Coming across public art is often a bizarre experience. Encountering sculptures or text or paintings we'd expect to find in a sterile gallery setting rather than a high-traffic outside area often causes us to stop and ponder not only the art but the environment we may often pass daily without taking notice. It enhances our experiences and perceptions of culture.
Such was the idea behind Elevate/Art Above Underground, a series of public art installations around historic downtown Atlanta, Georgia, which opened at the end of August. One of the artists enhancing the cultural experience of its city and its visitors was local Atlanta artist and Bahamian native Lillian Blades. Her piece, "Ancestral Totem"--a pillar of ephemera surrounded by four small benches--is unmistakably her own, yet it departs from her usual assemblages of found objects in her use of new materials.
"I thought it would be great to showcase my work in a very public space because I've never done a piece outdoors in a public place," she says. "I've been experimenting with using new materials like using concrete and water and more permanent materials." Since she had to create work that could survive outside in a high-traffic area for 66 days, she had to rethink her usual use of materials, and the totem is indeed made mostly of concrete.
Yet this new material changes the power play in Blades's work, introducing a juxtaposition that was not evident before in her previous work. Her assemblages of found material jigsawed into sculptural quilts of wood, bone, beads, ribbon, canvas, paper, fabric, etc. constantly drew attention to the sense of the fleeting in such material--the preciousness that we often attempt to capture ever so precariously.
The strength in holding these memories close was always barely implied by the material used to tie the assemblages together, yet the way space appears in these pieces invokes the feeling that such sentimental material is held together seemingly by invisible bonds generated by the emotional attachment to the found material itself.
In "Ancestral Totem", clearly a more sculptural work, the use of concrete holding in place mirrors, glass beads, shells etc. has become a strong juxtaposition to the ephemerality of the material itself, offering instead a sense of sturdiness, of permanence--becoming an anchor onto which the floating memories are tethered.
Indeed, though called a totem, Blades points that it acts like a memory jar--a vessel for memories shared between two people. "It has a feeling of a memory jar but in the form of a totem," she explains. "People come and touch the surface and look at their reflection. And that's how memory jars are. They invite you in to reflect on what's there."
Instead of being some private shared exchange, though, Blades's piece became interactive as she invited viewers on the opening night to add extra material she had collected onto the pillar, imbuing it with the personal touch of the people who make up the very city the totem sits upon.
"It's the same approach as Junkanoo and quilting, a type of collaborative response by the community," she says. "People were so excited to be sticking shells or stained glass, just to add to the piece. It was nice to have everyone gather all around. I was mixing mortar all night," she continues. "I like for people to be able to add their own responses to the work in the same way I would have."
The many mirrors sitting within frames like pictures frames even invite people approaching it to become part of it, to see themselves in it daily. Blades points out that even the materials she used had special significance to the materials of the city itself. "I used old bricks from a torn down building. So the brick that the totem sits on are new but the bricks that I used for the base of it are really old," she explains. "I wanted to show the old coming up from the new, elevating from underground."
What makes the piece so striking overall is the fact that its made from the same materials as its surroundings yet it transforms them into something not quite sentimental, but perhaps more defiant against the constant anonymity of city life, as if in mixing into her cement she included some evidence, some sign: "We were here."
Blades was excited to have been able to be a part of the project and has found a new material to incorporate into her artistic practice--which may in the future include more public art. "I loved being able to experiment," she says. "Even though I wasn't so sure exactly of what I was doing, they were excited that I wanted to try and wanted to experiment and have fun, so it was exciting to be able to do this without that much experience with public art." For more images of the opening night for "Ancestral Totem", visit our online galleries at www.thenassauguardian.com.
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