Last fall, a North Nashville artist named Jay Jenkins (a.k.a. Woke3) brought together a dozen artists to transform a vacant lot in North Nashville into a public art space. Jenkins, a recent TSU grad, got a Metro Arts THRIVE grant to commission murals that engaged with social issues. I did a story on the project for Nashville Public Radio here.
Since then, the artists involved have formed the Norf Art Collective, and you can catch them painting again this Saturday, May 21 from 4-8 p.m. Set your GPS for 817 18th Ave. N. It’s under a small bridge on D.B. Todd Jr. Blvd. There will be live music from the Street Band Clan and food trucks, so come hungry. $5 to get in.
What Jenkins is doing is important. North Nashville has a robust visual art community that’s based in the area’s four HBCUs and among business owners and longtime residents. Did you all hear that? THERE’S ALREADY A VISUAL ART SCENE IN NORTH NASHVILLE. So white people, we don’t need to bring one there, OK?
I joke. But not really. I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of artists in gentrification. It’s a TOUGH one, and I do not claim to be exempt from the problem. It seems par for the course now that once (mostly white) artists arrive in a not-yet-gentrified neighborhood, simply seeking cheaper rent and bigger studio space, they change the culture of the neighborhood. When white people see them there, they think, “Oh! It must be safe then! And it’s so authentic!” Soon, developers come, pricing people out of their own homes and policing them for code violations that no one has ever heard of. In Nashville, this appears to be powerful machine that cannot be stopped. But there is much we can do to protect our communities and their inherent vitality.
I’m not trying to blame artists for trying to find a place to make their work. But I think that a city’s so-called “creative economy” and “placemaking” practices very often displace people and impose a sanitized aesthetic. Don’t listen to me though. Roberto Bedoya is an activist and public arts wrangler who has been putting policies in practice that oppose gentrification AND support artists for decades. I have an article coming out about him in Nashville Arts Magazine’s June issue, but I couldn’t wait till then. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Bedoya when he visited Nashville recently (Thanks Scarritt Bennett Center and Metro Arts Commission!) Here’s an essay he wrote! Here’s another! He says:
Placemaking in city/neighborhood spaces enacts identity and activities that allow personal memories, cultural histories, imagination, and feelings to enliven the sense of “belonging” through human and spatial relationships. But a political understanding of who is in and who is out is also central to civic vitality. How do current Creative Placemaking practices support this knowledge?
It’s my opinion that the work that Jay Jenkins is doing — with artists and organizers like Thaxton Abshalom Waters, Brandon Donahue, Samuel Dunson, Elisheba Israel, Michael Mucker, and more — is what activist Jenny Lee would call creative placekeeping. Bedoya again:
[Placekeeping is] not just preserving the facade of the building but also keeping the cultural memories associated with a locale alive, keeping the tree once planted in the memory of a loved one lost in a war and keeping the tenants who have raised their family in an apartment. It is a call to hold on to the stories told on the streets by the locals, and to keep the sounds ringing out in a neighborhood populated by musicians who perform at the corner bar or social hall.
So I don’t know what role artists play in gentrification and disenfranchisement of a rapidly growing city’s original residents. I want to know. I want to think about it and talk to people. Norf Wall Collective appears to be a group of artists who are making bold strokes in North Nashville. Follow them on Instagram @norfstudios. Follow Jay Jenkins @woke3.