New Kids on the Block: DC’s Latest Public Art

If you’re unsure, let me set the record straight once and for all: public art has always been cool. It gives a city flair, adds character to the atmosphere and perhaps above all else…it gives us all something to Instagram. I mean, what more could we ask for?

In a previous post, I took a look at some of the strange, make-you-look-twice directions that public art can go. While that art was certainly interesting in its own right, it’s also interesting to dig a little deeper – how did a piece come to fruition in the first place? And more importantly, why? What on earth is that weird abstract sculpture trying to convey to me? To answer those questions, I did some research on pieces in the one, the only – the District.

With summer as the perfect time to work on art throughout the city, it is no surprise that the last few months have left the area with more and more pieces to ponder. Here are the latest additions to DC’s public art scene:


“City Fields”

City Fields is a piece of art that was commissioned and sponsored by the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District, Boston Properties, Steuart Investment, and MarcParc. It’s located at the Mount Vernon Triangle at O, 5th and K streets NW. The piece is a collage-type installation that spans 160 feet. The artwork features photographs from five major cities around the world, intermingled with hand-drawn images of local wildlife. According to PR Newswire, the point of the piece is:

“…to reflect the resurgence of cities and the resurgence of wildlife in many cities. It is also suggestive of the need to balance the build environment with nature. For instance, in Washington DC, there is a growing hawk and white tail deer population. Stumbling across these large herds of wild animals in the midst of the city offers a truly surreal experience.”

The work was done by artist Rachel Schmidt, who works both as an exhibits specialist at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and as an artist in residence at the Arlington Arts Center. Speaking to her muse, Schmidt says:

“The site was my initial inspiration, the wide open space of the parking lot in the forest of tall buildings and activity offered a moment of calm.”

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“Living Timeline: Paul Robeson”

Paul Robeson is a world-renowned civil rights activist, singer and actor. This piece is situated on U Street NW, consired the historical hub of DC’s African-American art scene. This art was commissioned by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The piece showcases two large portraits of Robeson at either end of the wall, with smaller pictures representing Robeson at different stages of life layed out in-between. Above everything, there is a quote said by Robeson that reads “I make no distinction between my work as an artist and my life as a human being.”

The mural has yet to be 100% finished. Eventually, the timeline will feature actual dates and an interactive quality that lets viewers learn more with help from an app. Graffiti writer Cory L. Stowers, who is also the co-founder of Art Under Pressure, and his frequent collaborator, Andrew Katz, completed the mural. Inspiration wise, Stowers comments:

“It’s one thing to paint a singular image or a singular scene out of someone’s life, but with Paul Robeson’s story, it really needs to see that span of time he was in the public eye and how that developed.”

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“Symphony in DC Major”

This is a sculptural piece located at the City Market at O, 8th an P streets NW. Spanning a block, this permanent art addition comes from Roadside Development in collaboration with DC native artist Zachary Oxman. In total, the sculpture is made up of three figures that measure 125 long and 16 feet tall. Who are the figures? American Expressionist painter and Shaw Junion High teacher Alma Thomas, jazz artist Duke Ellington, and Union Army Col. Robert Gould Shaw. Oxman speaks to the piece’s complexity and meaning, stating:

“I envisioned the 125-foot span to become a dynamic experience, whether by foot or car, that unfolds like a film strip or a musical score. An experience that is at once part mural, part sculpture, and part performance. The challenge for me was to share these people not just as static images, but to share their emotion and history.”

As art comes and goes on the walls, streets and sidewalks of the city, it is definitely interesting to look further to see why each piece was commissioned, who completed the work and what it meant to those who had a hand in the project. So, take a look around! Visit the new sites! Take in public displays of art! I mean come on, if nothing else…do it for the ‘gram.

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