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D.C.’s Metro incorporates artwork in its stations through the Art in Transit program, which attempts to give riders a more pleasant commuting experience using visual and performing arts. WMATA frequently partners with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and some of their efforts, says the commission’s chief of external affairs Jeff Scott, go toward paying local artists to create public artwork.
Submissions are now under review for site-specific public art pieces at Metro’s Ashburn and Reston Town Center stations. Metro’s Art in Transit program manager Laurent Odde says that when reviewing proposals, “we’re really trying to make sure it’s something that can resonate with the community and it needs to be integrated with the architecture of the stations.”
City Paper spoke with four artists about their public art pieces in Metro stations bringing community and culture to the commute.
A piece of art in the Columbia Heights Metro station has been shining with neon light since 1999. Youth from the community center Casa Del Pueblo created “Woven Identities” in the late ’90s through aproject led by local architect and artist Meghan Walsh, who was then volunteer teaching English as a second language at Casa Del Pueblo. The backlit, 3D artwork incorporates cut-up pieces of graffiti to make a mosaic that depicts residents of the neighborhood.
Odde recently got in touch with Walsh about conserving some of the piece, which has worn over the years. Most of the neon is still shining, but not all of it.
A grant from the Initiative to Strengthen Neighborhood Intergroup Assets, along with support from Casa Del Pueblo, made “Woven Identities” possible. “It was basically to bring students together from different backgrounds and cultures,” Walsh says. “And I was in Columbia Heights so that wasn’t actually that hard to do given that there were 19 official languages spoken at Bell Multicultural High School.”
Since the kids that Walsh worked with were interested in graffiti, she used that as her inspiration for this piece. The youth artists who were most involved in the project each spray-painted their graffiti tag—a graffiti artist’s signature—on a 16-foot by 4-foot piece of medium-density fiberboard, using the same palette of 12 spray paint colors that Walsh selected. The tags were then cut up. Other young people involved in the project took photos of neighborhood residents, which the team used to draw images, and then the graffiti segments were placed on them to create a mosaic.
Walsh did not specify where exactly the final product would be hung in her grant proposal. Once she heard a new Metro station was being constructed in Columbia Heights, she decided that was where it would go and contacted someone almost every day to make that happen.
“I was rather young at the time, in my 20s,” Walsh explains. “And just not fully aware of the ins and outs of the process of putting something into the Metro.”
The Metro eventually called her in to present her idea, and “Woven Identities” made it through the approval process to go in the Columbia Heights Metro station.
Akili Ron Anderson
Local artist Akili Ron Anderson is a 73-year-old who has lived in the District his entire life. He is anassociate professor of drawing, painting, and sculpture at Howard University, and was the first chairperson of the visual arts department at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, according to his website. His artwork “Sankofa I and II” consists of 23 stained glass panels that feature images of Sankofa birds. It was installed in 2002 around the stairwells of the Columbia Heights Metro station.
“I grew up no more than four blocks away from that space and so I lived and breathed that area,” Anderson says.
“Sankofa” is a reflection of Anderson’s African American heritage, and references African cultural elements like kente cloth in the artwork’s backdrop. “The name [Sankofa] is a reference to looking back at your history and moving forward,” Anderson says. His artwork is meant to inspire viewers to do the same as Columbia Heights develops.
In 1982, Andersoncreated a 232 square-foot sculpture of an African American Last Supper that had been hidden in Columbia Heights for years and was justdiscovered during a building renovation last month. “Sankofa,” he hopes, survives too.
“You don’t burn books, you don’t burn libraries, you don’t take down or put up temporary artwork,” Anderson says. “You put up artwork that is respectful to the general community, but also provides the freedom of specificity in terms of the statement.”
One of the goals of the Art in Transit program is to make the Metro a place where people can enjoy the arts in their everyday lives. Zimbabwe-born, D.C.-based artist Deirdre Saunder considered this when creating the glass tile and mirror mosaic “Swallows and Stars,” which has covered the canopy of the Glenmont station since 2001. Since passersby look up to the sky when viewing the piece, Saunder included parts of nature: birds and stars. She also considered how commuters often leave the station in the day and return at night, so her art evokes moving from morning to night.
“So many times when you’re commuting, especially from that distance, you’re sort of like, ‘oh, here we go again—all the way into the District and then back out,’” Saunder says. “So I wanted to do something that sort of brought joy.”
Outside of the Metro, a similar theme is seen in another example of Saunder’s work—“Hopscotch,” made of 289 ceramic tile mosaics that create images of figures skipping along the sides of the H Street Bridge. The artist says she used to walk across that bridge with her kids and wanted to create an artwork that made the commute a positive experience. Saunder has lived in D.C. since 1982, and “Hopscotch” was installed in 1997. It is now going to be torn down because the bridge is being reconstructed.
“That’s also part of public art,” Saunder says. “That sometimes different things happen and it gets torn down.”
Martha Jackson Jarvis
Established D.C.-artist Martha Jackson Jarvis trained six assistants to help her create “River Spirits of the Anacostia,” an artwork that covers the roof line on all four 100-foot sides of the above-ground Anacostia Metro station. Jarvis used mosaic and stone cutting techniques she learned in Ravenna, Italy. It took almost three years to make, and was installed at the station in 2004.
The artwork incorporates elements of the Anacostia River, which Jarvis researched in detail before executing this project. “Each wall, I dedicated it to the history of the river itself,” Jarvis says. “I started with satellite images from outer space of the Anacostia River to see the grandeur and the scope of it.”
At the time it was developed almost 20 years ago, Jarvis recalled that the river was very polluted. During its conservation, she saw native animals and plants that she integrated into this piece, like fish, tortoises, and blue herons. The materials were selected to withstand the environment, and nearly two decades later it is still intact.
Jarvis thought about Metro riders who go to work early and return at night. Depending on the time of day, viewers will experience “River Spirits of the Anacostia” differently, since the way the light reflects on it changes from morning to evening.
“It’s like a diamond,” Jarvis says. She envisioned this piece as a gift to the community.
Jarvis has been active in the District’s arts community for decades, and she is currently an advisory board member for Washington Sculptors Group and a public art committee member for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
“People visit Washington, D.C. from all over the world and there is something really important about having a vision for the city, you know, being able to articulate, what is it that makes this place special,” Jarvis says. “Yes, we have the National Mall, we have the National Gallery, of course the museums are world-class and they’re free. Who could ask for more? But then, there is more. There’s Washington, D.C.”
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