Seaport Art Walk returns with a message for us all

“Stand. They will try to make you crawl. And they know what you’re saying makes sense and all. Stand.”

— Sly and the Family Stone

Since 2015, sculptor Jessica Bregoli and other organizers of the annual Seaport Art Walk have curated public works along a short section of Route 18 by the New Bedford Harbor.

Past show titles have included “New Bedford Works,” “Cultural Aspects,” and “Sustainable Edges.” All had either a subtle or overt social message.

This year is no exception. The unifying theme for the summer 2018 exhibition is “Freedom and Equality,” in celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

It honors his ideals — social justice, human rights, liberation, emancipation and sanctuary — by displaying sculptures and murals with the attempt to convey those noble tenets.

Among the best is Eric Lintala’s “Shackles Broken- Free at Last,” which, in part, derives its title from a famous Martin Luther King, Jr. speech.

A singular steel column, painted stark white and perhaps 12 feet tall, is topped by a pair of manacles- much like the kind once used to fetter slaves — bursting apart. It is both traditional and quite contemporary. And suitably solemn.

A few steps to the south of Lintala’s sculpture, near the corner of Front and Union Streets is “The Missing Piece,” a rusting steel sculpture by Melonie Poirier.

Nestled in a raised bed of purple, orange and magenta flowers, a large semi-abstract hand holds up a segment of a jigsaw puzzle. The implication is that the “missing piece” might be any of those Douglassian ideals.

On the east side of Route 18, in front of the State Pier, there is a collaborative sculpture by Bregoli and Allana Boucher. Called “Weights of the Past” and constructed of steel and wood, it depicts emaciated figures, all chained together. One is on hands and knees, another is rising with a crouched back, another stands.

To a certain degree, it is reminiscent of those Darwin posters and certainly could be a commentary on social evolution. But it is too sad and heavy … the faces are nearly featureless, visages reduced to collective phantom memory.

“Log Cabin Safe Haven on the Way to Freedom” by Julie Bardon is constructed with 2-by-4s and 1-by-2s and metal sculptural components. Certain elements- a rising eagle, the log cabin of the title — are loaded with symbolism. But the wobbly construction and crude paint application, no matter if intentional or not, is a distraction.

At the corner of Route 18 and Elm Street is a sculpture by Donna Dodson, well-known locally for the “Cinderella Seagull” of two years ago.

The name of the work is a mouthful: “Madame President: A Monument to the First Female President of the USA and to the Dream that Every Girl Can Become President of the USA.”

Dodson carved the thirteen-foot tall cartoon lioness (yes, with breasts) from solid poplar in 2014 before Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for president. But this lioness has a crown-like mane. And if a lioness can supplant the king of the jungle, a woman can become president.

“Mixed Messages: Beacons of Welcome/Windows to Breathe Free” by Justin Cifello consists of large wicker objects mounted to a black steel fence on the north side of the State Pier.

One of the objects is a torch, much like the one held aloft by Lady Liberty. Another is a hanging lantern, much like those used by the Underground Railroad, offering hope and aid to runaway slaves.

There are three wicker “windows” attached to the fence. One can look out the windows to the port and the city but the pickets of the fence are prison bars, metaphorically inescapable.

Tracy Barbosa’s ”Fadista” (referring to the often-mournful Portuguese music known as fado) is a large scale mural along a wall on the pier.

Using silk screened black-and-white photographs and applied to the surface with wheatpaste, Barbosa’s images are mournful. And sometime hopeful.

Pictures of razor wire are juxtaposed with ferris wheels; men stuck in oppressive buildings are near birds in the ecstasy of flight.

Lastly, muralist Lauren Savoia, in collaboration the Youth Leadership Academy and the boys and Girls Club, have painted both sides of the off ramp at the Seastreak Terminal parking lot. “YLA Fight for Freedom and Equality” is painted in bright with colors. Everywhere, the children have written inspirational sayings (“Never give up no matter how hard’) and signed their names.

Somewhere it says “Destiny.” That might be a name. Or it might be an inspirational saying. I think it’s both.

“The Seaport Art Walk: Freedom and Equality” is on display on both sides of the JFK Memorial Highway (Route 18) in New Bedford, between Elm Street and Union Street until October.

Don Wilkinson is a painter and art critic who lives in New Bedford. Contact him at [email protected] His columns run each week in Coastin’.

This post was originally published here

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