The Public Humanist

The Desire Line

L’Merchie Frazier, an artist and educator who has created and lectured around the world, is working with young artists of color on a collective project for the Art Grove installation in Franklin Park, opening August 8. Frazier has named her project The Desire Line: Seventeen Syllables, and it reflects an improvisational departure from and exploration of expanded urban possibilities. On a base derived from West African masks, which were and are ritually used to connect sympathetically to nature and to personify and enact group energies, Frazier is stringing streamers printed with haiku poetry, comprising seventeen syllables, expressing new 21st century voices impacted by and reflecting a mélange of cultures. The Desire Line: Seventeen Syllables, an interactive installation, was made possible by a collaboration between the William Monroe Trotter Institute at UMass Boston, which I direct, and the Artward Bound program at MassArt, partially supported by the Boston Cultural Council. Carolyn Lewenberg, a conceptual artist who works at MassArt and enjoys investigating the conversation between art and nature, created the Art Grove concept. I participated further in the current Art Grove initiative by choosing endurance, reflecting Franklin Park’s legacy, as the motif for participating public artists and by curating three talks on contemporary issues that allow select artists to publicly share their ideas and inspirations.

L'Merchie Frazier's Oath of Secrecy II: The Mask is Still Dancing

L’Merchie Frazier’s
“Oath of Secrecy II: The Mask is Still Dancing” Photo Credit: Eva Heyd

Nature and art are healing forces, and cultural healing is so very important, even crucial, in our cities and in our country today as so many communities are seeing people who look like their sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, and neighbors killed and sacrificed in the eye of the public as they watch films, pray in church, eat in cafeterias, sit at desks in schools and offices, walk down the street, and drive their cars. Death coming out of nowhere is unnerving; and the balancing energies of art and creativity can help us find answers to the questions we keep asking. Why are so many people murderously angry? What is behind this need to hurt, wound and kill each other? What can get us back to safe ground? How can we evolve, advance, and renew the culture of America, which is known and replicated around the world for its sound, rhythm, color, pulse, and, above all, its relevance?

Elma Lewis with Duke Ellington

Elma Lewis with Duke Ellington

One path to greener collective grass might be sharpening the senses that art exercises, seeing and listening. Another requirement on the way to better would be celebrating the men and women who devoted themselves to endowing not only the times in which they lived but materially contributing to and improving a future they would never see or hear. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer and architect of Franklin Park, and a string of landmark national oases, was such a person. So was Elma Lewis, who built an art school for the overlooked with a mantra of excellence. Olmsted carried out an agenda of celebrating nature’s beauty across the country. And at the end and culmination of his career, in the 1880s, he created Franklin Park, which idealized a linked city, connected in a necklace of green. His dream of connection across the city has not yet been realized and neither has the desire of Elma Lewis to make Boston a city that culturally appreciates and recognizes everyone.

Art, created by the human hand, heart, and mind, improves on the givens; it conceptualizes possibilities and pulls lines, fragments, materials, colors, and energies together to fabricate and generate a more vibrant whole. Olmsted and Lewis are rare individuals, and both left their signature on Franklin Park. Olmsted created the panorama of the park, and Lewis made a space of performance and sharing that opened up the participation of the excluded other. And those excluded others are still, unfortunately, being sidelined and separated out from the enterprise of culture, to which they have greatly contributed.

Franklin Park

Frederick Law Olmsted’s Franklin Park

Now, however, something new is occurring. Nature regenerates and reproduces itself but sometimes the growth of yesterday is not the primary growth of today. The face of the majority tomorrow does not look like the majority face of yesterday. This opens a window and a door in the cultural realm, a situation that Elma Lewis knew was ahead, and for which she prepared the city. So Boston’s parochial nature, of which it is proud (and in some instances deserves to be) is replicating itself with stark difference for the 21st century, a time when time itself is moving faster than ever, and yesterday is being eclipsed. The wave of now is no longer determined exclusively by what the few and well-heeled echelons say and want but the previously overlooked have a bigger share in voice and presence, thus insuring that the consensus of the collective is gaining ground. So will entrenched Bostonians participate in mapping a new Desire Line supporting sharing, learning, and growing stronger in the sanctuaries of the city that Olmsted designed and on the shared stages that Lewis engineered or will they persist in being split and weakened in the global eyes and ears of the future?

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