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Creating the Urban Canvas: Land Art On A Brooklyn Street Corner

Laura and collaborators collecting musings on love from New York commuters for her project Conversation Hearts.

Laura and collaborators collecting musings on love from New York commuters for Conversation Hearts.

A pretty daunting (and equivocal) title, eh? Strange titles don’t intimidate us! Last night we sent new staffer Raji Ganapathy all the way to Knox Hall to check out this art talk co-sponsored by the Columbia Center for Oral History Research and the Oral History Master of Arts Program. Here are her thoughts.

As I power-walked the the four blocks to Knox Hall, armed with a Chai Tea Latte in one hand and a croissant in the other, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this event. Land art? Urban canvases? Brooklyn? What did it all mean? I continued to ponder as I found myself sitting at a round table in a sweet little room populated mostly by oral history graduate students and the friends and family of the two guest speakers.

As the lights dimmed, Laura Barnett, an artist and grad student in Columbia’s oral history program, introduced herself and began to present some of the art she has created over the past decade or so, so that we could understand “her background and what experiences she [was] coming in with.” Laura’s art seems to center on the theme of sharing stories and memories in a public, urban space. She stated that she emphasizes themes such as shared authority and the coexistence of multiple perspectives in her work, and as she described some of her favorite projects to the audience, I saw the essence of these themes captured quite meaningfully.

The first piece Laura shared was Memory Kit, an art exhibition featured at Union Theological Seminary in 2014 which gave viewers their own “memory kits” filled with acorns that they could use to mark significant or beautiful moments in their lives. Another piece she shared was Conversation Hearts, a collaborative poem that includes the voices of unrelated individuals from all of New York City’s boroughs. As someone with little experience examining or creating performance art, I found Laura’s work quite fascinating. She was able to take some very private aspects of human interaction, such as emotionality and sentimentality, and translate them into artwork that was accessible, collaborative, and highly interpretative. By involving her audience in the creation of her pieces in such a fundamental way, Laura was able to portray very basic but genuine human interactions as “art.”

Laura then introduced us to the concept of land art. Land art was an artistic movement, that started in the western United States in the 1960s and 70s, that links, as you might have guessed, land with art. It emphasizes the use of landscape materials that are present in a space to create artistic pieces. Examples of famous land art pieces include Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels.

Laura’s collaborator, Alfred Evans, is a land artist. Evans works with the land near his Brooklyn neighborhood Vinegar Hill. He makes use of natural elements such as tree branches, stones, boulders, and snow, as well as forms of refuse, such as trash, garbage, and metal. Evans’ land art is almost indescribable in scope, ranging from rearranging the placement of garbage bags and trash cans around the space to the formation of his own miniature golf course. The diversity of Evans’ artistic pieces is partly due to the transient nature of his medium. Evans’ work would often be cleared away by the city in the night, and he would start from scratch again the next morning. But this didn’t bother him; he instead stated that he was thankful for the artistic freedom that comes with creating ephemeral art.

Evans views his land art as a form of community service, empowerment, and healing. His only goal in the creation of his art is to bring his community closer together. “If I make just one person smile, I think I’ve done my job,” he said. Evans borrows inspiration for his art from his childhood; he has stated that growing up with his mother in Brooklyn Heights gave him an appreciation for arts at a young age. “I thought I was different,” Evans said, “But then someone told me…[you] see things differently.”

I (somewhat unexpectedly) really enjoyed this event. From the casual but truthful retelling of the artist’s story to the presenters’ thoughtful responses to audience questions, I enjoyed the brief insight into the lives of these very selfless, creative individuals. Evans’ and Barnett’s work has brought Brooklynites together despite the increasing racial and socioeconomic stratification in the area. The two artists are very conscious of these boundaries in their communities and aim to bridge these gaps by creating works that highlight the beauty and genuineness of human connection. Using their own responses to the changes in their communities as a template, Barnett and Evans create works that resonate with their audiences, forcing them to reconsider what concepts such as “art” and “community service” really mean. Regardless of experience with art or interest in communities in Brooklyn, Barnett and Evans’ art, as well as their overall mission to celebrate the genuine human interactions in their communities, remind us to value the community ties we already have and encourage us to do our part in strengthening these bonds.

If you would like a chance to learn more Evans art or Barnett’s stories on your own (which I highly recommend), be sure to check out their showcase in June 2016. The location is TBA somewhere in Dumbo, Brooklyn, and will feature projected photos, transcribed experts of oral history interviews, and a presentation by the artists.

Artistes in action via fauxreal.org

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