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Cedric Douglas, Winner, Uphams Corner Public Art Commission

Cedric Douglas, winner of the Uphams Corner Public Arts Commission, has a daunting task ahead - to engage the residents and businesses in a conversation about public art.  The Arts committee under the direction of DSNI and funding by The Boston Foundation found his proposal most compelling. His winning proposal is already taking shape with a brazenly decorated UP truck designed to comb the neighborhood streets for anyone who is curious, loves talking, is passionate and expressive. 

Congratulations to artist Cedric Douglas, winner of the Uphams Corner Public Art Commission.

For more than a month, select members of the Uphams Corner community have known who the winner of the Boston Foundation's Uphams Corner Public Arts Commission was but nobody was talking.  Not just a simple announcement, email or rumor would do for a community being prepped as a "destination for the arts."  Announcing the Arts Commission winner had to be carried out with pomp and circumstance.

Ensuring Mayor Walsh, the Boston Foundation and the other ArtPlace committee members were available meant the event had to be rescheduled several times.  Finally, the date was set.

On the evening of April 9, 2014 a large panel truck, distinctly painted in mural style and staged in front of the Strand Theatre's entry foyer, was conspicuously blocking the view.  Why?  It signaled a "dead give-away"  and who the winner was. 

Cedric Douglas, winner, art commission Cedric Douglas, winner, art commission

Finalist Presentations in January

Back in January, the five finalists presented their detailed engagement plans on how they would handle the arts commission mandate.  Only one presenting artist suggested a methodology that had any ability to get "just that close" to the community.  What the artist proposed was a variation on the "ice cream truck."  Those are not his words but the concept is the closest analogue familiar to just about everyone.

Fundamental to the Uphams Corner Public Art Commission is the requirement that the designated artist be able to relate to, and engage, the community on the topic of public art.  What is ultimately built is not intended to be the artist's creation.  Rather the artist is charged with facilitating design and implementation based on community input, participation and inspiration. 

The Challenge is Daunting

Imagine walking down a typical residential side street in Uphams Corner. Ask yourself:  What about the street engages you, if anything?  The people?  The street "furniture"?  The answer is generally not the residents because they can't be found.  It's also not the houses and landscaping what with Ipods keeping us permanently company.  Besides, who needs to find anything on the street to interact with?

Missing from our walking experience is the human element, the sense of community - people on their front porches chatting, eating, singing, strumming a guitar or playing cards.  Missing is the sound and sight of kids running around having fun.

On occasion, people can be seen when they open their doors to the sound of sirens, whether from police or ambulance or fire truck.  No matter what the temporary attraction to the "outside," the front door is re-locked and life returns to normal on the inside, not outside. 

Getting people to vote is a near impossibility. Getting them to attend important meetings is frustrating even if you flyer the entire neighborhood.  Asking residents for feedback about public art and what will you get?

•    Come to a meeting (come to me).
•    Send me your ideas. 
•    Fill out this questionnaire

What you get is low response and even lower participation.

The one positive exception to the rarely-to-be-opened, locked front door, is the ice cream truck moving slowly down the street, blaring a repetitive but melodious tune and one that everyone associates with "ice cream" especially the kids. Hear the sound and though you may not know the driver personally, you do know what the truck is delivering and (if hungry), you freely open your front door. 

  • What is it going to take to engage members of the community in a meaningful way whether they like art or not, whether they understand art or not, whether they even care if public art is, or is not, in Uphams Corner?  Bullhorns?  Contests?  Scholarships for your kids?
  • What approach to the engagement challenge will foster a willingness and enthusiasm on the part of the ordinary people to contribute to the creation of public art and to believe they can make a difference?

Human Centered Design

The challenge is how to bring the "art making / thinking / designing" to the people, not the other way around.

One answer to the community involvement challenge lies in the concept of human centered design (HCD), a recent growing movement, practiced by the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4Si) and many other organizations like IDEO.org and discussed on TED Talks.  As described at a recent Boston Globe meeting for journalists, HCD begins with empathy - with an empathetic relationship between yourself and another human being and grows through the process of establishing a meaningful dialogue. 

Applying that to the challenge of public art participation in Uphams Corner
  • If you and I can engage with each other in a down-to-earth setting where you work with me to express yourself and show me your art – show me who you are and what is important to you
  • If I have the sensitivity to see and understand your creativity and artistic expression
  • If we can continue to REFRAME the question as we interact with each other
  • Then we may have the beginnings of a conversation about public art.

Cedric Douglas, winner, art commission
Up Truck profile from the front
Cedric Douglas, winner, art commission
Inside the van on the driver's side

Cedric's Idea

In his January presentation, Cedric made a bold suggestion on how to reach the people of Uphams Corner.  He imagined, he said, a panel truck decorated attractively and festively - in a manner that would appeal to all the people's street-wise artistic sensibilities - across the spectrum of the young and the not so young.  He imagined driving down residential streets slowly in his arts mobile, maybe playing familiar music and then parking it, opening the back open and inviting people to talk and expresses themselves.  He would design the inside of the truck to provide space and facilities for creative expression.  All of this would be designed as a framework to attract people into conversation and the exchange of ideas. 

As Cedric was describing his truck, it seemed to come alive.  In its journey down the street, no young kid or parent had to run after it, looking for a quick exchange of dollars for ice cream.  The Arts Truck (he calls it the Up Truck) would "stay a while" giving the artists and artists to be a chance to mingle in artful conversation and activities.  What better way to get to know each other, to engage in resident-driven conversation and, maybe, to express themselves artistically. 

So here it is - the bottom-line.  

The award is won and the journey has begun.  Cedric is now the Artistic Pied Piper of Uphams Corner, not the one who attracts children to disappear but the one who attracts people to open their doors in conversation, art making and the unfolding possibilities of life.

Congratulations, Cedric.  May the journey be fruitful for all. 

Cedric Douglas, winner, art commission
Inside the truck on the other side
Cedric Douglas, winner, art commission
Right side of Up Truck - arrows pointing to UP

Posted: April 11, 2014   Nancy J Conrad

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