Sculptures give Historic Foggy Bottom a contemporary edge

Past the series of cranes and square buildings of GW’s campus lies Historic Foggy Bottom, a neighborhood characterized by quaint brick townhouses with bright-colored facades.

And a local public art program, Arts in Foggy Bottom, is giving this historic district a contemporary edge.

The program, created and co-directed by Foggy Bottom residents Jill Nevius, Mary Kay Shaw and Jackie Lemire, has brought new exhibitions to the neighborhood every two years since 2008, with the goal to create a public art space within the small community.

The most recent exhibition includes 16 pieces installed for six months on private properties around the area.

“The value of public art – you can’t underestimate it. It brings neighbors together, whether you like the piece or dislike the piece,” Shaw said. “We’ve see the neighborhood gardens improve, we’ve seen relations among neighbors get tighter. It’s made a neighborhood out of a group of people who didn’t necessarily know each other.”

This season’s exhibition, “Sculpted: Histories Revealed,” was curated by Deirdre Ehlen MacWilliams, who graduated from GW in 2003 with a degree in art history. Using her familiarity with the neighborhood as a foundation, MacWilliams drew upon the area’s history and its local residents to develop an exhibition that interacts with its setting.

And while last year’s exhibit, “Sculpting Outside the Lines,” centered more on abstract art, MacWilliams wanted the focus this year to be on an intersection between art and the community.

“I would select a piece of artwork that I thought not only fit well with the site, the property, the house, but in a way sometimes even with the site owner themselves,” MacWilliams said. “For me that was really important – to not just know the context of the neighborhood and the history, but also to get a better understanding of actual community members.”

Through conversations with the homeowners who would host the art pieces on their private property, the artists then created site-specific pieces for display.

Mariah Anne Johnson, a professorial lecturer in painting and drawing at GW, is one of the artists featured in the exhibition. Her sculpture, called “Stone,” is situated right in the middle of the homeowner’s garden.

“I was excited about it because my work has only really occurred inside. I work site-specifically and I work with bed sheets, so this is an opportunity to try something really different,” Johnson said.

Johnson also worked closely with the homeowner, spending time in the garden and making sure the art piece would work aesthetically with the already curated space.

Drawing from the homeowner’s love of impressionism and her own painting expertise, Johnson created a sculpture made of mylar emergency blankets, using the shiny material to reflect the surrounding greenery and interact with the landscape.

“I was thinking about Monet and his engagement with his garden, his work as an impressionist and thinking, ‘Oh, maybe there’s some kind of relationship there.’ I was thinking about his paintings and reflections being a really big part of them, especially his later work in his garden,” Johnson said.

Building Aground,” a piece by artist Rachel Schmidt, features an upturned boat as a backdrop for sculptures of high-rises, playing off Foggy Bottom’s metropolitan nature and its history as a major shipping area.

“I like the juxtaposition between the historic and the sort of transient, ever-evolving neighborhood then being reflected back with contemporary art,” MacWilliams said.

Other public art projects in the District, like 5 by 5 and Washington Project for the Arts, display temporary art throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. MacWilliams said Arts in Foggy Bottom is one of the only neighborhood-specific projects, and both Nevius and Shaw said they are hoping to help spread the program to other neighborhoods.

The art in “Sculpted: Histories Revisited” will be on display until Oct. 25., with the next exhibition for the Arts in Foggy Bottom program coming in 2016.

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