Leigh Davis with the “Secular Columbarium.” (Photo: Perry Klein)

Brooklyn artist Leigh Davis describes her art project, “Secular Columbarium for the Island,” as an installation that would be an imagined memorial of artifacts from Southwest’s history mixed with associated objects, to create a “mythologization.”

Davis’s process uses art and research, blending interviews with residents with her inspiration to create this unique piece which connects the (e)merge art fair with the neighborhood where it is located.

In an interview, Davis shared her thoughts about the project.

What was your your experience as an artist creating this work?

It was a layered process. I began by  researching online, reading books and archives in the library, talking on the phone, and communicating with people of SW through email.

The exciting part happened once I got to SW. I entered the area I had learned so much about… not just  the site of the fair… but the neighborhood surrounds. This added a whole new layer to my process.

As I walked around the neighborhood and I began to meet people – either those I had previously contacted, or new people in SW – I added their facts, their stories and their items (T-shirts, photos, a napkin, ads). Plus each day I added more from the area (Subway cup, seeds on the ground, etc).

Once the installation was set up, I also created a “guide” for the visitors to the fair to reference the objects in the installation and their relationship to SW.

What are some of the things you heard from the residents while you were creating this work?

The most interesting anecdotes came from resident Vanessa Ruffin and former resident Paul (“South”) Taylor. I think the fact that these two people grew up in SW, down the street from the hotel, interested me. They had stories about the first this, or that. About the alley and the community. About the celebratory times of being young.

I also found that the black experience of growing up in SW had more of a resonance with me than the white experience of the area. Perhaps because there are events, or moments that talk about the roots of segregation in the area (and the whole of the city) yet still such a rich and celebratory community.

What were some of the response you got from from other artists at the (e)merge  fair and from the visitors who saw it?

The viewer comments at the fair were most valuable, especially from people who grew up in DC and had some idea of the area and its transformation over the years up to now, but who had no context to think about them.

One aim in the work was to make a connection from the neighborhood outside to inside the hotel – to create an exchange – and this was successful.

The big question is of course, what next, both for this piece which you had to disassemble to move and also what plans for the future?

I have put the project and a text about it online… a place for it to be virtually, if it cannot be physical. The next idea is to continue on a project dealing with some of the themes I found of interest in SW for another project next spring.

I am certainly more intrigued with SW now, after spending so much time thinking about it. I want to do a more specific study – a photographic work – on housing in SW.



Contact information:  Leigh Davis at (347) 341-1875 or davis.leigh@gmail.com


By Sheila Wickouski, a freelance arts and culture journalist and longtime resident of Southwest who has contributed work on history, theater, music, and the arts to area publications for more than twenty years.

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