Art as the Mediator for Evolving Communities

They say the only constant thing in life is change, and I’m still trying to decide if I fully agree with that sentiment. More and more, I’ve been leaning towards the theory that change is nothing more than a repetition of patterns if you look hard enough. More than anything, art literally and figuratively continues to remain anchored between the past and present.

Staying in Boston after completing graduate school (partially by choice and partially by circumstance) has made me think a lot about what it means to grow roots. I can easily fall into the category of Boston’s changing demographics, since this coming August will only mark my fifth year residing here. While I can no longer use the magic moniker of “grad student” to gain discounts and access to resources, I’m not sure that I’ve been here long enough qualify as a “Bostonian”. More uncomfortably, I’ve been thinking about whether or not I fall into the category of gentrifier. While I may be well intentioned about wanting to be an active member of the community I reside in, that doesn’t dismiss accountability in how my actions impact said community. As an artist and educator, gaining context is essential to generate next steps. If I aim to grow roots, what pieces of context/history do I need to seek out in order to understand where I am and how my actions will either support or dismantle what was here before I arrived?

Art is my tool of choice when it comes to actions that create a domino effect of positivity. Public art in particular is filled with promise by intrinsically partnering art with placemaking. I witnessed this firsthand through Faces of Mattapan, a public art project I created in partnership with The Boston Public Health Commission and Mattapan’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Program (VIP)’s Our Mattapan Campaign. The Youth Design Team of Mattapan’s VIP, a group of young people ages 14-17,  were looking to combat the negative stigma assigned to their neighborhood. During this project we wanted to address both the demeaning nickname “Murderpan” and the reality that these teens and their peers are often perceived as perpetrators of violence. Over the course of a few months I attended their afterschool meetings, got a tour of the neighborhood, and interviewed them about their experiences and I really came to know the neighborhood from their perspective.

 A proud member of the VIP Youth and Design Team smiles with  Faces of Mattapan  by Chanel Thervil.  Photo provided by Chanel Thervil

A proud member of the VIP Youth and Design Team smiles with Faces of Mattapan by Chanel Thervil.
Photo provided by Chanel Thervil

After completing that process, I created a fifteen-foot painting of Mattapan residents that incorporated phrases illuminating all that they shared. The community unveiling at the Mattapan Library was a joyous occasion where a multi-generational crowd got to celebrate a positive reflection of their community. Many of the youth were pleasantly surprised at the mere attendance of community elders and the interest they showed in hearing about how the young people influenced the creation of the artwork. It was a genuine common ground that supported dialogue about how to keep making their community safer and stronger. That experience served as proof that art is powerful enough to disarm people into forming connections with each other, which is much needed across the city.

  Faces of Mattapan  by Chanel Thervil on display at the Mattapan Branch of the Boston Public Library.   Photo provided by Chanel Thervil

Faces of Mattapan by Chanel Thervil on display at the Mattapan Branch of the Boston Public Library. 
Photo provided by Chanel Thervil

What I continue to observe and find peculiar about Boston is how it prioritizes preservation of historical elements. Which, by design, thwarts the evolution of aesthetics that help contemporary people connect to the spaces they spend their time in now. The Boston Creates Cultural Plan and The Boston Artist-In-Residence program are examples of the city government’s reckoning with both of those truths. While well intentioned, the structures (or lack there of) beneath the surface of these initiatives tend not to be up to date with removing barriers that keep artists from actually executing this work in real time at such a broad reach. Primary examples include slow disbursement of funds for materials, limited studio space offerings for fabrication, lack of communication and coordination with liaisons or community entities artists are supposed to collaborate with, and shifting timelines that discredit the amount of time artists need to maintain the integrity and quality of what they are asked to produce.

The alternative route that I have seen artists take is to strategically align themselves with organizations/institutions that they have established connections to. Usually this allows them to engage with a more manageable timeline, reasonable disbursement of resources, and immediate interactions with the people within the communities they hope to touch at every level of the creative process.

A poignant example of this can be seen in The Street Memorials Project by artist Cedric Douglas. As a part of his residency at Emerson College, he created a multi-site installation around the campus that focused on memorializing the over 1,000 black people killed by police in the U.S. during the last 5 years. He filled typically ignored crevasses of the campus with gift tags featuring the name, image, age, location, and death year of individuals killed by police. In the time between his guerilla installations, he also conducted community surveys that activated conversations around gun control and safety. One of the more provocative questions people had the opportunity to give verbal or written responses to included: “When is it okay to shoot an unarmed person?”

 Street survey in process for the  Street Memorials Project  by Cedric Douglas.   Photo by Cedric Douglas

Street survey in process for the Street Memorials Project by Cedric Douglas. 
Photo by Cedric Douglas

 Tags pending attachment to roses for gifting to the public for the  Street Memorials Project  by Cedric Douglas.  Photo by Cedric Douglas

Tags pending attachment to roses for gifting to the public for the Street Memorials Project by Cedric Douglas. Photo by Cedric Douglas

The closing of Douglas’ project was marked by a Rose Memorial Service (which was free and open to the public) where attendees paid tribute to those lost and were gifted with a rose. Each rose was marked with the same gift tags that had been part of the installations around campus, yet another way to ensure that the dead are remembered. This is the kind of project that is much needed in Boston, especially considering its history with law enforcement and the policing of communities of color. It’s particularly inspiring to see this led by a person that reflects the community of people targeted by this injustice. The Street Memorials Project poetically challenges us to see victims as individuals rather than statistics, while pointing to the connections between of race, remembrance, safety, and gun control.

A project of that nature is no small feat to complete. But, the stability of installation sites within the confines of a campus, a timeline benchmarked by college semesters and events, and having liaisons that are all working under the same constraints helps to keep things moving toward the common goal: execution and completion of the work. And the reality is this would have been a nightmare to execute on a city-wide level because of the varying historical contexts and contemporary circumstances in the neighborhoods that could potentially be a location for this work. Just thinking of the permit process to make the installations a reality on city property alone summons a headache.

Unfortunately, there’s no overnight solution to how to resolve all of these issues. Art continues to be this remarkable mediator that has the power to address the unique needs that arise from community to community. Despite all that changes, the need for this form of mediation has been unwavering. The key pattern I keep coming back to is the need for support to move ideas from the heart, head, and hands of artists into the streets one project at a time.

Header photo: Here's a peek in the studio while Chanel Thervil paints Faces of Mattapan. Photo by Chanel Thervil

Chanel Thervil is a Haitian American artist and educator obsessed with all things art, history, and community. You can find out more about her work by visiting her website www.chanelthervil.com