The biggest challenge was finding historical documents related to the Mackall Broom and other nearby plantations that could be used to create powerful redacted or erasure poetry in the context of the design. The team’s collaborator, poet Quenton Baker, researched various types of documents related to the plantation site and eventually discovered hundreds of runaway slave ads that became the foundation of his poetry. The team was struck by how the ads were so personally descriptive of the runaway slaves, but at the same time profoundly impersonal, as the words were coming from a context of describing property. This dichotomy was particularly resonant for us as artists because it distilled the essential inhumanity of chattel slavery in our nation’s history.
The team’s approach was to make the Commemorative as site-specific as possible. This included drawing inspiration from the archaeological research and artifacts discovered by the College, the architecture of Historic St. Mary’s City, historical documents related to the plantation, as well as the formal aspects of the site itself. Also, we wanted the Commemorative to directly engage the rhythm of daily campus life as opposed to secluded or isolated from it.
Design + Execution
Most memorials that focus on slavery across the country tend to deal with the subject broadly in in sculptural terms. Whether they are about the entire transatlantic slave trade or specific events in history, most of these memorials use a figurative approach that are interpreting themes in universal terms. The Commemorative consists of a steel framework that sits on a concrete foundation and is clad with exterior-grade stainless steel panels and hardwood. The steel panels are waterjet cut with poetry text. These sheets form the planes of the sculpture and are mounted directly to the steel framework. The erasure effect of the text is achieved by pieces of hardwood mounted to the steel framework. The bands of hardwood selectively obscure the text while evoking the wood clapboards of the site’s original slave quarters. At night, a point light in the interior of the sculpture illuminates the text from within, projecting the text into the surrounding environment through the cut steel panels.
Quenton Baker (poet)
METALAB (design optimization/management)
Merge Studios (fabrication/installation)
Kevin M. Kennedy (videography)