St. Mary’s College of Maryland earlier this week announced the artists who were selected to create a structure that commemorates the enslaved people of Southern Maryland.
Norman Lee and Shane Allbritton, from RE:site, an art firm in Texas, along with Quenton Baker, a poet from Seattle, were chosen to create their design called “From Absence to Presence.”
“We’re honored and excited to be selected,” Lee said.
The art competition was in response to a 2017 archaeological survey that revealed evidence of two slave quarters that once existed on campus grounds in the 18th and 19th century, where construction for Jamie L. Roberts Stadium was about to begin.
Records show that when the college was St. Mary’s Female Seminary, established in 1840, the school owned six slaves in 1850.
The college decided to slightly move the site of the new stadium, and hire an artist to build a structure that embraces the land’s history.
After almost 60 submissions, it was narrowed down to 28 applicants. Eight groups were selected for an interview and three groups were chosen to present their work at the college last month.
Lee presented the group’s piece on Feb. 12; his slide show showed the structure would be shaped like a cabin made out of stainless steel.
The structure will be covered in “erasure poet” written by Baker, Lee explained.
He said Baker may use documents that were written by the slave owners who lived on the quarters at the college, or research other relevant documents to use for the poem. Then he’ll block out chunks of texts with wood so the revealing words create a new narrative.
The text is etched in the 18-foot tall doorless house and looks like a giant mirror.
Lee said the group also wanted to incorporate the entire field surrounding the house in the project. During the day, viewers and the field are reflected in the stainless steel structure. And at night, a light that’s built inside projects the words from the house onto the field around it.
Lee said what’s special about the art piece is the juxtaposition between the new stadium and “the narrative of the field being a slave plantation.”
Lisa Scheer, search committee member and art professor at the college, said the final decision was unanimous and the competition wasn’t close. She said the chosen piece gives viewers a chance to respond, specifically to the poetry being presented.
“The audience can formulate their ideas,” Scheer said.
The art professor also said she likes how the art embraces the past but also comes into the present.
“Enslavement was certainly something that occurred in the past but we know our country is still grappling with these issues,” she said.
Michael Brown, the only community member on the search committee, said the committee considered the input of others through their online portal, and received 118 responses.
He said an “overwhelming majority” favored the winning piece.
“So that’s why we feel pretty confident that the right person was picked,” he said.
Brown said he didn’t want to drop any names but one of the art presentations didn’t measure up to the others.
“It was pretty bad,” he said.
Brown said he still applauds all the artists for trying. “That takes a lot of courage to do that, to me,” he said. “You’re almost putting yourself out there.”
Lee said they are in the process of signing the contract and plan to start on the project in the next few weeks. He said the goal is to complete the project by the spring of 2020.
The project will be funded by the state for $500,000.