Rules of the Road
I’m proposing a site-specific installation attempting to make visible my own increased awareness that seemingly neutral road signs can be experienced differently by white people and people of color in white neighborhoods. In fact, built environments can be read as welcoming to some and forbidding to others, while using visual symbols that have no explicit bias. Additionally, I want to address the idea that there is no black history in the mostly white suburbs. The existence of highly segregated towns today is evidence of the history of exclusion. This artwork takes a historical perspective by focusing on a Needham Massachusetts property listed in the Negro Motorists Green Book.
The Chapman house was listed in the “Negro Motorist Green Book” for nearly every edition from 1936 - 1966. Needham was never a town with a large number of black people. As recently as 2016, African Americans made up of fewer than 2% of the population. Redlining in the post-war years, and a largely intolerant white population (ie. structural racism as well as prejudice) made moving to some Boston suburbs a very difficult prospect for African American people. And yet, there was a house in Needham where black people could safely find lodging in the middle of the 20th century. This house was owned and run by a single (divorced) African American woman, Blanche Chapman (and eventually her son and daughter-in-law).
The installation is made up of a series of corridors. The walls of the corridors will be made of laser-cut paper sheets. The panels will be 18”x24”, 140lb. watercolor paper. This heavy weight paper holds up well to laser cutting and to hanging sheets one from another. The walls will be four sheets high, reaching a height just over six feet.
They will be attached to one another using zip ties, and hung from a series of white PVC pipes. The zip ties will also be white and visually unobtrusive. In addition to holding the paper walls together, they reference the ties that are used as handcuffs in some law enforcement situations.
At the center of the installation is a model of 799 Central Ave. suspended from above. Information about the proprietor of the “traveler’s home” will be cut out of the bottom of the model. The information will be projected onto the floor with a battery powered light inside the house. (prototype and sketches pictured here).
At the beginning of the installation, the shapes cut out of the paper will be based on a pattern enlarged from Battenburg Lace (see above sketch). Gradually, the lace pattern will transition to a chain link fence pattern. At first the patterns will mix, but eventually the chain link will take over. On the fence there will be standard road signs (Stop, One Way, Do Not Enter, Yield). All of the imagery, the lace, fence, and signage, will be cut from the white, 140lb. watercolor paper.
The traffic signs refer to the capricious way that the rules of the road can be enforced differently for different looking people. As a person walks through the space, the lace might seem pretty, domestic, and middle-class. But it will become more industrial and even cage-like as the signage and fence pattern take over.
The house will be a beacon in the center of the piece.
The sketches shown above do not reflect Bromfield Gallery’s layout. Here I’ve worked out one possible layout for the space.