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New public art planned for Ashland

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Piece inspired by Say Their Names T-shirt installation
The shirts in the Say Their Names art installation are showing signs of weathering after their two-year vigil on the fence behind Ashland’s Railroad Park. [Morgan Rothborne/Mail Tribune]
A concept design for the new sculpture proposed for Ashland Creek Park titled “Crystalize Our Call,” from the Say Their Names Memorial Facebook page.
The Say Their Names art installation began with shirts in 2020, but over the years has accumulated flowers and signs, and often the wall grows in response to new killings, like the shooting of Aidan Ellison in November 2020. [Morgan Rothborne/Mail Tribune]
The shirts of the Say Their Names art installation in Ashland’s Railroad Park are diverse, some are clearly store bought with slogans or names printed on them, others are handmade or modified. Most bear the names of Black lives lost to racial violence. [Morgan Rothborne/Mail Tribune]

Since June 28, 2020, visitors to Ashland’s Railroad Park have found over 100 T-shirts lining the fence between the park and the railroad tracks.

The shirts bear the names of Black Americans who lost their lives to racial violence.

Some names are recognizable from the George Floyd murder protests of 2020, which inspired the communal art installation. Freddie Gray and Breonna Taylor’s T-shirts hang alongside more obscure names, such as Herman Arthur, who was lynched in Texas in 1920.

Two years later, a new public art installation is on its way through the approval process for the city of Ashland. A sculpture titled “Crystallizing Our Call” is the brainchild of artist and motivational speaker Micah BlackLight.

“I am deeply grateful that this conversation is even on the table,” BlackLight said.

“The vision was always that something would grow out of that,” said Tía Laída Fé, a local organizer for racial justice and performance artist affiliated with the Say Their Names collective from the second iteration of the installation.

A month after the shirts were hung on the fence, a still-unknown person or group removed them.

“The first installation, it was smashed down overnight — and the next day there were more shirts than before,” BlackLight said, citing this outpouring of communal support as a primary inspiration in his work.

The new statue will be be a collaborative effort involving BlackLight, sculptor Jack Langford and KCI Waterjet Cutting, a White City company that will help realize some of the more intricate features of the design.

The sculpture is described as “an angelic winged-figure, and would symbolize a collective embodied ancestor. He would carry a book or tome holding the names of fallen Black and Brown people, as well as a message from the community,” according to the agenda minutes for the Public Arts Commission’s June 17 meeting, when BlackLight presented the concept with Fé. It was unanimously approved.

BlackLight said he has designed the tome to have six pages, one for a communally crafted statement of intent; the other pages will memorialize all the names in the T-shirt installation.

The statue will also feature a number of stones surrounding it, BlackLight told the Public Arts Commission these will be painted by members of the community, deepening the sense of communal involvement in the piece.

“This is not spurred by militance; this is not spurred by rage; this is a genuine call for conversation,” BlackLight said of the concept. “We’re about building bridges — this is a conversation embodied.”

Despite the support both BlackLight and Fé reported from the city of Ashland, the idea does not enjoy universal approval.

After a sketch of the statue was released to the public, Ken Engelund, chair of the Public Arts Commission, received public feedback he described as unsavory.

“Public art is controversial. This one deals with race, but it’s a very important piece,” Engelund said.

The Public Arts Commission and Ashland Parks and Recreation have approved the concept. Parks and Recreation offered a space for the piece in Ashland Creek Park. The design is now waiting for approval from Ashland City Council. The project is not on the council’s schedule yet.

In his presentation to the Ashland Public Arts Commission, BlackLight described the sculpture as a gift to the city. Black Alliance & Social Empowerment has a fundraising campaign planned for most of the $114,000 to $140,000 cost.

He is hopeful the communal nature of the work will deter vandalism.

Friends with experience in public sculptures told him there’s a reason statues are often on pedestals. BlackLight rejected the security that comes from being out of reach. The statue will be seated on the ground, he said, where people can read the words inscribed and, he hopes, meditate with the piece.

“Some of the people who will help craft this message are young people. Someday they’ll bring their children and point at that statement and go, ‘Yo, look at that; I did that.’ And that’s powerful,” BlackLight said.

Those who want to stay in touch with the project, make a donation or get involved with the community groups supporting it can visit https://baseoregon.org/say-their-names/.

Some Ashland residents have recently noted on social that the shirts are showing signs of weathering, many of them stippled with black spots.

Fé said while one member of the community has been caring for the shirts, she invites those who visit the T-shirt memorial to replace any T-shirts that look worse for wear, or to add to their number. The installation is in collective ownership, she said.

What will become of the shirts now that a permanent piece is underway remains unknown, Fé said. How it stays, and whether it stays, will have to be a community decision, she said, emphasizing that it — just like the new piece — is the work of no one person.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.