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D.C. artist Nekisha Durrett has transformed hemlock wood into public artwork. Her sculpture “Up ’til Now” stands over the Connecticut Avenue Overlook park, just south of Dupont Circle, at 1365 Connecticut Ave. NW.
A peephole on the front of the sculpture invites viewers to look in to see a diagram of a landscape that calls to mind what D.C. looked like before colonial times. The framework is a nod to the District’s Victorian row houses.
The project was developed with support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as part of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District-produced Layers + Lines exhibition.
Durrett created this piece specifically for the overlook, and integrated elements of the city’s past and present, including hemlock trees. According to a plant guide developed by the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, indigenous peoples once used hemlock trees, known for their medicinal properties, to treat a variety of ailments. Hemlock trees have recently been observed in the mid-Atlantic region on iNaturalist, a nature app that records scientific data and helps users identify plants and animals by connecting them with more than 750,000 scientists and naturalists.
“I think about the ways in which the land had served indigenous people and in particular indigenous peoples who may have populated the area where D.C. is now,” Durrett says. “And how the marshes and the thickets and what people like to call “the swamp” was actually a place of resource and nourishment for people.”
Themes of history and visibility come up often in Durrett’s work, which she traces partly from her personal experiences. “I think that as a person of color, as a queer person, as a woman, I am always, I am hyper-aware of how people perceive me,” she says.
Durrett creates large-scale installations and public art—“Up ’til Now” measures 12 feet high. “The scale of my work,” she notes, “is like this attempt to be seen.”
Her artwork is getting attention. She is one of 46 artists chosen as a finalist for the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition (which received 2,600 submissions) and is creating a permanent installation for the newly renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Her work can now be seen in a myriad of local exhibitions: The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today at the National Portrait Gallery to Aug. 30, 2020, Dialogues at STABLE to March 8, 2020, and Layers + Lines at the Golden Triangle’s Connecticut Avenue Overlook to March 2020.
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And that’s just within the last year. Durrett has been awarded multiple grants from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and was an artist-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center in 2016.
Durrett grew up outside of D.C. in Upper Marlboro. As the daughter of two native Washingtonians, she frequently visited the city to see extended family and attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. She drew contrasts between city life and her life in Maryland.
“I can see Ellington as a very black and a very queer space, and I think that is so powerful for a lot of young people to be in a space where you are seen,” Durrett says.
Duke Ellington’s ethos emphasizes educating the whole student and preparing them for careers in the arts through practical training. Durrett recounts that an internship she had as a teenager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History had a great impact on her. “I think that’s sort of like where it started,” she says. “Talking about what I love most about D.C., I love the museums.”
She later worked on large-scale graphic production at Smithsonian Exhibits, a branch of the Smithsonian that provides exhibit services like planning and design across the institution, as the art bank manager at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and in exhibit production at the National Portrait Gallery. She now teaches at Duke Ellington in the museum studies department.
“Sometimes you get a faculty member that kind of ignites a new energy,” says Duke Ellington museum studies department chair Marta Reid Stewart of Durrett. “It’s very symbiotic.”
“When I’m there it doesn’t feel like I’m away from my practice, which is something that I’ve always wanted,” Durrett says. “I’ve always wanted for my life and my work to feel like it’s all kind of working together.”
STABLE, an art space in Eckington that officially opened to the public in October, is another home for Durrett. She is one of 32 artists in the collective, which was created as a place for artists to “find their people,” according to its director of advancement and operations Kali Wasenko.
Collaboration is at the heart of STABLE. Its artists bounce ideas off one another, and the art space engages with the local community while also planning to work with embassies to bring in international artists. Its gallery will feature four to five exhibitions each year in partnership with local and international organizations, with public programming attached to each showcase. The online multicultural arts platform The Agora Culture sponsors an emerging artist for a year at STABLE and will rotate a new artist annually.
“Having Nekisha here at STABLE is really great because I feel like she has embodied that [collaborative] spirit and brought to life some of the ideas that they intended when they were creating STABLE,” Wasenko says.
Tim Doud, one of STABLE’s founders, knows Durrett well: Their studios are next to one another.
“She’s not only a neighbor, she’s a really good neighbor,” Doud says. “Nekisha brought in someone who she thought could support the organization and that person has. So she brought her resources to us. She didn’t need to; we never asked.”
Durrett considers her impact on a space when creating artwork, too, and selects projects to which she has a personal connection. For example, she created the piece “Heaven Lasts Forever,” in which large, graphic text mowed into grass and painted onto concrete transforms the lawn of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where her sister was born. The name of the piece is inspired by a line in The Color Purple, which Durrett refers to more than once in her work.
She quotes the story in another piece of work, “I Love You Miss Celie,” which was presented at the MLK Library during Banned Books Week in 2015. The image is a 48 foot by 30 foot drawing of a hand holding a purple, heart-shaped balloon that says “i love you miss celie,” a phrase from a scene in The Color Purple when two female characters kiss. That moment had a life-changing effect on Durrett when she read the book and saw the film as a young woman.
“I just wanted to literally blow that up, blow up that moment,” Durrett explains. “There is also this deeper thing that I am doing, which is, like, saying this is not something that should be hidden.”
Another recurring element of Durrett’s art is the phrase “Yes Lawd,” taken from a James Baldwin speech. “It’s very particular language and I don’t think it’s language you see often in public spaces,” she says. Durrett mowed the letters into grass in The Parks at Walter Reed, creating a 30 foot by 64 foot artwork. “I like the idea of injecting that language into this space in such a bold way.”
The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum invited Durrett to create a social engagement piece with museum visitors during the 2019 Smithsonian Solstice Saturday, a festival that takes place on the first Saturday of summer. Durrett was a part of the event’s “America Now: Celebration of Music” portion. This year’s fest coincided with the Don’t Mute DC movement to preserve go-go music and culture in the District.
Durrett took all of that into account when developing her project, making go-go music her focus. The result was “Go-Go Belongs Here,” a 12 foot by 17.5 foot digital print featuring those words in all-caps and composed of posters on which the public had colored during Solstice Saturday. “I thought it was really important to have that represented, especially since this event was addressing local culture and local music,” she says.
Kate Raudenbush, an award-winning sculpture artist who is also featured in the Golden Triangle’s Layers + Lines display, understands that creating large public artworks like Durrett’s is difficult. “It requires an enormous amount of out-of-the-box thinking and a lot of teamwork and a lot of logistics,” she says.
Raudenbush has been displaying her work in the Black Rock Desert at Burning Man for many years, and knows a lot about creating artwork on a massive scale. “When you work really big, it’s space consciousness,” Raudenbush says. “I love how she refers to a sense of place and space and time in her work.”
The Golden Triangle BID’s executive director Leona Agouridis is glad to feature artists like Raudenbush and Durrett. “Over the years we’ve developed the capacity to be able to do it—because it ain’t easy,” Agouridis says. “To be able to put a piece of art on a public street, because there are lots of challenges with permitting, with engineering, with siting … and that doesn’t even get to art selection and all of the other elements, we’re lucky to be able to do that.”
The goal of the Golden Triangle’s public art initiative is to enliven urban spaces. With “Up ’til Now,” Durrett delivered. “We got a great note from somebody,” says Karyn Miller, the BID’s curator for Layers + Lines. “He’d walked by the site a thousand times and the piece made him think about everything in a way that he never had before.”