Nashville unveils first civil-rights focused public art with Witness Walls
By Jessica Bliss
20 April 2017
Photo courtesy Hood Studio
Witness Walls is Nashville, Tennessee’s first civil-rights inspired public art. A collection of fragmented concrete walls, the sculpture places visitors among the heroic people who took part in Nashville's civil rights movement. The art focuses on the "mundane actions" of sitting and standing, rendered — as Witness Walls artist and College of Environmental Design Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning Walter Hood said — "so extraordinary by their intent: desegregation."
The project, led by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, will be unveiled at a celebration ceremony today at Nashville's Public Square Park.
"We are at this moment," Professor Hood said. "Now is the time for conversation. This is not just about commemoration, but about memory."
Standing 7 feet, 6 inches tall, the walls use shadow and light to capture the metaphor of struggle as figures and scenes emerge and retreat along the walls' coarse surfaces. Some walls are flat, with a mosaic of black rock creating pictures of mothers grasping small children's hands, demonstrators falling to the ground and police wielding clubs and seizing marchers. Other walls are curved, covered in compositions of photographic images of praying and preaching and protesting, all selected from the Nashville Banner collections at the Nashville Public Library.
The outdoor space also includes reflective fountains, benches and musical recordings from the civil rights era.
The idea is to create a different way of moving, and a different way of thinking. "We want to construct new narratives," Professor Hood said.
Though the Witness Walls include images of notables like Diane Nash and the Rev. Dr. Kelly Miller Smith Sr. and Matthew Walker Jr., it is not meant to be a memorial only to those civil rights leaders mentioned most. Not everybody sat at a stool. Not everyone delivered speeches.
Clergy organized meetings. Mothers walked their children to newly desegregated schools. Students, both black and white, walked picket lines or served as community messengers to report arrests. Witness Walls reflect the many actions that incited change.
"The civil rights history in this city, and in others, is a movement," said Jennifer Cole, executive director of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission. "Individual people get called out in the history books, and those people played important roles, but when you peel back Nashville's story it was thousands and thousands of people who you will never see in a book and who you will never hear mentioned who did very small but collectively important things."
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, Professor Hood, and community leaders will join the Metro Arts Commission for the public dedication to honor those who fought for racial equality and continue the important conversation about social justice in our community today.
See images of the new installation here.