The Wash
(Marisa Iati / The Wash)

Racial justice, migration confronted in Foggy Bottom sculpture fest

This year’s exhibit centered on what is visible and invisible in the neighborhood.

Sandwiched between a hospital and a row of pastel-colored rowhouses in Foggy Bottom sat three pumpkins — silver, metal and wholly unfit to be made into pies.

The display, which adorned a well-maintained front lawn for six months, was a part of a sculpture exhibit that has brought the neighborhood to life every other year since the initiative began in 2008. Since then, Arts in Foggy Bottom has attracted a devoted following of homeowners who seek to take part.

“We really wanted to make it a neighborhood project,” said co-director and co-founder Mary Kay Shaw.

The free exhibit featured 15 sculptures spread across the western corner of the neighborhood from late April through Oct. 27. Artists crafted their work around the theme of absence and presence, which was meant to reflect the contrast between Foggy Bottom’s visible charms and its invisible history and future, according to the exhibit’s website.

Funding from district development grants and the Foggy Bottom Association, a neighborhood group, provided the artists a nominal fee to install their work outside homes, Shaw said.

“They have a lot of folks who are very accomplished and sort of at the pinnacle of their careers, and they also have recent grad students,” artist Nancy Sausser said as she led a small tour group Saturday.  

Outside Julie Oliver-Zhang’s home office on I Street Northwest, two white hooded sweatshirts hung from black poles. The design was meant to evoke the white sweatshirt 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was wearing before he was fatally shot in his father’s Florida neighborhood, Oliver-Zhang said.

George Zimmerman, a white man, was accused and later acquitted of killing Martin, who was black. The incident called attention to killings of unarmed black men.

Oliver-Zhang said she hopes people who passed the sculpture reflected on how it made them feel — be it sad, intimidated or oppressed — and why. With the Unite the Right rally held by white nationalists in the District this summer, Oliver-Zhang said art like the sweatshirts is a reminder of ongoing injustice against minorities.

“Particularly with the way our country is now, how divisive, this artwork has really given us opportunity to have conversations with each other, with ourselves,” she said.

Other sculptures were also meant to be social commentaries. Susan Lampton’s front yard displayed five yellow-green sculpted suitcases held by disembodied arms. She said the display was meant to represent the displacement of the Syrian conflict, and the artist picked the color so as not to symbolize any particular race.

Sean Hennessey, who participated in Arts in Foggy Bottom for the first time this year, said he spent six months creating his sculpture out of freestanding steel and glass. He said three sides of his piece, called “Ways We Grow,” represent planting, growing and enjoying that growth.

Hennessey said his wife had recently given birth to their first child when the exhibit’s curators invited him to produce a sculpture. His end result represented “the recycling of life.”

“Having lost my grandmother earlier in the year and then having had a son, there’s an absence and a presence,” Hennessey said. “And so, I’m using that as the scene for my piece.”

One side of the display showed hands dropping seeds into the ground. Another had electrical cords growing out of a vase and leading to light bulbs. The third side showed hands holding the picked bulbs like a bouquet of flowers.

Foggy Bottom residents’ love for art shines through in the exhibit, Hennessey said. With artistic hubs like the Kennedy Center already in their neighborhood, he said locals bonded over their excitement for the sculptures.

“They’re in this international world of arts and culture just in the midst of their neighborhood,” Hennessey said. “So I think the people who chose to live there want to be in the middle of things, and I think art in D.C. is a part of that.”

Shaw said some real estate ads now try to entice prospective residents to “move to artistic Foggy Bottom.” A diplomat’s wife who once saw the exhibit told her she would take the idea back home to Australia.

Meanwhile, Shaw hopes other neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. consider starting their own art exhibits. She said Adams Morgan is in the process of figuring out whether the idea could work well there.

Dale Johnson, the owner of Watergate Gallery and Frame Design, has served on the exhibit’s advisory committee for the past decade. She said the tradition has become a part of the neighborhood’s fabric.

“People look forward to it,” Johnson said. “People will come into the gallery and say, ‘So when is the next exhibit going to be?’”

Marisa Iati

Marisa Iati

I’m a Washington, D.C.-based reporter studying investigative journalism as a graduate student at American University.

I previously worked at The Star-Ledger and in New Jersey, where I covered municipal mayhem, community issues, education and crime in two counties with a combined 1.4 million residents. I told these stories with words, videos, photos and graphics. I also covered white-collar crime at Global Investigations Review while living in Washington and cataloging the district’s best coffee shops in my spare time.

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