . . .”) to then hang on a string. On the opening day of the show, many cards bearing various anecdotes had already been hung. This kind of simple, interactive display appears frequently in museums, and sometimes seem like half-hearted and largely ineffective efforts to engage directly with the audience. But, especially in the context of “Locally Sourced,” this particular display effectively highlights the overlooked reality that Station North is not about one group of people—like all urban communities, it’s composed of and propelled by people from all walks of life. In a world where many gallerists and curators often neglect their immediate community, it’s encouraging to see this group of young curators starting their work with this kind of outreach.
The opening reception for "Locally Sourced" is Friday, September 5, from 5 to 7 p.m.