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As Arts Desk reported last week, the Center for Green Urbanism on Benning Road NE opened on Friday with a backdrop of multimedia works in the center’s Tubman-Mahan Gallery. The gallery’s name, from local heroes Harriet Tubman and Dennis Mahan, ties it to the center’s community-oriented spirit, and the gallery’s inaugural show, “ReCREATE,” compliments the center’s environmental focus.
The works in “ReCREATE” tap a palette of materials that otherwise would have been cast away, including cigarette lighters, scraps of fabric, an old bicycle tire, and a Baltimore phone book. The gallery sits on the ground floor of a renovated two-story house a few blocks from the Minnesota Avenue Metro. Center co-owners Zandra and Dennis Chestnut call this multi-use space east of the Anacostia River a green-business incubator.
It turns out that art and eco-friendly commerce go together like cement and reclaimed glass—two other media that a few of the 20 featured artists use in this show from curator Sharon Burton. Which is to say, quite smoothly.
Works like Sean Hennessey’s “Everything is Energy,” creating two-dimensional shapes with the afore-mentioned glass and cement framed in steel, sit on walls covered in low-VOC Sherman Williams paint. Onlookers can observe it all while perched on honey-colored benches made with reclaimed teak or from the comfort of crème-de-menthe upholstered chairs from an eco-friendly Robert Allen line.
This infusion of green design comes thanks to Sherry Ways. She designed the office and common space in the building as well as the gallery, and runs Design Scheme Interiors out of the center.
The dual opening of the center and gallery drew well wishes from D.C. government officials, both in person and by proxy. At-large Councilmember and presumptive D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown and Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander both put in appearances Friday.
“People don’t think that we are green in our communities,” said Alexander of the outside perception of Ward 7—or perhaps even the District as a whole—at the ribbon cutting ceremony. On the contrary, she said: “I think that we are going to set the example. We are going to be a benchmark across the country of what we can do. We’re green and we’re becoming greener every day.”
Mayor Adrian Fenty sent a letter, which Zandra, who runs the gallery, read at the ceremony. Fenty cited several of the sustainable aspects of the space and called the opening “a significant milestone in our community.”
But it was hard to say, at first, if the community would actually show up.
“A lot of people are not aware of this even being here,” said James Hunter, a board member of Groundwork Anacostia River D.C., an organization run by Dennis and situated in the center. Even when they know, visitors do not always find their way easily. This was the case the previous Sunday, Hunter said, when a fleet of cyclists on a climate action bike tour needed extra guidance to reach the destination.
As soon as Friday’s mid-day opening arrived, though, the space teemed with community members as well as D.C. government figures. The mix of art lovers, grassroots leaders, local entrepreneurs, and environmental preservationists distinguished this from a Dupont or even H Street NE gallery opening. The building, which Hunter said housed a beauty salon for a good three decades before it sat unused for several years, added hominess to the event.
Fortunately for the large crowd, the show sprawls through the entire building, which allowed viewers to spread out and enjoy art even along the stairwell and on the second-floor porch overlooking the wooded edge of Fort Mahan Park. In fact, these off-the-gallery-proper locations held two of the most talked-about pieces: “Tippin’ in at Sunrise” by Gloria Kirk and “Shape of an Idea: Sophocles and the Baltimore Phone Book” by Megan Evans.
“Tippin'” is a compact art quilt that tells a tale about a female figure who appears among its bright, multitextured fabrics. “‘Little lady was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places. She’s tippin’ in at sunrise thinkin’ that nobody is watchin’ her'” is how Zandra remembers Kirk’s explanation. “….But she says that somebody’s always watchin’.”
For her installation “Shape of an Idea,” Evans took yellowed pages of Sophocles’ works and juxtaposed them with the fresh canary sheets of a phonebook. Both have been folded into what looks like flattened newspaper hats. The sheets are fitted together to form whirling top-shaped pieces the size of two open hands and hung like a mobile from a wooden frame. Verlyncia Thomas, an assistant to Ways and a sculptor herself, lingered over the piece that afternoon, scheming how she might cast those shapes in bronze.
Thomas gave tours of the building and its green accoutrements throughout the afternoon. That evening, the gallery held an opening reception where guests could mingle with the artists to the sounds of jazz flutist Arch Thompson. (Several of the artists will return for a talk on Friday, Nov. 5.)
Zandra said that she welcomes whatever mix of community and sustainable business the center can get. “We want anybody that’s interested to ring the doorbell,” she said. “And it’s been happening.” Since the show went up on Oct. 11, she says, a steady stream of curious people has found its way to the door of the unassuming house.
For future exhibits, Zandra looks forward to a black history theme in February and something featuring youth artists over the summer. In between, she said, “In April, it’ll all be about the Earth, baby.”
“ReCREATE” is on view Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to Nov. 13. The Tubman-Mahan Gallery and the Center for Green Urbanism are located at 3938 Benning Rd. NE, accessible via the Minnesota Avenue Metro (Orange Line) or X3 bus.
ReCREATE logo courtesy of Think Brown INK.