History – Concept – Development
The 2018 New York City MTA subway station mosaic installlation, Migration, is a revisiting and expansion of the MTA commission of the same name, at the same station, completed in 1999. I was nominated for the 1999 commission by Dowoti Desir, who knew my work from her time as a curator at the Studio Museum of Harlem. Dowoti is a Haitian-born scholar, priestess, and curator deeply engaged in the history, culture, and spiritual roots of the African diaspora. Dowoti knew well the history and development of my work contemplating identity, traditions and spirituality in African Amerian culture, the African diaspora, as well as the universal dynamics of the individual and identity in relation to larger social forces.
In 1991, at Dowoti’s suggestion, I applied for and was awarded a Leila-Wallace grant for a self-designed research project in Cote d’Ivoire. Being welcomed then initiated and working with a group of Baule, Senufo and Dan wood carvers opened the door to the spiritual and social worlds; the traditions, practices, rituals and Poro societies of some of the peoples of Cote d’Ivoire and Mali. Since that time, I have done projects working with local indigenous artisans, spiritual and social leaders, and indigenous peoples activists in clan-based societies in other parts of the world: the Ainu of Hokkaido Japan, the Amis of Taiwan, the Maya of Guatemala. Looking at the individual sense of self, place, acceptance, and identity within the social and spiritual hierarchies on a small village scale as well as on a national scale has been at the core of my work.
My personal history infused the development of my concept for the subway station art work with a special significance. My grandfather and grandmother migrated from Jamaica to Harlem after both working on the Panama canal as so many people of the Caribbean did at the turn of the last century. They migrated to Harlem, the only place in New York City that they knew they would be accepted, and eventually livied and raised my father and uncle one block from the site of the present subway station commission. Incredible convergence of happenstance.
The unique funding for this particular subway station installation involved a federal program that called for community input, so the selection and review of the finalists for this particular commission included representatives of the community, community cultural agencies, as well as New York City agencies. Additionally, the plaza above the station was being renamed and redesigned as Frederick Douglass Plaza. The city wanted the artwork of the station to have some reference or relationship to Frederick Douglass on the streets above. Because of the location near New Central Park and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, as well as outreach by New York City to community arts and educational institutions for input of the redesign of the traffic circle above the station, I met with representatives of the NYC Parks Department, representatives from the Cathedral, as well as city and local cultural agencies when being introduced to the context and demands of the project. All these voices wanted representation in the imagery of the installation. Working on the project over the next few months I did a lot of mediocre drawings trying to appease these voices. Then I had a turnaraound, a personal crisis, unexpected death of my younger
sister. I let go of all those voices and thought what the neighborhood and the station meant
to me, my family history there, the history of Harlem, why Frederick Douglass was so important in that space, and all the folks who migrated there looking for that place of belonging, home… spiritually, geographically, socially.
Twentieth century Harlem was a neighborhood of immigrants and migrants: African Americans, Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans. My work and the imagery developed in my work has always been concerned with finding that internal and external place as individuals and as peoples that is spiritual and social home, where one feels in tune within and without. 1100th Street being an entry to Harlem, it was a natural fit to develop the concept and imagery of the piece from the concepts, imagery and experiences I was already exploring in my work.
Design & Material Process
The underlying structure of the mosaic compostion throughout the station is a migratory path, irregular, interrupted and sometimes broken, unseen or divergent, but relentless. To design the form and placement of the mosaics on a limited budget so that they flow through the station, and became a meaningful and even provocative part of the environment I spent time sitting in different parts of the station at different times of day to see the traffic flow. Who stood where on the platform at different times of day? Which exit did most of the kids or adults take coming home from work or school? Was there a different population that used the 109th St entrance/exit as opposed to the 110th St entrance/exit? Then work with architectural plans designing the work in my studio, through may iterations.
The mosaic fabricator, Stephen Miotto, is a collaborator as well as a fabricator. Stephen, raised in the Bronx, is the son of Italian immigrants, third generation of mosaic artists from Spilimbergo, Italy, a very small 13th century town in the northeast of Italy known for mosaic artists and the only four year mosaic college in the world. When discussing potential fabricators with the MTA for the 2018 commission, it was quickly agreed that Miotto’s understanding, feel for the imagery, and technique were ideal for my work. I had chosen to work with Stephen for the earlier 1999 commission because, when in his studio looking at my drawings for that project for the first time, Stephen immediately began breaking off small rectangles of glass and mixing colors while explaining how he visualized interpreting, or translating my work into a different medium and a drastically different scale, while maintaining or even expanding the concept and evocative quality of the work. Looking at my hand-done drawings that first time Stephen plugged right into my thinking and intentions. Following up on the style or “touch” of samples and small sections of the mosaic made by Miotto in his studio, most of the fabrication was done in Spilimbergo by Miotto’s business partner, Fabrizio. Both their father’s starting out as mosaic artists in Spilimbergo, Stephen and Fabrizio are almost like brothers in the very small world of mosaic artists with the skill, sensitivity and technical capability to do very large projects all over the world.
After making color and design revisions of samples in the Miotto studio in Westchester NY,Stephen regularly visited Spilimbergo and sent me images of sections of the mosaic as it was being completed in Spilimbergo. My first view of the completed large sections of the work, was when I spent a week in Spilimbergo when fabrication was about two thirds complete. At that time I worked with the fabricators making further adjustments to color, value, color mixing. When finished the mosaic was shipped to Miotto’s studio in the US, in hundreds of small irregular sections about one foot square, with maps to piece them together, along with hundreds of pounds of glass for changes in the studio and during installation. In the Miotto studio, once again color adjustments were made as I saw fit, and small sections had to be redesigned by me and then fabricated in the stjudio to compensate for changes in architecture of the station that had not be planned.
Stephen Miotto and his incredible crew worked around the many contractors still working on major construction renovations to the station. My final input was working with Miotto and his crew, overseeing the layout, fine-tuning and marking the exact placement of the mosaics on the walls before the walls are prepared for the installation.
When the station finally opened, after being closed for five months for renovation, I once again spent time in the station watching the traffic flow as the skubway trains came and went. This time also watching to see people’s movement through the space, their response to the new space and the new artwork. Where did some stop to glance at the work, to take a brief pause in their life and reflect on the moment, the images and space around them?