I was half listening to a TED Talk given by Amanda Williams where she spoke about turning abandoned homes in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago into art. She would check the city’s register of houses slated to be demolished and then would descend upon them over the weekend, painting them in a bright monochrome to change a blighted building into a beacon of color in the neighborhood.
As her palette, she choose colors that had relevance to black residents of Chicago: Ultrasheen conditioner; Pink Oil Moisturizer; Harold’s Chicken Shack; Currency Exchange and Safe Passage signs; and Crown Royal bags.
I started paying somewhat closer attention when she talked about how a passerby thought the house painted in Crown Royal bag purple was a sign that Prince would be descending on the neighborhood to do a concert.
And though that block was almost all but erased, it was the idea that Prince could pop up in unexpected places and give free concerts in areas that the music industry and society had deemed were not valuable anymore. For him, the idea that just the image of this house was enough to bring Prince there meant that it was possible…And once I revealed that in fact this project had absolutely nothing to do with Prince, Eric nodded in seeming agreement, and as we parted ways and he drove off, he said, “But he could still come!”
He had assumed full ownership of this project and was not willing to relinquish it, even to me, its author. That, for me, was success.
I loved that Williams had this experience. It reminded me of the poem, “The Secret” by Denise Levertov which also mentions the viewer taking ownership of a work.
But I really perked up and paid attention to what Williams said next (my emphasis)
I wish I could tell you that this project transformed the neighborhood and all the indices that we like to rely on: increased jobs, reduced crime, no alcoholism — but in fact it’s more gray than that. “Color(ed) Theory” catalyzed new conversations about the value of blackness. “Color(ed) Theory” made unmistakably visible the uncomfortable questions that institutions and governments have to ask themselves about why they do what they do…. One of the neighborhood members and paint crew members said it best when he said, “This didn’t change the neighborhood, it changed people’s perceptions about what’s possible for their neighborhood,” in big and small ways.
The value of her artistic/creative/community building activity couldn’t be measured by any of those usual metrics. How can you measure the benefit of a splash of bright color that brings a moment of hope that someday Prince will come? Not to mention the secret hopes and joys that may have been kindled within the hearts of neighborhood residents that they would never admit on a survey?
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