Pop quiz: What does it mean to be an American today?
Actually that’s a trick question with no correct answer—and millions of correct answers.
It’s also the question at the heart of PBS’s American Portrait and two new pieces of public art, up this weekend through the end of the month: A large-scale diorama by Caledonia Curry, the artist otherwise known as Swoon, at Prospect Park; and a sprawling new mural by Ashley Uananiau Lukashevsky at the restaurant Sea Wolf on Wyckoff St in Bushwick.
“The project is about a lot of communities and individuals of all different stripes finding commonality,” says Bill Margol, senior director of programming and development at PBS. “There’s hardly a better place than Brooklyn to represent lots of communities coming together.”
Founded in the wake of the violent 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, American Portrait aims to provide an answer to that impossible question—“What does it mean to be an American today?”—through storytelling.
PBS has been collecting video, photography, and text in response to various prompts about slices of human experience since the riot. And today, their archive of more than 14,000 user-submitted stories helps paint a diverse portrait of the American life.
In Brooklyn, they also inform these two works, which come at a time when we’re all starved for a little interactive culture.
“Public art is a way of engaging the community in a time when we really need connection,” says James Spindler, creative director at RadicalMedia, a partner with PBS on the project.
‘The House Our Families Built’
Swing by Prospect Park this weekend to be greeted by a diorama-style sculpture encased in a 14-foot truck. Swoon’s “The House Our Families Built” pulls the curtain back on domestic life in America, with life-size cutouts of human figures and curated Americana.
Brooklyn-based Swoon is often credited as the first woman to gain international attention for her street art. She was moved by American Portrait’s story archives to use the home as a centerpiece for her work.
“Her piece is really about exploring what legacies we choose to carry forward and what we choose to leave behind,” says RadicalMedia’s Spindler.
Swoon’s work also has a live component: Fifteen-minute performances, developed by Jeff Stark and Irene Lazaridis, tell a diverse range of stories pulled from American Portrait, offering the rare chance these days to see a performance.
The sculpture and performances were installed at Brooklyn Bridge Park last weekend, and will be on view in Prospect Park on February 6 from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and February 7 from 12 p.m.-3 p.m. In the next two weekends, it will travel to Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens and Union Square.
A second chance
Another art piece from American Portrait making its mark on Brooklyn is Ashley Uananiau Lukashevsky’s new mural at Sea Wolf, one of eight murals around the country.
The mural features a quote submitted to American Portrait from Ebony Underwood, about her father Bill, a 66-year-old who she says was given a life sentence in 1988 for a first-time felony conviction on drug charges. “As … a model prisoner with zero infractions while incarcerated, we believe our dad deserves a second chance,” she wrote.
As fortune would have it, a few days before the mural was unveiled, Bill was actually released from prison—giving the mural a new, happier subtext..
Lukashevy, a Los Angeles-based artist, is known for her socially-justice driven work.
“Sstorytelling is important at any time—it’s how we identify and express ourselves,” says PBS’s Margol. “But now, between the pandemic and the fight against racial injustice and political divisions, I think there is a desire for people to speak out in a way that allows them to express themselves.”
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